by Barbara Adams, www.BarbaraBerstadams.com.
While some like to predict all fruit will eventually come cheaply
from China, not so, says farmer and author, Michael
Phillips of HeartSong Farm. He has found that less than three
American acres and old-fashioned human innovation can keep orchards
in production on our continent, especially when added as a diversifying
component on the small farm. Michael is a consultant to organic
apple orchardists, and once operated a leased organic apple operation.
Today, his new young apple orchard, "Lost Nation Orchard,"
is just coming into full production. Together with his wife Nancy
Phillips, also an author (see below), he has combined a unique
herb business with the apples already producing to create success
on HeartSong Farm in Groveton, New Hampshire.
In order to
obtain what Michael feels is the minimum to earn a decent living
as an apple orchardist, he says an acre only needs to produce 400
bushels of fruit, which he considers modest. He states that 50%
needs to be sold for $40 per bushel (usually direct to customers)
and the other half should average $10 per bushel (such as apples
sold for cider and value-added products).* This generates $10,000
minimum per acre.* Depending on location, he feels that three acres
or less are good numbers for diversified farms that want to include
a small orchard.
orchards today are charging the same prices as the supermarkets,"
Michael said. "Only we deal in fresher, higher quality apples.
Add organic to the mix and customers are really making out well!"
he said when asked how to get the general public interested in local
apple products. "Local marketing of nutrient-dense and tastier
apples begins with eye contact and trust," he continued. "Knowing
your customers and caring about your customers is the key ingredient
that makes farmstands and farmer's markets alike successful."
is nurturing some unusual apple varieties that include "Sweet
Sixteen," which can offer a nutty or even cinnamon-spicy overtone.
"Bullock" is a very good flavored "Golden Russet"
cross. "Adam's Pearmain" is a sweet, rich antique with
delicate russeting, the "Baldwin" is an old American favorite,
and "Reinette Simirenko" is similar to a juicier Granny
Smith with a hint of citrus.
unusual product of HeartSong Farm's orchard is their apple cider
"One intriguing cross market product comes from the real cider
vinegar we make and age in genuine wooden barrels. You have to understand
that many of the health benefits long claimed for vinegar are not
to be found in the modern industrial product on the supermarket
shelf. Aging in the presence of wood is what develops the enzymes
that make vinegar such a cure-all."
The apple cider
vinegar, which is used in part to create their herbal tinctures,
is one of the farm's products that links well with the herbal department
of the business. They grow together well, also. In general, the
herbs are grown in a variety of separate gardens that add up to
about one and a half acres, but the apple orchard adds to the herbs
growing area. "Many of the larger trees are ringed by comfrey,
for instance," Michael explained. "This particular herb
serves as a living mulch, growing two to three feet high, blooming
delightfully for the bumblebees (a very important pollinator that
needs summer-long bloom to build up populations), and then falls
over to smother competing sod. We harvest second and third growth
leaves from the comfrey to dry for sale, and also dig the rather
large roots of bigger plants in the fall. Another intriguing herb-apple
interaction of sorts is in the hawthorn trees we have let grow along
the orchard edges. Normally, an orchardist would cut such down as
a source of insect pressure for the fruit trees. Here the hawthorn
gets harvested as a very profitable herb."
are dried and sold in bulk across the continent, but a number of
value-added products are also produced and sold from the farm. Some
of the preparations are sold only seasonally, and the demand has
been high. Nancy's herbal mouthwash concentrate, for example, contains
Echinacea, spilanthes, white willow bark, and the essential oils
of peppermint and tea tree. Customers add a minimum of five drops
of this mixture to water. Other herbal products proving successful
include several varieties of organic garlic, including Georgian
Crystal, German Extra Hardy, and Romanian Red.
