February is a great time to start a new orchard

Despite sub-freezing temperatures, some new apple orchards took root during the first weekend in February, when more than 40 students came to campus for the inaugural Midwest School for Beginning Apple Growers.

The class, coordinated by John Hendrickson and Regina Hirsch of the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, covered topics ranging from Integrated Pest Management and organic production practices to labor management and family issues. Students ranged from complete newbies to some with a fair amount of orchard experience.

Featured presenters included Bob Barthel from Barthel Fruit Farm in Mequon, Harry and Jackie Hoch from Hoch Orchard and Gardens in La Crescent, Minn., and Matt Stasiak from the CALS Peninsular Agricultural Research Station.

Other CALS presenters included extension entomologist Dan Mahr, extension plant pathologist Patty McManus, and Ann Pfeiffer, a UW-Extension outreach specialist based in CIAS.

The school follows a model that Hendrickson developed for two other CIAS new-farmer programs, a school for market vegetable growers held since 1998, and a similar school for cut-flower growers begun in 2006.

It’s the grower-teaching-grower approach that makes these programs successful, Hendrickson says.

“Because we feature experienced growers as instructors, participants do not just get information about horticultural practices, but also a sincere and honest assessment of what it takes to run a business growing and marketing vegetables, apples, or flowers. This includes not just capital investment, labor management and income, but also personal and family issues.

He notes that this is different from most farmer conferences, in which each topic is addressed by a different expert.

“In our schools, participants spend three days with three growers, hearing from each of them on almost every topic.” Hendrickson says. “This gives people a holistic, integrated picture of how the grower-instructors do what they do on their own farms. We augment this practical grower perspective with presentations by our excellent UW faculty and staff on targeted topics such as insect and disease management.”

The grower programs have attracted students from as far away as South Dakota, Missouri and Colorado.

“Participants in these programs leave rather overwhelmed after the three intensive days, but also incredibly grateful and inspired,” Hendrickson says.