Where Are The Tree Fruit Growers?

Back in August I attended USApple’s Outlook event, a gathering of apple industry executives from around the world to talk about the US apple crop forecast (mostly red delicious). I have almost nothing in common with the average attendee of a USApple event (female, heirloom grower, low-input centered, no access to workers with visas), so I spent my free time reading articles from industry fruit magazines in order to ask questions and talk shop with other attendees. After a few articles, I stumbled on one I felt qualified to address in August’s Good Fruit Grower magazine titled “Developing Tomorrow’s Workforce.”

“Washington State University is teaming up with Washington tree fruit producers to convince young people that there are worthwhile careers in the tree fruit industry, and there’s much more to it than just picking apples.”

and later on in the article…

“Everyone says the same thing: We can’t find people. We’re looking for the best we can. A lot of times we’re retraining someone that maybe isn’t really qualified for some of the jobs we’re asking them to do.”

The more I am exposed to the apple world, the more I hear and see this on all levels. In the month of August alone, I received the plea of “Eliza, can you put us in contact with someone who might want to run our orchard?” three times. In July, I heard it twice. Commercial or more-than-a-hobby people with orchards are looking for help and having one hell of a time finding it. Why is that? Well, aside from a growing number of orchards getting planted by retirees, Dr. Kimberlee Kidwell says that agriculture has an image problem that deters students from considering careers in that sector. She gives the following reason for the image problem:

“People think they’re going to be involved in the harvest piece only, that they’re going to be doing hands-on labor that’s difficult and even not desirable.”

In my short few years as an advocate of young people growing fruit trees, I have yet to hear the reason of “hands-on labor” as a detractor from the job. Usually, having a hands-on job is desirable to the young folk. It’s exercise, fresh air, a lifestyle change…its all very romantic, which makes me think there is a cultural difference between East and West coast tree crops growing. Perhaps she is talking about the sons and daughters of migrant workers, whose parents only do hands-on work without any hope of something else? They know what physical labor looks and feels like day after day, for years on end, and probably don’t want a single thing to do with it. Or perhaps its also an issue of scale. Regardless, I have spent a lot of time over the last few years trying to figure out why horticulture is such an unappealing or difficult field for young people to enter and I agree… Agriculture has an image problem. This blog post is why I think conventional perennial ag is going to continue to have a hard time attracting young people. For all other start up orchardists: access to land, access to capitol, and the ability to wait for your crop to come in are major factors. But, as I said, this is just addressing conventional perennial ag.   

1.) The Generational Gap: My parent’s generation and sometimes their parent’s generation is largely missing from US agriculture as a whole. They are the generations who left the farm, which has interrupted the transfusion of agricultural knowledge from one generation to the next. Many of my friends who try to make farming a lifestyle have to literally start from scratch in knowledge acquisition, land acquisition, soil acquisition, etc.

Why not bridge the gap ourselves and go to the generation who has this agricultural knowledge? It might not be as easy as it sounds. From Kindergarten to 12th grade, Millennials have used a computer for all of it. By high school for me, the internet and cell phones were here to stay and changed communication forever (or until teleporting is a real thing). Texts, emails and various social media platforms are the primary form of communication for us. This is in contrast to the anti-computer generation of my grandparents and many of the apple growers still alive. Communication is almost incompatible, and there’s no age buffer between the two to help out. So, these older apple growers are simply having a harder time finding young people wanting to learn, and visa-versa.

And what if you find an old apple person to take you under their wing? Well, sometimes (from personal experience) they are burned out and will repeatedly try to push you out of the nest with sayings like: “There’s no money in apples.,” and “I think its best you become a nurse.”   As a white entitled millennial from a middle-class background, you also might not see eye to eye with them on their management practices, which are built upon the green revolution…

2.) Ecological/Consumer Ethics: The Millennial generation is one that has a social and environmental conscience. We get our news through the lens of social media, which often casts a dark light on GMOs, cancer causing agents sprayed on crops, inhumane working conditions, etc when the local news does not. As a generation, we’re largely not ok with implementing these practices unless we learned them before we had access to the outside channels. 

