how did this young apple farmer get “landed”

In my opinion, the single most important question a burgeoning young farmer should ask a “landed” farmer is: How are you on this piece of land? Of course, you could get a smattering of witty answers to this but what you should pursue is a conversation about money. How are these farmers affording the land? For how much? Dig deep and be ruthless in order to get these answers because they are important for you to know. Some farmers may own, others may have a lease or they might be in a creative arrangement. Regardless, this sort of thing is really important to know because it allows you, the prospective farmer, to find a model that makes farming feasible for you.

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As a perennial farmer, I searched high and low for a model which could work for me and I found nothing. The few young people with orchards of their own were either occupying family land or were given/loaned money from a family member to help buy their farm. There were no young perennial farmers leasing land and after looking into this myself, I began to learn why.

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Unlike annual farmers, perennial farmers have a long lasting (sometimes life-long) relationship with their crops. When I was looking to lease land, I needed a 10-year lease at the absolute minimum in order to plant my trees, grow them, and then get a few harvests. Now, let’s see a show of hands from people willing to give a 20-something a 10+ year lease. Not. Many.

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Alright, so maybe I found someone willing to enter into a 10+ year lease with me. What if the landowner decided not to renew my lease after those 10 years? I’d be out 10 years of investment, sweat equity and would be without my apple business. A solution to this, I felt, was to own all of the improvements that I made to land, whether that be a tree rooted in the ground or a building. I had decided the mature value of an orchard for the trees and the work I put in was $15,000 dollars an acre. My thinking was that if I was kicked off the land, the owner or the next occupant would need to purchase my orchards because they would basically be purchasing a business. Who was willing to do this? No one. I guess its not a big surprise that no one jumped on this leasing strategy, but it is all I could think of for finding a way to get on land without buying it.

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Enter the “creative arrangement.” For the perennial farmer, this land option is truly about who you know and involves some mutual exchange of needs and wants between the two parties. For me, it started when I apprenticed for Foggy Ridge Cider, where I got to know the owners and considered them friends. A couple of years later, after hearing about my sob stories of getting kicked off an orchard and breaking up with my boyfriend, the owners decided to let me know that I was welcome back at Foggy Ridge.

Eliza Greenman- Foggy Ridge Orchards

 

Foggy RIdge Orchards- Spring

A rising perennial farmer may look at this and say: This doesn’t help me! Where in the hell am I going to find an arrangement like this? Well, to be honest with you…I turned down several creative arrangements with other people before I took this one. When you are passionate about your profession and put yourself and your needs out there, people answer. Who you are connected with also matters. A colleague of my boss recently expressed that he wished he could have found me before she did. Another colleague expressed wishing he could find someone willing to enter into the same arrangement. I’ve also been offered a 50-50 partnership with a landowning couple wishing to transition their farm over to apples from livestock. Maybe it’s just apples, I don’t know…but there is a need out there for young people to get into this profession. Especially in the light of this ever-growing hard cider boom. There aren’t enough apples in North America to supply the future needs of the apple markets.

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Young farmer organizations (aside from the Greenhorns, for whom I am a blogger), seem to gloss over the need for perennial farmers. I’d be willing to bet the average age of an apple farmer is far higher than the annual farmer. The need for us to enter into this realm is huge.

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Interested in joining my network? Do you find your perennial self really needing to get on a piece of land? Please get in contact with me because I feel your pain and can maybe help you troubleshoot. Trees@foggyridgecider.com.

so how did i become an apple farmer?

Many  of my ambitions at the age of 6 are still the ambitions I show today… To explore, climb trees, be fiercely independent (proving that girls can do anything boys can) and eat fruit. Though I have conceded to men being better at lifting heavy things, my life since the age of 6 has been a long and winding road guided by trees. I majored in forestry, traveled around the United States on behalf of different forest ecosystems, traveled abroad to Germany for trees, and at the age of 25, I landed on a small island off the coast of Maine. Trees got me there and that island is where I found my life-long passion: Apples.