The herbs products
are marketed in an alternative manner. "Herbal medicine definitely
takes two forms today," Michael said. The pharmaceutical version
of herbalism in many health food stores and chain drug stores is
one of them. But Michael and Nancy are marketing more towards what
they call the earth-centered herb movement, where everything from
how and where the herb grew and how it is harvested is just as important
as "what" the herb is. "Education (of customers)
is definitely important in the earth-centered herb movement, and
in that regard, our classes here at the farm and at conferences
certainly opens people's eyes to the 'green path.' A small-scale,
hand-crafted farm effort works as you build awareness on many, many
Nancy hold cider pressings and herb classes on the farm. Classes
and gatherings offer the one-on-one contact that can attract life-time
customers and even generational customers. Customers are beginning
to want more than just the product. They want relationships with
the land and the farm, and experiences they can get nowhere else.
classes include a series for adults and camps for children. The
youngest children, from ages five to eight, spend four days singing,
brewing herbal teas and potions, putting on nature skits, wading
in the brook, telling stories in the tipi, playing games, learning
the names of plants, hiking and more. Older children from age nine
to 12 engage in activities including survival skills, creating nature
crafts and herbal products. Educating children as a "secondary
farm product," as with agritourism, has been the topic of discussion
within numerous alternative farm arenas, where parents will pay
to have their children experience a non-commercial, nature-oriented
educational lifestyle. Adult and child students may pitch a tent
in their pastures or orchard, or sleep in their barn. Some adult
students stay in country inns nearby.
also attend a number of conferences which boost their marketing
effort. "Our herb sales begin with several major herb conferences
here in New England which we attend and often time speak as presenters:
International Herb Symposium, United Plant Savers, Woman's Herb
Conference, Green Nations, Hudson Valley Garlic Festival. Sales
at these events are brisk, and just as equally important we develop
our reputation for high quality herbs. Much of our mail order herb
sales follow from there."
and a brochure add to their marketing plan. "Each year in late
winter we send out a farm brochure (the updated mailing list has
approximately 1000 customer names) announcing our course offerings,
bulk herbs and garlic, books, and herbal products."
Herb Reserve Notes" are yet another innovative marketing strategy.
Michael explains: "One (marketing) pitch at this time is the
Healing Herb Reserve Notes at $50 apiece with which people can pre-order
any of our herbal offerings, and if ordered before May 1, receive
free shipping on that order. We live far from the maddening crowd.
The reason dried high quality medicinal herbs are such a fitting
crop for us is two-fold. A year's shelf life is plenty of time to
market the crop. And shipping is a relatively inexpensive means
by which to get herbs and herbal products further afield. A $100
sale consists of a few pounds of herbs which can be shipped for
about $8 or so anywhere in the country."
and consulting, Nancy and Michael have further diversified by authoring
two books on farming which they sell online, at their farm, at conferences
and through other more traditional book marketing outlets. Michael
is the author of The
Apple Grower (2nd, Revised Ed): Guide for the Organic Orchardist,
and both he and Nancy have more recently authored The
Herbalist's Way: The Art and Practice of Healing with Plant Medicines,
a guide for students of herbs with information on both production
and business segments, including governmental regulations, growing,
marketing and selling.
As their young
orchard begins to produce more, they will further develop their
local apple market. A method that proved successful in the past
for Michael was the community supported agriculture model, where
customers purchase an "apple share" to receive a regular
delivery of apples throughout the harvest season, as well as juicing
apples to take part in their on-farm apple pressings. Currently,
an "Earth Medicine Share" is offered for herbs for $60.
The share is shipped fresh from the farm each fall, and customers
receive a four ounce bottle of echinacea tincture, a half pound
each of two different garlic varieties, a two ounce jar of herbal
healing salve, a four ounce bag of "vitamint" tea, and
a four ounce bottle of wild cherry bark cough syrup.
Nancy are examples of the flexible and ever-evolving farm marketing
method that gives micro eco-farms an edge: Selling what's available
now with an eye towards how that ties in to future products, while
continually adding and subtracting what works and what doesn't along
may have already changed