We believe that we can make a difference in this world we’ve grown up to view through social media, and this is reflected in our life choices and buying habits. Market trends are showing enormous growth in the organic, ethical and anti-antibiotic foods sector, with no signs of slowing down. We millennials are bringing about social and environmental change through our wallets as consumers; and if we can’t afford it, we do it as farmers. That’s why I became a farmer (for the most part). But you will no longer catch me working on a conventional apple farm that has no plans for rethinking the system. 

3. Access to Training:The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) is an extraordinary organization in Maine which offers workshops, classes, programs and a phenomenal fair (Common Ground Fair) to encourage and educate people on how to live life in a more ecologically friendly way. In addressing the need to connect older farmers with young people, they created an apprenticeship program for inexperienced (and often young) people so they could get a sense of what the farming lifestyle is like. Support for young farmers, combined with affordable land prices and amazing product distribution has made Maine the most vibrant young farmer scene in the country. Young people flock to the state to grow in an alternative way to what we find in the grocery store; one that nourishes communities, the land, and consumers. However, there is a problem with all of this in relation to this blog post: It’s all about annuals and livestock. 

If you are looking for an opportunity to learn from orchardists who align with your values, you’ll spend a lot of time looking. Even in Maine, where I finished the MOFGA Apprenticeship program and entered into their Journeyperson program, I had one hell of a time finding someone who was willing to teach me the ways of growing a commercial organic apple crop. I ended up working for a season at a conventional orchard and after leaving that situation, joined forces with a talented homesteader to learn how I could take her methods and expand them to a larger scale. Annuals and animals are sexy right now and perennials are the red headed step child of the ag world. Stone Barns, NOFA, MOFGA, MOSES, SSAWG you name it… annual agriculture dominates the workshops and conferences, often without any mention of perennials. Yet growing perennials requires a completely different skill set from annuals and young people trained in annuals don’t necessarily have what it takes. They also don’t have access to free information about growing perennials outside of a conventional context (attn: land grant universities, extension agents). This is a problem!

The newest class of farmers are also conscious consumers. The idea of getting a millennial to work in a greedy good-ole-boy agricultural system which challenges their ethics as consumers and humans is almost laughable (in my opinion). Companies like Google and Apple are changing their work environments to attract and hold millennials; When will the time come that ag is forced to do the same? I guess one of the first steps in the apple industry is to stop growing red delicious apples. Millennials need to be able to stand behind a product they believe in. That product is not a red delicious apple. Want to know how to convince young people that there are worthwhile careers in the tree fruit industry? First, think growing ethics: You won’t convince me that spraying a fungicide is healthy for the environment, so stop trying to cite “science.” It’s not that I don’t use science in my decision making on a daily basis (I do), I just don’t trust your biased researchers whose salaries are coming from chemical companies. We live in a culture of bought journalism and I am paranoid. Second, think outreach: How will you reach a generation who lives on the computer? Through the internet! Bring out a campaign that will entice us.  Third, think incentives for these people to stay: Off the top of my head: end of the season profit sharing, student loan forgiveness (I’m sure the lobbying power of big apple can do something about this), freedom to experiment in the name of innovation (through SARE grant applications, etc), continuing education (conferences are a good start), healthcare, etc.

I’m not hopeful you can do it, Big Apple. My dream is that small farmers will be able to do it, though. It will take some long-term access to land, new perennial skill sets penetrating the established ag scene, access to capital, the right genetics for planting based on location, positive and informative advertising for consumers, networking with one another to create a new agricultural status quo, and #eatuglyapples.

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The Unexpected Effect of Pigs

I have a lot to say about having pigs in the orchard and have been compiling my notes all summer long for a later, longer essay. Today, however, I want to talk about an unexpected happening of the pigs.

A couple weeks ago, I made the decision to move the pigs out of the orchard and into a new series of paddocks behind the one-day-soon Greenhorns headquarters. This decision came because the timing of harvest was getting difficult with pig rotation, so I figured it would be best to remove them from the orchard for a few weeks. Luckily, the Greenhorns HQ is only a pasture and a backyard away from the orchard so the move was about an eighth of a mile away.

Armed in running clothes with a quart Ball jar full of grain (for noise making), I had Shizue (the newest hire of Greenhorns!) lift up the gate of their old pen and I started to jog across the pasture. As expected, the pigs followed me and eventually fell into a hilarious single file line with Mortimer, the 8 month-old boar, leading the group. If ever I have felt like the pied piper, that was the day.