If you know what to look for, you’ll see trees producing edible fruits and nuts all over the country. On this little island in Maine, apples were everywhere and easy to see because all of the other trees were  evergreens (spruce and fir for the most part). I didn’t think much of apples at the time, but when my friend Lindsay asked me if I knew how to prune an apple tree,  I decided that was something this tree nerd needed to know… so I found a wonderful man from the mainland to come and teach an apple tree pruning workshop to the islanders.

Up in an apple tree armed with a saw, loppers and basic knowledge, Apple tree pruningevery cell of my body suddenly knew this is what I was meant to do. I had found my calling.  I also found love in that apple tree (there was a really cute guy next to me), but I won’t get into that because it’s off topic and ultimately dramatic. My worlds of forestry and food had collided into one amazing package: the apple tree.

I asked people if I could prune their trees to learn. I collected apples off wild trees and pressed cider with my dear friends. I learned of known apple varieties on the island and asked the island elders what they used the apples for.  I watched youtube videos on how to bench graft and top graft apple trees and with almost no experience under my belt, I taught workshops. The fact that I taught workshops then is slightly terrifying in hindsight, but I embrace it today. I actually advocate it…just do it for free and be passionate about it.

After my two year fellowship on the island was up, I moved to New Zealand to avoid winter and managed (with that guy in the apple tree) a small permaculture farm with apples, olives, figs, feijoa, avocado and other trees. Though the wonderful Mediterranean micro-climate and figs are an attractive prospect, apples and Maine still won me over.  After 8 months in NZ, I returned to the States where I had an apprenticeship lined up through the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) with the apple guy of Maine, John Bunker (and his wife, Cammy).

Though I didn’t learn much about apple orchard management with John, I did eat a LOT of different apples… Probably in the realm of 400 different varieties. This opened me up to a completely new world. I ate apples that tasted like a grapefruit spritzer, cherries, , licorice, coconut water, grapes and pina colada. Some with acidity that burned my tongue and others with no acidity at all. Some apples looked like potatoes (russets) while others had a skin so thin that just holding it would almost cause a bruise. Some apples had a red flesh inside, others yellow, white, nearly green and pink. Apples were useful, too! These old varieties were known for their products like molasses, pies, hard cider, sauce, mincemeat, dried apple rings, etc. The list could go on.

Wanting to continue down the road of heirlooms and explore a trade, I then apprenticed with Diane Flynt (owner) and Jocelyn Kuzelka (cider maker) of Foggy Ridge Cider over the winter (in my home state of Virginia). Diane has 35 or so varieties of heirloom apples on her farm which she includes in her blends to make award winning hard cider and I had to be a part of that, if only for a little while. So, I spent the winter pruning cider apple trees, becoming a cider snob, learning tricks for my home-brew batches, and also discovering that I don’t want to make cider for a living…I want to grow apples and be an orchardist!

I had an orchard management gig lined up in Maine that spring, so I IMG_0105left Foggy Ridge to join 96 year-old Francis Fenton of Sandy River Apples. Working and living with Francis Fenton, a war veteran, former custodian and second generation apple orchardist, was quite the experience. I could tell dozens of stories about our relationship and what it’s like to live, work and learn from a 96 year old, but that had better be saved for another entry. Francis’ Sandy River Apple orchard had a little more than 100 varieties planted on standard-sized trees in a willy-nilly fashion across 5 acres of land. It was beautiful, chaotic and a lot of hard work. I invested myself and pushed through the long and exerting work days knowing that an apple crop was coming. That made me happy and satisfied.

Many young farmers have an experience that nearly crushes their spirits and causes them to quit. This happened to me at Sandy River Apples.  Francis’ daughter came to town from her home in San Diego after months of me taking care of the orchard and, in a way, taking care of Francis. Despite my differences with Francis over his (illegal) chemical use and his constant mantra of “there’s no money in apples,” I loved Francis as a mentor and he loved me as his pupil.   His daughter saw my interactions with him as me disrupting his “twilight years,” and 3 weeks before the first apples were to ripen on the tree, she told me that I was no longer welcome (to put it nicely). After spending the last 5 months with Francis, investing myself in the apple crop to the point where I felt like those apples were reflections on my personal self, I was kicked off the orchard. With no earnings from the future harvest, no apples, and a lost identity, I was angry, poor,  and at the lowest point of my life. I was ready to walk away from it all.

