Helping the farm and the bottom line

When June Windstein bought Brown’s Orchard, tall grass prevented getting to the trees to maintain or even harvest the crop. A beautiful view outside the door isn’t enough to pay the bills, so it meant some changes.

Today, the Willcox, Ariz., orchard is trimmed and maintenance is ongoing, but much easier due to accessibility. The answer for this was a second crop that reduced the labor needed and eliminated the use of chemical sprays for weed control.

With pears and apples in the orchard of over 3,000 trees, it is a big job to keep the farm competitive. Heirloom varieties were used in the initial planting and that has been maintained; some are good for eating raw and others for processing into apple cider.

The biggest market for the orchard is direct to restaurants in Phoenix, but they also attend the Scottsdale and Tucson farmers’ markets on alternate weekends. This means an effort going to the customers and promoting while selling, but it also takes a great deal of time away from the farm. “It’s a great marketing tool,” attending the markets, but it takes time to travel, as well as man the booth.

Finding additional markets is important, and occasionally excess wood from cleared trees is also sold. The first priority for cull wood is at the house in a wood stove and wood-fired hot tub, but occasionally, the extra wood is an extra source of income.

Bins store apples outside the cider processing room. Damaged apples, apples after processing and windfall are used to feed the sheep, which makes use of fruit.
Photos by Jan Hoadley.

The type of trees also extends the season. Bartlett and Starking Delicious are ready around mid-August, while the D’Anjou and Bosc varieties are ready a few weeks later. Apple season generally begins in early August with the Gala apples and ends late in September with varieties such as Old Fashion Winesap, Winesap Commercial and Rome Beauty.

All-natural cider and juice is made from juice apples that are stored near the processing room. Each apple is washed before processing to ensure the cleanest possible product in the finished cider.

As a small operation, the weather, along with other factors, can have a heavy effect on the crop. “A couple of years ago we had an early frost and had no apples,” Windstein said. The thought of frost in Arizona isn’t something many think of, but it does happen more than people think.

Along with cold, another challenge is summer heat and dry weather. The surrounding high desert means irrigation is needed part of the year. “We irrigate from April through about September or October, depending on weather.”

The income from the farm is split, with the orchard bringing about 30 percent of the income and the means to grow it 70 percent. Those means include using sheep to take care of weeding and fertilizer duties naturally.

Several paddocks divide the orchard area, allowing groups of sheep, either ewes with lambs or growing lambs, to graze and keep the grasses down, providing better growth to the trees. One advantage of this is that it’s a use for the weeds in the orchard to produce another crop for the farm. Dorper and Katahdin sheep are used in the program. These are hair sheep, so there is no shearing to do, and the lambs grow well on grass and waste apples. Hay is fed during the winter when there isn’t as much grass growing. The sheep also can graze right up to the trees, eliminating the use of sprays and chemicals, which can help generate orchard sales from customers who don’t want to consume sprayed apples. “If they stay out there all day long, they’ll start chewing on the trees.” So, solar electric fences are used to rotate grazing through the orchard during the growing season.

Feeder lambs eat good alfalfa hay when confined away from the trees.

A limited and supervised time out is key. “When the trunks are wet, they are more apt to chew,” Windstein says of the sheep. With limited exposure to graze, the sheep instead focus on grazing before being penned back in the pens away from the trees. This makes use of the sheep’s grazing abilities without damaging the trees or using costly measures to protect the trees.

During the off-grazing time and when graze is short, the sheep are kept in pens near the orchard for ease in moving the flock. The manure from the pens is used for fertilizer in the orchard. Waste apples in turn are cleaned up by the sheep, reducing pests in the orchard. Two livestock guardian dogs stay with the sheep to protect them from predators.

The finished lamb is state inspected. The selling of more than one product spreads the risk, and the income, out. Lambs are marketed under 13 months old and sold by order. “I have more of a demand than supply,” Windstein notes. There had been primarily a market to restaurants, but when the economy dipped, she was left with 47 lambs due to dropped orders, and began delivering lamb to the farmers’ market.

At times, the orchard has been opened for a pick-your-own market, particularly when the crop was light. Having customers come to the farm to pick reduces the amount of labor that it takes to pick and transport the crop to the market.

The disadvantage to this can be felt in a fickle market where fuel prices have risen and the farm is an hour or more away from the city, which means people are less likely to drive the distance. The susceptibility to frost damaging the crop also makes it harder from an orchard standpoint to make a crop marketing plan, especially in years there is little crop to market.

Adding to the low, but efficient, labor are bees. These are hired in, but at no charge because it helps the beekeeper provide earlier honey for the bees than otherwise possible. Equally, it helps the orchard with better pollination rates.

A chain-link gate provides access to one paddock for the sheep to graze in one section.

This can lead to occasional cross-pollination, resulting in “mystery apples” that may be a Jonathan-McIntosh cross, but are tasty and have found favor with some customers. They consider themselves a “mom and pop” place compared to larger orchards that can afford more automation and employees. As a working farm rather than tourist-type place, it gives a “real-life” view to visitors.

An eye toward value and costs is critical, especially during years that the orchard crop struggles. The attendance at farmers’ markets has enabled them to gather e-mail addresses for an online e-mail marketing program that gives occasional updates of farm news.

A future goal is creating an online newsletter and a blog for customer information and public education of the day-to-day workings on the farm. This reaching out can be a selling tool, letting customers know when fruit is ripening.

Like many small and medium-sized orchards have found, it is tough to compete by volume. Further difficulty comes in product liability, insurance and regulations that make it harder for the small producer. Expenses are weighed carefully. “If I spend $1,000 for advertising to make $1,000 in sales, I’m not really gaining ground.”

An effective means of advertising has been magnetic signs on the van, which becomes a rolling billboard of sorts. This is a cost-effective means of advertising, as the name is in front of everyone they pass. It also gives a professional image to many potential customers who may never travel to the farm.

Insurance must be paid whether or not visitors come to the farm. For example, if it’s a smaller crop it may mean not having on-farm customers, but the costs go on. Hosting visitors for educational visits takes on importance as a way of keeping the farm name in front of the public.

With diversification that helps both trees and the bottom line of the farm, Brown’s Orchard has found a niche market that, although challenging, has allowed survival of the orchard. The principles may help with yours.

Jan Hoadley is a freelance writer and new contributor to Growing. She is based in Alabama.