Before reaching the new paddocks, we ran through Doug and Yvonne Sears’ backyard, where they were standing on the back porch whooping with laughter and clapping as we passed. I guess its not everyday you see a line of little pigs run through your backyard.

eliza herding pigs

Over the course of this summer, I’ve gotten to know Doug (turns 90 this November) and Yvonne (age undisclosed) and they have been wonderful neighbors. They have been married for 65 years and are still so very in love that it makes my face melt to witness it. Ginger, my large French Mastiff, broke the ice with them early on by walking into their house uninvited and asking for a dog bone in her sad faced “I’m going to sit and shake my paw for you” manner. Ever since, Doug and Yvonne have welcomed me and the dog and whomever is accompanying me over for dinner, conversation, a vodka-tonic, or just a quick catch up on the day’s events. It has been really nice to become friends with them.

Doug, a faithful cutter of grass on his riding lawnmower, cuts our headquarters front lawn without asking because he wants to keep us out of the “You redneck; your grass is too long” judgement zone from passerby’s (a zone I really don’t care about, but that doesn’t matter). With that same riding lawnmower, Doug has also helped me to cut paddock lines to place my electric fence, saving me at least an hour of labor. I’m grateful for Doug.

Now to the unexpected outcome of the pigs…

After witnessing the pigs run through their backyard, Yvonne developed a burning interest in them. She told me a couple weeks ago that as soon as it’s light enough to go outside, she goes and says hello to them. She returns throughout the day, often with leftovers from breakfast, lunch or dinner to give them. The pigs, who I believe to be the happiest animals on earth, come bounding from wherever they are to tell Yvonne hello! and that SHE IS THE BEST THING EVER.

Yvonne adores those pigs. Yesterday she confided in me that she has had a bad back over the past year and with the rain and the cold weather that dominates this climate, she has not been able to do the walking necessary to heal. (She also confided in me that her lack of activity is built on excuses). Ever since I moved the pigs out of the orchard and to a place that is easily accessible for her to walk, she’s been walking more than ever and enjoying every minute of it because it involves seeing the pigs.

yvonne with pigs

Her back is feeling better. Doug says she spends more time with the pigs than she does with him.  And today she informed me that the pigs love radishes, lettuce, turnips, and mashed potatoes.

photo courtesy of Shizue!

I’m often guilty of getting wrapped up in the management aspects of farming. How can X benefit Y and Y benefit X without costing me more money? What are the yields? Etc. Today was a reminder that small scale farming can and should hold more than that. It can unexpectedly bring happiness and joy to those surrounding us and even give someone a reason to put on their shoes, grab their cane, and go for a walk as soon as the sun comes up.

Fifty More Chances

Earlier this month, I was sitting in a circle with thirty other East Coast orchardists discussing theories, observations, research, what’s next and experiments in the realm of holistic/organic/alternative orchard management. We concluded this year’s meeting with talk about marketing and the different techniques used by the group to sell apples.  Being a user of social media (I use it more than most in that group), I piped up to tell everyone how in the past year, a blog post of mine was picked up by a larger blog (Epicurious.com), turned into an interview, and was read and retweeted by MC Hammer to his 3.5 million twitter followers.  The title: “Why We Should All Consider Eating Ugly Fruit.” Thanks to social media, a single blog post with a readership of a few hundred turned into hundreds of thousands of people seeing a title about eating ugly fruit (#eatuglyapples).

As a result of this public exposure, I received quite a bit of mail. Most of the mail had to do with people being terrified about biting into worms and wanting more guidance/hand holding on the worm subject. I tried my best to get back to all of these people and when I said as much at this orchardist meeting, someone asked me: “Responding to emails takes so much time. Do you think the time spent in correspondence is worth the energy when it comes to selling apples?”

My answer was “Absolutely!” I do believe that consumer awareness can change how and why we grow food and at this point, we should never overestimate the awareness of others about the food they eat. At 31 years old, I’m hoping to have many more years ahead of me and the sooner awareness happens and people start thinking about why they aren’t eating ugly fruit, the healthier our environment becomes. After delivering this answer and soap-box speech, someone in the circle said:

“Fifty more chances… Eliza has fifty more chances to make this happen. That’s why this type of gathering is so important. We’re giving each other more chances.”