For months, I lived in a depressed state of not knowing what to do with myself. My life didn’t have much meaning; How could something I love so dearly treat me this way?   Then Diane (Foggy Ridge), who at this point didn’t know anything about my situation and expected everything with me to be apple-y, reached out and invited me to an apple conference in New York which focused on cider.  I went and reconnected with a part of myself that I feared I had lost.

As it turns out, apples ARE a part of who I am and how dare I let anyone try and take that away from me! Nietzsche’s saying,”What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” is so true. I believe I’m more of a force now than I could ever have been had I not lived through that experience. Armed with a level of cautiousness that can only come about if one is severely burned, I’ve got skills, experience (good, bad and interesting), and a life fire that makes me who I am today, an apple farmer.

To fast forward, I moved back to Virginia last fall to become a full time presence at Foggy Ridge Cider. In addition to being the cider orchardist, I’m also a new business owner and beginning farmer. I’ve started fruit tree nursery called Legacy Fruit Trees and have plans for my own orchards to happen in the very near future.

This blog is about my experiences as an orchardist and a business owner. It’s about the balance between acquiring knowledge and diving in head first. I hope to share all of the good, bad, ugly and WTF moments of my experiences. Basically I want to share how I am(so far) making this work.

basic information young farmers should know about me

My name is Eliza Greenman and I’m an heirloom and cider apple farmer in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwestern Virginia. I believe in opening up about the following information and I wish more farmers would do the same. Let’s get rid of the smoke and mirrors, eh?

  • Age: 30 (until December)
  • Businesses: I own an apple tree nursery business called Legacy Fruit Trees (it’s my first year). Other than that, my future orchards are still in my nursery or have yet to be grafted.
  • Do I come from a farming family? No. I come from the [now] suburbs of Southeastern Virginia. My Grandparents once lived on a farm, but they were forced to sell it to the city because of its prime location. They also didn’t farm for a living.
  • Do I come from “family money?” For US standards, I would consider my upbringing to be that of middle class.  No trust funds, no direct inheritance, no secret piles of money that I know of.
  • Do I have a family of my own?  No kids. No husband. No boyfriend right now (I’ve been too busy to date). I had a dog but that’s a story for another post.
  • Do I own land? Nope, sure don’t.  I’m involved in a series of creative arrangements that basically work out to being a long-term lease. I will talk about this in full later. It’s a long story.
  • Do I have an off-farm job? Technically, no. I live and work on a farm that is home to a hard cider company. I manage their hard cider orchards 2 days a week, which amounts to around $850/month. Lots more to come regarding that relationship.
  • Did I go to college?   Yes, I went to a 4 year university and earned a BS degree in Forestry.
  • Did I graduate with student loans? I graduated with $20,000 in student loans and managed to pay them off last year (2013).  $10,000 of those loan repayments came from Americorp’s Educational Award.

Ok, I think that’s a start in transparency. Any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. I solemnly swear to be as honest as possible in this blog.

 

 

 

why a 30 year-old apple farmer is writing a blog

34-Eliza-Greenman-with-pearsBefore I even delve into an introduction about myself, I need to write a blog post on why I’m actually blogging. The short answer: tree crops farmers (also known as orchardists) are severely underrepresented in anything agricultural. The result is a general lack of awareness for this trade. Young farmers or wanna be farmers who attend farmer conferences hardly ever get the chance to learn about this side of agriculture, the perennial side, and that has got to change. Perhaps this lifestyle seems unobtainable for most young farmers. Perhaps they just don’t know where to start since perennial skills are rarely taught by farming organizations across the country.  Whatever the reason, the average age of orchardists around the country is climbing past 60 years old and I find myself more and more alone in what I’m doing.

That’s why I’m here. I’ve spent most of my twenties learning my trade and this blog will serve to be a 100% transparent guide to how I got to where I am, how I am currently making my living and the journey of where I want to go.  I want to teach, inspire and recruit young people into becoming perennial farmers.