Dan Barnard, a third-generation fruit grower in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, began planting and tending his organic orchard just seven years ago. Growing fruit in the Sturgeon Bay area nearly all of his life, Dan says he’s always been asking the “why questions” about his family’s business. “I never really took people’s word for it,” he says. When they told him, “‘This is the way things have to be; this is how you do it,’ I asked, ‘Why? I want to know why; what’s going on there; what does it need and how do the plants react?’” Today he’s managing 40 organic acres and is still planting more trees to meet the growing demand for his farm products.
Wisconsin’s prized peninsula, Door County, was found to be an ideal area to grow fruit when early settlers began growing tart cherries there in the late 1800s. By the 1960s the area was reported to have one million cherry trees planted, and today Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection reports that the 2011 season reaped 6.7 million pounds in tart cherries. This was down from 10.9 million in 2009. This year, unfortunately for everyone, frost and hail severely limited cherry harvests to an estimate of 500,000 pounds.
If you were lucky enough to see Dan at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, you may have scooped up some of those rare, sweet cherries, but now we can only look forward to next year’s harvest (while crossing our fingers). However, Willy Street Co-op shoppers were delighted with the plum-sized strawberries from Healthy Ridge Farm in June of this year and we’re anticipating another juicy season of peaches, and maybe apricots from our Door County farmer.
Asked about what ultimately motivated him to farm organically, Dan recalled the event that led to his decision, “When I was a little younger, my dad got sprayed right over there,” as he pointed to his family’s land, “Just being out in the field, and he has serious health issues. If I can get the same quality or better, there’s no reason why I can’t do it this way.” Dan now grows multiple varieties of sweet cherries and other fruits, in addition to some vegetables.
Prevention plays an infinitely vital role in the organic orchard and Dan described some of the processes he follows throughout the seasons, “In fall you have to make sure it’s not cluttered on the ground. We mow it [until] it looks like it’s manicured, just perfect. Then you don’t have mice. Sulpher and lime [are applied] to prevent fungus and bacteria in spring, especially in a wet spring. When you take care of that it really helps [the trees] get the right start. Then you watch for the insects.”
The strawberry plants and cherry, peach, nectarine, apricot and apple trees at Healthy Ridge Farm are inspected daily by Dan who looks for curling leaves or irregular developments. This allows him time to act before infections can spread to other trees in the orchard, unlike his non-organic counterparts in the area who routinely spray with cocktails of synthetic chemicals. Dan relies on multiple forms of integrated pest management on his farm, “You have to watch it,” he explained, “because if the whole orchard has a leaf problem, I can’t come in and blast it with a chemical. It takes a lot of time to look around.”
Proportionately, the biggest pests on any fruit farm are birds and land animals. Mice, raccoons, birds, even turkeys would love to feast on any of the crops but a few well-placed deterrents have helped tremendously. A continuous recording that blares out the sound of birds in distress keeps many animals at bay in the orchard, without which, “These would all be gone,” he says pointing to the few remaining cherries on the trees. A plastic, and quite realistic, full-sized replica of a coyote baring its teeth and ready to attack thwarts turkeys from feasting on strawberries. Another non-toxic method of preserving fruit for the harvest includes an artificial eagle that moves freely in the breeze as it is suspended from a string overhead.
During the growing season, periodic mowing across the orchard in one direction leaves taller grasses and flowers to bloom between the trees. Later, when flowers have bloomed, but before going to seed, the grass is mowed in the opposite direction to preserve the biodiversity and attract beneficial insects. During our tour of the orchard Dan pointed to a stack of bee boxes. “The bees just flew into the orchard and stayed. They landed on the tree so I put a box there and they just flew in [to it]. They’re all over the place in the morning,” he explained.
Speaking to the many challenges in organic fruit farming, Dan pointed to the unmanaged orchards that border his 40 acres. “The outside rows have a lot of insect action coming at them.
“The biggest problem I have is fertilizer,” Dan continued. “I can’t just get a bag of nitrogen and throw it down. It’s got to be a long-term plan.” When customers ask if he sprays his fruit, Dan says, “Yeah, we spray! We spray sulphur, lime and organic fish fertilizer,” with full approval from his Organic Certifier at Nature’s International Certification Services in Viroqua, WI. Dan gives Drammatic Organic Fertilizer, a local product from Manitowoc, WI, a hearty recommendation after using this fish fertilizer with great success on his farm. Unlike fish emulsion products, which are heated and further processed to remove essential components such as oil and seaweed, the cold process used by Dramm is described on their website, “We make our fertilizers from fresh fish carefully processed at low temperatures to maintain the integrity of naturally occurring amino acids, vitamins, hormones and enzymes. The raw material is then stored in digestion tanks to liquify the product. This method produces a product called a “hydrolysate.” Drammatic fish hydrolysates contain the natural oils and proteins of fish, which break down slowly to become available over a longer period of time.”
Using no mechanical equipment at harvest time, all of the picking is done by hand. Due to the huge demand for seasonal tourism labor in Door County, workers come from Green Bay to assist Dan. On average he says he needs anywhere from 10-50 people to harvest the crops.
In talking about the upcoming peach season, Dan offered some observations about harvesting and ripening, “All peaches are picked before they’re ripe, you can’t pick a ripe peach. You have to pick them a couple of days before they’re ripe.” Because organic peaches aren’t doused in chemicals to promote perfect skins, Dan offered his expertise to understand the presence of imperfections, “If a leaf sits on a peach, you’re going to have a mark on it – little marks on stuff doesn’t make it bad. [When picking out peaches at the store], feel it, if it’s not all mushy, it’s just a little blemish.” And to avoid biting into a hard peach Dan says, “Set it on the counter for a day or two, some people put them in a paper bag to ripen quicker.”
Building their own infrastructure
Construction on the farm is currently underway and at the time of our visit, the foundation had been laid for a multi-use building which will house a cooler, worker’s lounge, full restroom with shower, certified commercial kitchen, a machine shop, and space to house grading equipment. Currently all of the fruit is graded by hand, which Dan says is very time-consuming. Next to the building, the new family home is also being built, which represents the realization of a dream for Dan and his family.
In closing, Dan summarized his thoughts about the farm, “I think there should be a way for agriculture and non-ag communities to work together to supply what you want, what you need, and I want to try to make that happen in the best way possible for everybody. That’s what I want to try to create here. My wife (Amy) makes fun of me; I’m a little chemist out here, tweaking this and that, trying to give the optimum flavor and production, because I don’t want to give up flavor. I don’t want to be California berries or Colorado peaches. I want the flavor to just pop! That’s what I grew up with. I could go out there and pick something that’s dead ripe and eat it, and it was so sweet. I want to create that for people who really don’t have that opportunity to go out and live my lifestyle. I want people to experience what it’s supposed to taste like. I’ve planted for flavor, not for production. So some of these trees will never have a production of 200 pounds a tree. They’re [other growers] planting them for production, firmness and travel hardiness and not for the quality and flavor.
“I’m just trying to make a go at it and produce [food] the best way I now how. The best quality, the best flavor, I just want everybody to be happy.”
For More Information
For more information about Healthy Ridge Farm, see their website at: www.healthyridgefarm.com.