John and Roberta Bunker [now Bailey] live on a 100-acre piece of primarily wooded, ledgy land in Palermo that has “what most farmers would call terrible soil” – yet they grow almost all of their own vegetables and meat (turkeys and chickens) there. About 15 years ago, both became interested in grafting fruit trees, and eight years ago the started growing more nursery crops commercially. They have been selling their woody crops through the Fedco Trees catalog, which they started about 15 years ago.
“We decided to do it through Fedco,” they said at the Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta in January, “because we believed that was the best way...to provide a living for ourselves and encourage more people in Maine to grow more woody plants. The best thing I could do,” John continued, “was create a market first, then start growing what I could.” During the first couple of years, they bought nothing from Maine, all from suppliers out of state. “As we knew the markets existed, we started to get people in Maine to grow for us. This lessened the speculation and risk.”
They now have about 15 small nurseries in Maine growing for them. Some, such as Mark Fulford, supply considerable material every year, while others provide smaller amounts when available, often skipping a year or more. John estimates that a maximum of 20 to 25% of the sales are of Maine-grown crops now, with many of those items being unique and unavailable from out-of-state suppliers. “We take the money we generate through sales and keep it in state as much as we can,” said John. “It’s a way of ending competition, which I think is destructive. All of the people I think of in the state who could be my competitors, I think all grow for us now.”
Their own nursery started in their vegetable garden, which was “not working,” said Roberta, because “we needed more space for food.” They were then able to use 1/4-acre of a neighbor’s land, which they planted in buckwheat for a couple of years; limed; and amended with chicken manure. They fenced the area with two rolls of woven wire sheep fencing supported on 10-foot cedar posts, making an 8-foot high fence, to keep deer from their crops. “We’ve never had any problems with deer,” said Roberta, “and we never have to worry about the electricity going out.”
After turning under a cover crop, they plant trees – mostly apples, pears and plums – by sticking a nursery spade into the ground and inserting two trees next to each other in the opening made by the spade. “It’s very intensively planted,” said Roberts. Double rows maximize the use of space but make weed control more difficult. All of their trees are grown on standard rootstocks because they are hardier, longer lived, and have a “beefier” root system.
The grafted trees are in the ground for about three years before they’re sold, although larger ones might be dug after two years. They dig in the fall, after the trees are dormant (in November or sometimes into December), and store them bareroot, wrapped in mounds of sawdust and plastic, in the basement of the Fedco warehouse over the winter. (This storage space is available for other growers, as well.) As trees are harvested, dry beans are planted in the vacated spaces the following spring, so that by the fourth year, “large chunks of the nursery rows are used for dry beans” or for crops that are being isolated from their main garden for seed saving purposes. By the fifth year, all of the trees have been removed. If a tree is still growing slowly by then, they “figure the tree will never have enough vigor and we trash it.”
Their original quarter-acre nursery has now doubled in size, and they’re trying to cultivate the area with a horse and use mulches to suppress weeds. “It’s too big for all hand weed control now,” said Roberta. They tried using very aged bark mulch but found that it was labor intensive to apply and didn’t suppress weeds very long. They now want to experiment with a living mulch of clover. They haven’t used a hay mulch because they were afraid mice would proliferate, and they didn’t want to add weed seeds to the area.
Interestingly, they never water their trees because no irrigation is available near the nursery site. “The trees still grow beautifully,” said Roberta. “After a dry summer, they just took off the next summer.”
Roberta recommended having good row markers for your nursery. “Trees are useless if you don’t know what they are.” She uses wooden stakes driven into the ground as well as aluminum tags on the first tree of each row and a written map.
They lose a small percentage of their trees to borers and haven’t found a good solution to that problem, although “borers are probably a worse problem for orchardists than for nursery people,” said John. “We know when we dig a tree if it has borers and we throw it out. With younger trees, there’s less investment.”
Mice did “terrible damage” one year when the Bunkers did nothing to control them. Now they mow to keep the grass down around the trees; tramp down the snow in winter to discourage tunneling; and set wooden “mouse hotels” with chemical bait blocks every 30 feet or so.
Almost everything that Fedco Trees sells is bareroot for ease of shipping. Most is shipped by UPS; 30% is picked up at the warehouse; and during a three- day open house and tree sale in the spring, people can buy whatever is available. “We’re trying to do more potted things each year,” said John, “particularly at our open house because we want to establish relationships with people growing potted plants in Maine and work with them.”
Roberta pointed out that growing trees can be a good addition to a farming operation because it can provide a “pretty big chunk of cash” in the spring, when cash flow is normally slow on farms.
When asked what species people should grow for Fedco, John answered that he is “looking for people who are growing interesting things that they care about and want to market; and for people who know nothing about growing ornamentals or fruit trees but want to experiment. We might have something we can actually give you as seedlings or cuttings.
“We work to help people who need that help,” he continued. “Other people come and say, ‘I’m growing such and such, are you interested in buying?’ That’s the way I prefer to work; people have enthusiasm for what they want to grow. They have ideas we hadn’t thought of.”
Fedco sells “all of the fruit trees that can grow in Maine and some things you wouldn’t think could grow in Maine. All are hardy in zone 5, almost all in 4, much in 3,” he continued. “We’re really looking for people rather than plants.”
One of John’s interests is tracking down varieties of fruit trees and ornamentals that originated in Maine. “Some are superior cultivars; some are part of our heritage. There may be limited widespread appeal for some of them, but we don’t want to see them die.” He gave the Black Oxford apple as an example. “It’s one of our best selling cultivars. It’s not sold in any other catalog in the country. We pretty much saved it and have sold over 2,000 of them.” Similar stories exist about Winthrop Greening, Dudley and Cavanaugh apples. “We’ve been down to as few as two or three trees anywhere when we started to propagate them. We’re interested in having people find things that are dying out.” Cemeteries are good places to look, he says – no joke intended...
When asked if trees need to be grown organically, John responded that the focus for Fedco Trees has been Maine hardiness. “We do emphasize and note when trees are grown in Maine. We haven’t had a huge calling for trees that are grown organically. It’s something that we should probably start looking into. Some are grown on farms that are certified.”
Regarding quality, he said that Fedco doesn’t grade the stock but does want a beefy root system on its plants.
– Jean English