At first, that statement hit me hard. It’s true. In 50 years, I’ll be 81 years old and hopefully settling into some sort of apple-derived retirement. In those 50 remaining years,  I have 50 more chances to bring about awareness for cosmetic diseases and maybe see some consumer change during that time. 50 seasons (100 if I travel between New Zealand and the USA every year and avoid all traces of winter) are all I have left…and suddenly, it dawned on me that my time here on this earth is very short. All of those extra years I thought I had, my [dwindling] advantage of youth, has been reduced to only 50 more seasons.

And then I stopped being so self-centered and started to understand what he was actually saying…

Alone, I have 50 more chances. But with the help of others, my chances go up exponentially.  In seeking out collaboration, networking with others, and forming real and lasting relationships with our surroundings and with other humans, we are earning more tries at what we’re trying to accomplish in this life. A season filled with peers and enriching relationships turns into a season with far more potential chances for accomplishing our goals.

There’s so much power in interdependence, yet on the whole, very little positive collaboration seems to be happening in this realm (aside from that annual orchardist meeting I spoke of above).  Why is that? Well, from my personal standpoint, I can tell you that over the past few years, I’ve had ideas, theories and physical work taken (stolen?) from me and projected onto larger platforms without any credit or acknowledgment. One must question why no acknowledgement was given, and to me, the answers are likely found in ego, greed, vanity or self interest/promotion. Instead of working together, instead of reaching out to combine powers in order to achieve a greater good, we as humans often tend to head down a path of selfishness or self-preservaation. It’s alright to take care of ourselves first, it’s basically the survival of the fittest, but we must realize that the stealing of words/ideas/etc without acknowledgement, or some similar action used to get a temporary leg-up in life, could cost you and everyone else some extra chances in achieving a greater good.

The truth is: It does bother me when people take my words and other people’s words and use them as their own without any acknowledgement. Perhaps it’s because I laboriously went through half of my life citing other people’s works in scientific papers to let those grading my homework know where I got this information. Perhaps it’s because I’ve got a big ego. Regardless, I often beat myself up when I get aggravated about this. Why can’t I just put it to rest and do what I love with the end goal being to better this world where I’m currently residing? Why should I care about someone stealing my ideas for their own?

It’s because I deeply (on a cellular level, it seems) care about what I do and want to see this system change for a healthier future. Tied to my ideas are many many other ideas, supportive theories, and people who have helped or inspired me. If people were to give credit, a works cited of sorts,  they would essentially be funneling information seekers (aka- potential innovators) to the source, which can often be the grail for information and resources. In building upon other’s work without acknowledgement, we are hampering true progress and innovation.

“Trust and mutual respect among employees and users are the foundation of our success, and they are something we need to earn every day.” That comes from Google’s code of conduct. They are one of the most powerful and innovative businesses of our time and what are they doing?  They are fostering respectful relationships among their employees in order to bring out the best in each other’s skills. Take note, ag world. Let’s start to collaborate, eh?

Currently, I’m trying to strike a balance between making relationships/collaborating (more chances) and holding my cards close to my chest (no increase in chances). In a sense, I’d like to think the team I’m a member of is something of a Google. I have some wonderful role models in my life who depend on trust and community in order to live a full life, and I’m reaching deep into that resource. In the end, though, it’s a conscious decision of who is surrounding you.  How many chances will I end up with for metering my collaborations? That’s the risk, isn’t it? Given this world we’re in, we’ve got to somehow maintain a balance between competition and working together in order to bring about some effing change.

In any event, I’ve gotten a little off topic from marketing/social media/#eatuglyapples. I don’t care if people start using #eatuglyapples; As a grower, I need that awareness spread in order to increase my chances at changing the food system. We’ve got a long way to go. #Eatuglyapples.

The Dula Beauty, my family apple. Picture pulled from USDA archives.

The Dula Beauty Apple, my family apple. Picture pulled from the USDA archives. I find it amazing that when this picture was painted, there was no need to cover up the cosmetic fungal diseases. That’s what fruit looked like.