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Producer Profile: Turkey Ridge Organic Orchard
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by Lynn Olson, Member Services Manager
Sprawling out on 290 acres in the middle of Wisconsin’s Crawford County, Turkey Ridge Organic Orchard is the largest organic apple orchard in the Midwest. Since its first apple trees were planted in 1988, the orchard has undergone a series of stellar and near-heartbreaking events including its evolution from bustling enterprise to family farm to nearly abandoned parcel of land slated for redevelopment. Its reborn form today is that of a cooperative. On December 5th, 2003, the Midwest Organic Fruit Growers Cooperative (MOFGC) was formed to manage and grow Turkey Ridge Organic Orchard. Aided by both a menagerie of animals (including flocks of geese and sheep, a passel of pigs, and a collection of chickens) and a solid set of by-laws, the members of the Co-op are ready to take on the task of taming their 7,800 fruit trees.
Turkey Ridge has a long history of vision and commitment by an evolving group of organic apple enthusiasts. In 1986, when Greg Walsh, MOFGC Treasurer, was working for an organic food company on the east coast, his path to Turkey Ridge was determined through a chance encounter at a café. “It was weird how the orchard got started,” he explains, “...it was ’86 or ’87 when the Alar (daminozide, a compound produced by Uniroyal Chemical Company used to promote ripening and purported to be carcinogenic) scare started coming out about apples, and we ran out of apples, so we bought all the organic apples we could find in Canada and California, Washington, and we couldn’t find anymore. So, they sent me out to Wisconsin to see if there were any abandoned orchards. I drove into Gays Mills and found a guy in a café and told him what I was looking for, and he said, ‘You know, my whole life I’ve wanted to plant an orchard and plant it the right way.’ So, he ended up planting the orchard. He had worked for commercial orchards for 30 years and had such a dose of spray that he actually died from it a year later.” Greg remembers, “I helped [him] plant it in 1987 to ’88, then he died in 1989. It’s beautiful now-different varieties planted in every block. He did a good job in setting it up.”
Cooperative members Faye Rodgers, Greg Welsh and Alex Person have each dedicated the majority of their lives and labor to the orchard over the last several years. They have been unable to make much time for recruiting new members after tending to the many needs of the business. As Faye Rodgers, MOFGC President explains, “Everyone does the pruning, picking, processing, moving the pigs, picking berries, working as a community to tend the farm. We have our meetings once a month, maybe once every two months, depending on how hard work is and the time length, but we all work together pretty well.” Greg adds, “We just need more labor, more time pruning and we need to continue the pruning for several more years.”
Apple orchards are an investment in time and labor, typically taking five years to yield fruit. Outcomes are intricately entwined with Mother Nature and her good graces. Biology, bugs and blight dictate the difference between success and failure. MOFGC members have begun employing innovative farming solutions wherever possible. One of those ideas, based on simple yet natural behaviors of farm animals, has become of strategic importance to their work. On controlling the inevitable at the orchard, Faye explains, “The animals are doing our fertilizing—our bug control and aerating of the soil, and we are in hog heaven right now, because they’re doing such an amazing job. We’ve gotten close to [trimming] 400 trees this summer and the pigs have worked through and have been moved every other day to aerate the soil and trim the trees and eat the bugs and fertilize. We’ve set it up where the sheep go through first (small sections of the orchard are fenced off to form a paddock beneath and around the trees), and then mow it down with the ducks. The pigs run up to the trees and knock the bugs out of the trees and the chickens eat up the bugs and larvae that come up out of the soil. Every year doing this back to back, rotating them through the orchard. It’ll soon start killing off the next year’s crop of pests, which will never get rid of them...the bug control was about 60% less in that one experimental section. Compared to 100% bug damage [from] leaf rollers, coddle moth and what not [in the untreated areas]. “
Turkey Ridge Farm has and will continue to produce their signature organic cider and their cattle-grade vinegar. The vinegar has become a favorite among organic dairy farmers all over the U.S. for its use in maintaining good health in their herds. Plans for the Cooperative to become self-sustaining include the planting of over 1,600 strawberry and raspberry plants with 1,000 more planned for the coming year to create a pick-your-own operation, which is needed to generate revenue during off-season of apple picking. Feasibility studies through a value-added grant for the orchard assisted members in writing their plan, which includes the possibility of producing human-grade vinegar, applesauce and pies to utilize every piece of fruit regardless of blemishes or imperfect shapes.
Turkey Ridge’s processing facility has served nearby organic orchards for several years for washing, separating, pressing and packaging, and it is conceivable they will become a major player in the local organic apple processing business according to the hopes and aspirations of the Co-op’s members.
With many of the basic requirements already taken care of (the fruit trees, a vast packing/bottling shed, a new tractor and a farmhouse) there remains literally tons of equipment sitting idle in the packing shed. An enormous and obsolete processing unit has been partially dissected and pieced together again with new parts to form a better, more efficient apple washer/conveyor system by the members. With new/used equipment and an extensive electrical upgrade on the building they plan to process cider as usual this year. The cooperative is currently looking to eliminate plastic jugs and begin using returnable glass bottles but a washing/sanitizing facility will need to be developed before that can happen.
The opportunity to become a member of the cooperative has several requirements and there are varying degrees in which an individual can become physically or fiscally involved. Voting members of MOFGC must provide two things-money and time. Greg explains how it works, “We’re all paying dues right now, so we don’t have to make so much money from the orchard itself. There are three different types of shares.”
A Class A share is $35,000 in money and 7800 hours of time/labor. It’s a 5-6 year commitment. A seven-member limit on Class A shares was determined by a zoning ordinance limiting the building of any new homes on less than 35 acres in their area. In forming the Cooperative, the members divided the 290 acres by 35 and came up with roughly seven shares. Faye describes a benefit of a Class A membership, “Once you get your share paid off, you can build a house on the land and the Co-op has to provide you with a house and water. The person builds up a plan for a cordwood house or a small cabin structure then the Co-op board pulls it through and decides what they can afford on it, what can we take off the land to build the house.” Class A members are also given their own 35 acres of land to start planting other fruits or cultivate another crop.
Two other types of shares were developed by the Cooperative to include more participation in the orchard by their community and workers. Class B shares (non-voting) are $100.00 per share, and the by-laws state that the owner may be paid annual dividends, along with Class A shareholders, of 0-8%, “after joint review and recommendation by the Finance and Cooperative Committee to the cooperative.” Class B shareholders may also serve on any of the Cooperative’s community committees.
The final share classification, Class W (Worker shares), was developed to address the need to reward workers hired on the farm. Greg explains more about their decision, “We formed a workers share because we just figured the only way for organic production is to put a lot of labor in, and so we want to have whoever does the work to own the business.” The Cooperative recently issued their first 25 Class W shares to their only hired help, which can also earn 0-8% returns annually, after review by the Finance and Labor committee.
Cooperative members currently
share the traditional farmhouse
which includes a large
kitchen/common area. Faye
says, “We’re hoping to turn this into internship, daycare, community house, kitchen. We’ll
give this up to the workers.”
Plans to visit the Turkey
Ridge Farm are set for
the Willy Street Co-op
Farm Tour on October 24th,
2004 (9:00am–5:00pm). Anyone wishing to join the bus tour is welcome to call 251-0884 to register for the daylong event covering two farms and one food co-op. MOFGC members will be on hand to conduct hay-wagon tours of the orchard. As Faye says, “We want to be an educational orchard, we want to teach people to grow organic food. And we’re
learning at the same time.”
For more information on our upcoming Farm Tour, follow the link to the left or to reach Turkey Ridge Organic Orchard directly, call (608) 735-4660.