Fruit, particularly tree fruit, is a long-term investment. Farmers need to balance looking ahead to what consumer demand will bring five years down the road with what they are growing and need to sell today. Add to that the disease and pest concerns that typically accompany tree fruit production in many climates, and it’s no wonder that some growers are looking for alternatives to the standard apples, peaches and cherries. Some orchardists are quietly looking in other directions, seeking new fruit crops, hoping for emerging markets and greater sustainability.

Wild native, tamed?

With a $40,000 New Jersey Department of Agriculture 2015 Specialty Crop Block Grant, the wild native of the state’s most southern sand dunes, prunus maritima, or the beach plum, is trying to soar to new heights. The grant money will help researchers overcome the three issues that have hindered beach plum production on a commercial scale: fruit quality, consistent flowering times and sour flavor.

Fruits grow on short spurs on old wood and on previous season terminal and lateral shoots. The wild form tends to be shrub-like, with a range in size from small to large, often with a lean to one side. The leaning nature of the beach plum is probably a natural adaptation to the ocean breeze.

Rutgers Cooperative Extension maintains an orchard of about 1,000 beach plums at the Rutgers Fruit and Ornamental Research Extension Center. Here, Professor Joseph Goffreda has been breeding beach plums and experimenting with orchard practices for more than a decade.

While researchers are conducting trials to determine the best pruning, trellising, thinning, fertilizing, irrigating and orchard spray programs, growers are slowly coming onboard. One major drawback, however, has been the lack of consistent fruit flavor and quality. The grant will help select the best of the varieties bred by Rutgers Cooperative Extension, and create the first commercial varieties, making them available to growers in large quantities.

Because of extreme variability with sexually propagation, root cuttings will be taken to clone varieties suitable for commercial production. The goal is to have 400 cuttings each year for three years at a 95 percent survival rate via hydroponic clonal propagation, completed by Cape May County Technical High School’s Agri-Science Program students. This project is funded by the grant.

The beach plum was heavily promoted to growers about 50 years ago, but the concerns at present have made the crop too difficult for commercial orchards. With “a lot more genetic exploration capabilities,” Jenny Carleo, Agricultural and Resource Management Agent, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cape May County, predicts that beach plum research and insight are “at the point where it (commercial cultivation) becomes successful,” and does so within the next decade.

Beach plum trellising system

PHOTOS BY JOE ALVAREZ.

Other issues include a tendency towards alternate year bearing, which appears weather-related; potential pollination issues; and the variability of the shrub’s shape, which is apparently genetic, Carleo said. Because the beach plums flower at variable times, frost isn’t too much of a concern. However, the flowering variability will affect any spray program. For now, recommendations are that farmers follow the standard schedule for plum production.

“Each farmer has their own specific method that works for them,” Carleo said, with no standard cultivation practices in place.

Fruits are hand-picked, with three or four passes necessary to harvest all the ripened fruits. Traditionally, green fruit was also picked, to impart a “certain flavor” to jams and baked goods. For wine or fresh eating, all of the fruit must be fully ripened, Carleo said.

One variety, BP 1-1, has been developed by Goffreda for fresh eating. With a sweeter taste than is typically found in the wild, there is hope for fresh market production and the breeding of additional suitable varieties.

“Blueberries started out like this about 100 years ago,” Carleo said.

Untamed orchards

Forget about standard orchard design. Polyculture orchards – where fruit is produced in a system of canopy-overstory-understory-groundcover layers, each of which contribute to the overall functioning of the orchard – are one new trend in orchard production. Fruit, grown in a healthy orchard ecology, is the goal.

Farmer Alma George hand-harvesting beach plums.

Fruiting plants can include native plants, such as raspberries, muscadine grapes, aronia, saskatoon (aka Juneberry, or serviceberry), hazelnuts, gooseberry, currants and elderberries, which serve as an understory layer. Larger fruit or nut trees make up the overstory and canopy layers in the orchard. Chives, yarrow, fescues, perennial rye, clover and more work to keep the ground covered, add beneficial insect habitat, enhance soil microbiology, retain topsoil, capture water and recycle nutrients. These are known as accumulator plants – either dynamic or beneficial accumulators – depending on the exact role they play.

This layering of crops not only enhances the ecosystem functioning, it also produces a lot of fruit in a relatively small space. While the tree crops becomes established, the other fruiting crops can provide a more immediate income. Many can survive and continue to bear fruit in the mature orchard’s more shaded conditions, although yield may be reduced as shade increases.

At Midwest Agriculture and Restoration Services in Illinois (http://midwest-ars.com/), Kevin Wolz designs agroecological systems based on woody perennials. Utilizing native and edible woody plants, these commercial scale systems are meant to offer an eco-friendly and economically viable replacement to the destructive corn and soybean rotations, which have eliminated most of the region’s native prairie habitat. Using a diverse perennial polyculture system, rather than an annual monoculture, enhances the ecosystem, and provides economic benefit, Wolz said.

At the non-profit Savanna Institute, where Wolz serves as president of the board of directors, marketable agricultural crops, produced in a polyculture system that mimics the natural Midwest oak savanna, are studied. A variety of nuts, fruit trees, shrubs and ground cover crops grown together in rows, with alleyways of forages for grazing, biomass crops, flowers, vegetables, or even corn and soybeans. They’ve been awarded a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant from the USDA, and will expand upon research already in progress on seven case study farms (http://www.savannainstitute.org).

