As any Wisconsin locavore knows, local fruit, especially local organic fruit can be very hard to find. Though we are lucky to have a booming local agricultural scene, the vast majority of what’s grown are annual vegetable crops. In most small Wisconsin market farms, perennial fruits are usually an afterthought and are almost entirely limited to strawberries and apples.
Look around town this month and you’ll see stores bragging about the origin of their summer fruit. You can find peaches from California, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Colorado, and Idaho. You’ll find cherries from Washington and Michigan; but almost nowhere can you find either of these tasty treats grown right here in Wisconsin.
That’s where Dan Barnard comes in.
Dan and his family own Healthy Ridge Farm in Wisconsin’s beautiful Door County, and on that farm they produce some of the finest organic fruit you’ll find anywhere: strawberries, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apples, and pears, just to name a few.
Willy Street Co-op began purchasing fruit from Dan a few years back. His products have proven to be wildly popular, and this spring we were delighted to be able to offer him a Willy Street Co-op Local Vendor Loan to help him expand his business, while also expanding our access to his precious local fruit. I caught up with him on the phone in late June to talk about it and learn a little more about his farm.
MBM: How are you using the funds you received from the Willy Street Co-op Local Vendor Loan?
DB: We purchased a new traveling water sprinkler irrigation system, which will cover several acres at once. Fruit is essentially sweet water surrounded by skin, so irrigation is needed to increase production and reduce risk. This is especially important for the strawberries and raspberries. We also dug a trench to get water to the fruit trees if needed, but that’s just to keep them alive in times of drought, not for regular production.
We also bought trees, mostly peaches and apples. This spring we added over 1,000 trees on seven acres.
MBM: You told me once you thought Willy Street Co-op’s peach orchard would be the biggest in the state, is that true?
DB: It may be the largest in the state, I haven’t heard of one bigger. Without a doubt it’s the largest organic peach orchard in the state.
MBM: How long will it be until we see the peaches and apples from these trees on our shelves?
DB: Four to six years from now we’ll see significant production. The land is currently in the first year of its transition to organic (a three-year process) so this fruit will be certified organic from day one.
We also purchased multiple use boxes that can be sanitized. It’s important to do this so you’re not transporting disease or bugs back to your farm.
Lastly, we put a down-payment on a truck to bring deliveries to Madison. I’ve had truck trouble in the past, and a more reliable truck will impact reliability and help increase sales. It’s very important to the bottom line to be able to deliver on time. There’s so much hard work that leads up to putting product in the truck and delivering it. Fruit crops are extremely perishable and if the truck breaks down along the way you can lose all the contents very quickly, and then all your hard work and investment is gone.
MBM: Why was it difficult for you to secure a more traditional loan from a bank?
DB: Banks dislike the volatility of farm income since it’s harder to verify income. They also don’t like organic—they see it asa niche market that could be subject to the whims of the buying public. Also, since payback won’t come for four to six years, proving enough income puts extra weight on existing crops and increases risk of volatility. There was no good way to plant a lot of trees without the Local Vendor Loan.
MBM: Can you give a brief history of your farm?
DB: In 1988 I started with asparagus on land I rented from my Dad. In 1990 I added black and red raspberries, and in 1994 strawberries. I bought land in 2005 and planted two acres of sweet cherries and peaches. In 2008 I transitioned to certified organic. In 2014 the Local Vendor Loan allowed expansion. We now farm 80 acres of owned and rented land. Everything is in transition or certified organic.
Over the past two years, we’ve put in several thousand trees along with strawberries, raspberries, grapes, currants. Now we’re waiting to let things get closer to full production before deciding how much more to expand.
MBM: And you have a farming legacy in your family, right?
DB: Yes, my father and grandfather both farmed fruit. Grandpa started 100 years ago on land bordering mine.
MBM: Why did you decide to go organic?
DB: When I was younger my Dad nearly died because he was sprayed by conventional orchard chemicals. When I started farming, I sprayed very little because I didn’t like the stuff, and I decided to go organic.
I have kids who live on the farm. The berry patch is 100 feet from the house, how could you spray something with a skull and crossbones that close to the house?
MBM: What are your plans for the future of your farm? Where would you like to be in 20 years?
That’s a big question. Everybody has dreams. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have thought I’d be where I am today. We need to continue diversification, although that doesn’t necessarily mean more acres. I’d like to plant more varietals and different crops. I’d like to have a successful CSA for people who love fruits and like vegetables. There’s a lot of CSAs for people who love vegetables and like fruit, but not the other way around. I’d also like to develop more value-added products down the road like cider, pie, and applesauce.
MBM: What do you find the most difficult/challenging parts of farming to be?
Organic fruit production in Wisconsin is extremely weather-dependent. If you have more than one crop, you never have perfect weather. For example, if I have a great strawberry year, it’s not perfect weather for cherries and vice versa.
Labor will be the largest cost increase in future years. Right now, I employ a lot of second-income workers. I also employee a lot of college kids. It’s hard because I don’t have year-round work.
Many people have an expectation of perfect looking fruit. We’re competing with Western U.S. fruit, and fruit in our climate is much tougher to grow perfectly. On the West Coast, they don’t get much rain during the summer. Things are grown with irrigation, and there is less fungus and bacteria. People should let taste guide what they buy rather than their eyes. Imperfect looking fruit is just part of the climate here. If people were willing to take one step down in the looks there would be a lot more fresh product on the shelf versus going into processing.
Also, there’s a never ending list of stuff to do, with not enough time to do it. It’s tough to adapt to. My Dad likes to tell the joke: “How does a farmer catch up with their work? They get a whole year behind.”
Another challenge is that there’s not a culture of fruit in Wisconsin like there is for dairy and other types of farming. If you’re a dairy farmer you have lots of experts around who you can turn to for help. It’s not that way with fruit farming, so you have to figure out a lot of stuff on your own.
MBM: Why did you choose to partner with the Co-op?
DB:You guys are just wonderful. I started selling a few years ago when people at the farmers’ market kept asking if I could sell to Willy Street Co-op so they could have fruit in the middle of the week. I have been very impressed with the excellent attitude of the produce buyers. They’ve been collaborative, easy to work with, and understanding. Your buyers work with growers instead of setting out a bunch of demands, “take it or leave it.”
MBM Is there anything else you think Willy Street Co-op Owners should know about Healthy Ridge?
DB: We are a family farm in Door County. We have three children that are eager to help. Sometimes the help is taste testing, sometimes a hug at the end of the day. My wife handles all the technology on the farm. We’re always looking for ideas/new products.
We won’t have any nectarines this year, but the peaches and apples looks like a good year.