The Michigan Pomesters took their annual RidgeFest tour on the road Aug. 1, traveling from Sparta to southwest Michigan to learn about differences in climate, equipment and organic apple growing.
Farms visited were Molter Produce in Bainbridge Township near Benton Harbor, Michigan and High Acres Fruit Farm near Hartford. Attendees also toured Hilltop Fruit Trees near Decatur near Fennville.
Molter Produce is a 700-acre farm in Bainbridge Township near Benton Harbor. Owners Aaron and Kari Molter grow a variety of fresh vegetables, apples and peaches in addition to some field corn. The fifth-generation farm has been certified organic for more than 11 years. The farm began growing 25 acres of apples in 2008 and has drastically increased its production since then.
Aaron discussed his experiences in growing organic apples, which the Michigan Apple Committee and Michigan State University researchers have been studying in more detail. Growing apples organically in Michigan is not done by many growers because the rain and heat in the state often result in significant disease pressure.
Aaron Molter said he had been reluctant to do the tour, but he did share some details about his growing practices. For instance, he said there are rules about using treated lumber in organic orchards; at his own orchards, he has used steel supports in his trellis for that reason. He said there was a cost to running “split” organic and traditional farm operations alongside each other, and so he has decided to go completely organic.
“I’m getting better at understanding the fertilizers,” he also said. Sodium nitrate, blood meal, feather meal, manures and chicken litter are used.
Generally, he tried to encourage other growers to try organic.
“We’ve been told forever it’s not possible,” Molter said. “I hope today you’re able to take this from the fringe … to say, yes, this is possible if I’m willing to take the risk. We need other people to grow apples in Michigan, in the Midwest, to make it relevant, so we gain access to more markets.”
Hilltop Fruit Trees nursery was established in 1909, and current owner Steve Flamm took over management in 2001. He said the company once provided a variety of fruit trees to customers all over the country, but has dropped cherries and peaches in order to focus on apples. The company is also increasingly focused on its Michigan clients.
Signwood orchards are difficult to establish, and the emergence of new varietals keep nurseries like Hilltop busy. Production manager Adam Rodriguez, who also handles sales, said an orchard needs to be checked for plant viruses every three years, and he accomplishes this by having a third of the orchard checked each year.
– Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor, Fruit Grower News
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