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Vermont ‘Farmer With a Conscience’ Transforms Orchard into Sustainable Farming Enterprise

Vermont ‘Farmer With a Conscience’ Transforms Orchard into Sustainable Farming Enterprise

August 20, 2012 |

Apples in bushel bins. Photo Credit: Champlain Orchards

When Bill Suhr started Champlain Orchards in 1998, he knew nothing about growing fruit. At 25-years-old, with a few years experience as an environmental consultant, he decided he wanted to farm the land. Unsure of what kind of farm he was looking for, he rented a room from a woman named in the Lake Champlain area and started touring properties. His landlord suggested that he might enjoy running an orchard, a prediction Suhr says turned out to be “spot on.”

When he toured Larabee Orchard in Shoreham, he fell in love, but assumed it was out of his grasp financially. As it happened, the New England apple industry was flagging. When the Larabee Orchard hit the market, local agencies worried that it would be sold to developers. The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and the Vermont Land Trust pooled their funds to conserve the property and secured an easement declaring that the property must remain undeveloped agricultural land. With the assistance of the Vermont Land Trust, Suhr says he was able to purchase the property for half the pre-conservation value.

Today, Champlain Orchards spans three farms totally 500 acres. Suhr grows a variety of fruit crops, including raspberries, plums, peaches, cherries, and both European and Asian pears. He also makes fresh cider, apple pies, and hard cider. Only a small amount of produce is actually sold on the farm. The majority of Champlain Orchard’s fruit and apple products are sold through farmers’ markets, food cooperatives, supermarkets, CSA programs, universities, and wholesalers.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Suhr about his commitment to sustainable farming and the challenges of earning a profit in the orchard business at time when apple consumption is down.

The Interview:

Q: Champlain Orchard’s mission is fruit grown with a conscience. Can you talk about what that means to you?

Bill Suhr: We have some certified organic acreage and blocks of fruit, and the bulk of what we grow is considered ecologically grown. It is particularly challenging to devote 100% of our acreage to growing techniques in New England. On the other hand, we have never felt like conventional growing is our niche or interest. So there is a middle ground there that we choose and we have a description about that on our website in terms of some of our growing practices. We stopped using organophosphates maybe eight years ago as an insecticide choice. We have become members of a program called eco-apple, and they are a third party certifier for our ecological growing practices. They are also a marketing organization.

Q: Could you talk about the decision to stop using organophosphates?

Bill Suhr: We were already trying some organic management at the time, but on the bulk of our acreage, we made the decision [based on] some articles that we had read that made us concerned. I think they’ve linked organophosphates to attention deficit disorder. And there’s only so many of those articles you want to read before you get a little skeptical yourself or concerned. There’s a fine line everyday in our decisions that we’re making to ensure that we have food for our customers but not jeopardizing the crop to the point of making it non-marketable. The organophosphate question is just one minor decision in the midst of many decisions happening annually. Our customers were obviously very supportive and happy to hear that we had moved away from organophosphates before it even became more common for people to ask about them. We were trying to be proactive about dealing with something that would cause our customers a question or even ourselves.

Q: What are some the sustainable practices that you use on your farm?

The solar array that powers Champlain Orchards. Photo Credit: Champlain Orchards.

Bill Suhr: We have installed 28 solar trackers through All Earth Renewables. It’s actually their installation and those are basically replacing our electrical needs completely for all of our storage and operating electricity. It’s their financial investment and we pay them instead of the power company. We net meter into the grid system so we have a credit at this point [in the year], but come fall when we start refrigerating fruit and using more energy, we will tap into that credit and probably use it up. The idea is to zero out over the year. Hopefully down the road we will be able to buy back that whole solar system and be self-sufficient. At this point, since we’re not the owners, we’re still paying a normal electric bill. Although, we are very proud that it’s tangible power that we can see and educate our customers about.

Q: You alluded to the fact that it’s difficult to turn a profit with an orchard. Could you expand on that?

Bill Suhr: Well, most farms have certain inputs or conditions that are not controllable. So, if you have a site that has good air drainage you might not have access to good water. Or if you have access to a market population, you may have high taxes. Or if you have access to a good market, you may not have good land. I think the list is endless and there’s always a handicap for every operation I’ve visited it seems. There are ways to combat those challenges. Hail would be an example. If you’ve got a great market and great establishment but you’re hit by hail year after year, you don’t penetrate the fresh market very far and quickly you’re potentially out of business.