Unusual varieties of common fruits

Todd Parlo, of Walden Heights Nursery and Orchard in the Northeast Kingdom region of Vermont, propagates the usual tress fruits – apples, pears, plums and berries. But he also specializes in odd edibles like aronia berry, saskatoon and the Antonovka seedling apple tree, which is a culinary apple with fruit of variable size that has a tart initial taste, which mellows a bit in storage. It’s also unique because it grows true to type from seed, unlike most apples.

Parlo’s common fruits aren’t always all that common, nor is the way his orchard is organized. Parlo grows not in rows, but in a more natural pattern on his farm’s steep slopes. Almost all the work is done by hand, and he is growing certified organic tree fruit in a region that isn’t considered conducive to this. His apples run the gamut from Prairie Sky, a good keeper and cooking apple, to Red Wealthy, an heirloom dessert apple, to the commercially common Macintosh or Lodi varieties.

While commercial apple orchards need to produce perfect fruit for the fresh dessert market, some older apple varieties aren’t all that attractive. Because of this, their good attributes – wonderful flavor, the ability to store well, or adaptation to a given climate – can often be lost.

Wild beach plum

At Walden Heights, cultivars are selected for their ability to grow well in the micro-climate, without chemical intervention, and to provide some beneficial quality. While fresh market customers do want cosmetically appealing fruits, Parlo believes that there is room for varieties that don’t always look attractive. So even ugly fruit might have a place in his orchard if it is good for cooking, cider, has exceptional flavor or stores well.

Walden Heights Nursery can propagate over 400 varieties of apples alone. They plant and grow rootstock from cuttings or seed. These are then grafted with scionwood from the orchard. Over 3,000 trees are typically grafted each year.

“We have the possibility of producing over 4,000 varieties of apples alone. This is done not to be practical, but rather because it is important in a cultural sense to spread diversity,” Parlo said. “That said, we often cannot sell that many and a good deal of them will remain here,” transplanted into the orchard.

At approximately seven acres in size, the orchard’s bounty is also available for sale. Unsold fresh berries are frozen for later sale, and all of the orchard’s fruits are made into cider each fall.

Customers are attracted to the nursery for educational workshops as well as edible landscape plants. They can also purchase fresh fruit for eating, allowing them to taste what they may then want to plant in their own yards.

Marketing uncommon fruits

Parlo’s mission is to educate the public about fruit production. With a degree in education, teaching customers about growing fruit in an environmentally-friendly manner, why it’s important, and even how to best utilize the fruit, is a part of attracting customers to the orchard.

“We offer education so that people can help feed themselves and others,” Parlo noted. “It is amazing to me how little the public actually knows about food and plant production. Back in the day, not only did country folk know how to make a good pie crust, but also how to graft 10 apple varieties on their one backyard tree.”

Even if most of your fruit is common – say the standard apple varieties – growing a few varieties that aren’t typically sold commercially can add some pizzazz to your fruit sales, as at Walden Heights Nursery and Orchard. While most growers will have some old standards like Red Delicious and Macouns, as well as some newer, trendy varieties such as Honeycrisp or Pink Lady, having a heirloom variety or two that once was regionally popular can attract interest from chefs and consumers alike. If you develop a following, you can always graft a few more trees, and promote diversity while making a profit.

The reverse is also true: The commercially-important crops can help to sell you oddball, unique, little-known fruits as well. If a customer purchases a bag of those Empire apples, throw in the old Sheepnose from the heirloom tree. Tell them about it, and why you still grow it. This can build up demand. Most likely you are the only orchard around to satisfy that desire.

Developing a market for alternative fruits can take time. Often, these unfamiliar crops can fill in the gaps between harvests of more traditional tree fruits, or can extend your orchard’s fruiting season. So encouraging customers to explore these unusual fruits or cultivars is a good way to draw attention to the crop, and increase sales.

A cultivated beach plum with heavy fruit production

PHOTOS BY HILLTOP COMMUNITY FARM.

With a focus on antioxidants and health properties, many unusual fruits are in the news today. Some of these fruits might already have name recognition, and customers will be excited to realize they are grown locally. For unusual fruits, it’s helpful to offer recipes, nutrient information and free samples. If the fruit lends itself more to processing than fresh eating, have that product available for tasting and for sales. Making customers aware that they can purchase prepared products that utilize the fruit will keep wholesale customers coming back for more fruit themselves, and is smart business.

The beach plum already has a festival, held annually during the harvest season, at Island Beach State Park, where the beach plums are part of the native dune flora. Beach plum ice cream, lemonade and beach plum jelly-making demonstrations educate visitors to the potential uses of the crop, while tempting them to try the fruit with these sweet treats.

Developing diverse markets, and increasing awareness of the beach plum, is one of the objectives of the Specialty Crop Block Grant, Carleo said. For example, beach plum jam, jelly, baked goods, syrups, or even wines, are being made locally. These processors represent another direct market for these crops, which local growers can readily access.

“It’s really a cottage industry at this point,” Carleo said of the artisans using the beach plum in their food products, and there is potential for growth. Beach plums can be frozen for year-round use. They have a high antioxidant content, which can be highlighted to attract nutrition-conscious consumers. Fresh beach plums have a shelf-life similar to blueberries, perhaps a bit longer. Educating customers to these qualities can help to guide selection of the fruit during the season.

Whether exploring a unique crop, promoting native fruits, championing an alternative cropping system, or all of the above, those looking to grow fruit do have options outside of the standard tree fruits or commercial berry crops, and outside of conventional orchard design. Other fruits to consider include persimmon, pawpaw, mulberry, fig, or pomegranate, depending on your locale and your intended customer base. Extension agents in your state can direct you to region-specific research and information on minor fruits.

PHOTOS BY JENNY CARLEO