In our case, we’re not near a large population base so we need to send these diesel trucks to market and we have electrical costs to store the fruit and we’re participating in the wholesale world. But we are very grateful that our customers are willing to pay for local food and interested in supporting local food first. These are not just high-income people. These are across the board people looking for good food and they understand that investing the dollar in us will return it $.99 on the dollar back to the community. That is very apparent. We have our customers to thank and we have the agency of agriculture to thank, and we have online forums like yours. It’s important to allow small farms to participate in the food system and not have to be a behemoth to get into Hannaford’s. Hannaford’s was supporting us very early on and that was bold of them. There are lots of new food safety regulations and those are certainly expensive for us to incorporate, but they are important. That is an obstacle in our way, but potentially helps us be a better farm.

Q: Would you describe the farm as profitable or self-sustaining?

Bill Suhr: Technically it is profitable, we just are in a growth pattern and we’re about to start harvesting our crops so it’s the weakest time of the year for the company in terms of cash flow. So its no doubt consuming my thoughts as we speak, but hopefully two months from now you will hear a much more cheerful person.

Q: Do you have any advice for future farmers thinking of getting into the orchard business?

Bill Suhr: They say don’t quit your day job, but to some extent you have to sink yourself into it. But it’s very important to have a financial cushion because there are some wonderful ideas out there. They can get squelched before they get off the ground because of the quirky things that can happen that are out of our control and even in our control, from personal relationships to weather to outright accidents. It’s important to not squelch those dreams, but to phase them in carefully and potentially include others. I think family operations are particularly strong because of not only dedication within the family but the skills that many people can bring to the table. It doesn’t have to be done as a family, but either way things should be very well defined in terms of ownership and compensation. But having multiple companions when things are going well and things are not going well is important. I think farming’s particularly emotionally draining so that would be advised.

Q: Do you have family members working with you?

Bill Suhr: I do have a wife that joined the operation, Andrea Scott, and you could consider many of our staff family. On a daily basis, we’re all aware of what’s happening. I started as an individual. There’s about 20 full time employees that contribute daily.

Q: What are your future goals for the farm? Do you hope to expand?

Bill Suhr: We are in a growing phase and the hard and ice cider worlds are very interesting to us. They’re new territory and there’s an unknown there in terms of our skill set so there is endless learning that can be done. And the market is significant. It has its challenges, but that’s something that we’re planting trees specifically for. We certainly continue to expand the variety of fresh fruit that we’re growing and trying to extend the season so that we’re a year-round operation, storing fruit year-round. [We’re not trying to] find new customers but to take care of our existing customers for the full year instead of 9 months like we’re taking care of them now. We’re very interested in figuring out how to do this so that we’re not relying on a banana from South America to feed ourselves through the winter. But I know that we’re all accustomed to eating a banana now. I’m aware of that. Consumption of apples may be on the decline but I think there’s ways to alter the apples from fresh to making things like cider syrup and fermented products. There’s many ways to consume an apple to keep the consumption levels up.

Q: It seems that in recent years there are many more varieties of apple available, is that something that you have expanded on since taking over the orchard?

Bill Suhr: There is an opportunity there. There’s the children looking at their grandparents and thinking Northern Spy, an heirloom apple is sexy again. There’s also folks well aware that there are new varieties being developed that were selected for naturally, not genetically modified, that ha attributes that blow away the former apples. We’re actually looking in both directions, backward and forwards. Because we are very fortunate and we have access to sales through the food co-ops, which are supportive of us, we’re not pigeonholed into brining them just the commodity apples like Mac, and Empire, and Cortland, which are all lovely apples. The supermarket can’t handle the 70 or so apples that we grow, but food co-ops love the diversity and want to educate their consumer and the consumer is curious. We can take the time to produce a label and describe to the customers. It’s like they’re visiting the farm. We don’t want customers driving to us 12 months of the year, when we can send one truck to their community. From an environmental standpoint, it seems healthy for families to visit us once a year on a weekend in the fall to enjoy and celebrate the farm. We can then send just one vehicle out to them for the rest of the year so they can experience the farm as we communicate to them on the shelf. Our next challenge will be the fuel source for our trucks, which is completely out of our hands currently. There are some recent developments, which are exciting. I’m looking forward to learning more about them.

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