Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Jesse Stevens of Sy’s Trees in Sweden, Maine, grows a “hyper-diversified” orchard of more than 1,000 varieties of woody plants. Photo courtesy of Jesse Stevens
Jesse Stevens of Sy’s Trees in Sweden, Maine, grows a “hyper-diversified” orchard of more than 1,000 varieties of woody plants. Photo courtesy of Jesse Stevens
Honeyberry, Lonicera coerulea, is an underutilized species that Stevens believes is well suited to organic culture in Maine. Photo by Opioła Jerzy
Honeyberry, Lonicera coerulea, is an underutilized species that Stevens believes is well suited to organic culture in Maine. Photo by Opioła Jerzy, from Wikimedia.
 


By Jean English

Farmers from Sy’s Trees and from 5 Star Orchard discussed cultivation of mixed orchard crops, including fruits, nuts, berries and perennial stock, at MOFGA’s 2019 Farmer to Farmer Conference. On these farms, diversity is key to balancing the orchard ecosystem.

Sy’s Trees

Jesse Stevens of Sy’s Trees in Sweden, Maine, has been establishing his farm and orchard for the past 10 years, so “I’m still a sapling,” he said. He’s in the western foothills of Maine (zone 4b) at 1,000 feet on a north-facing slope – nice high ground for an orchard. He does not spray pesticides but focuses on soil health.

His “hyper-diversified” orchard has 100-plus species (1,000-plus varieties) of woody tree crops. His formal orchard is planted on a grid, with alley crops between rows and smaller shrub species between trees. He selected the latter to tolerate shade when the canopy closes.

Stevens’ fruit and nut tree nursery provides his most consistent income. He’s been selling wholesale to Fedco Trees for eight years, starting with grafted apples and then pears, plums, quince, mulberry and Cornelian cherry; from seed, more recently, chestnut, walnut, hickory, hazelnut, ginkgo, persimmon, pawpaw, schisandra, mountain ash and others; and from cuttings, elderberry, willows, aronia, honeyberry, figs, kiwi, grape, dogwoods, roses and viburnums.

He has also started selling fruits and nuts in the last few years. His low-traffic area, with its summer-based economy, is not ideal for retailing, so he sells to producers of value-added goods and to wholesale contracts, including restaurants, specialty food stores, the Portland Food Co-op, breweries, cideries and herbalists. This year he marketed honeyberries, currants, plums, peaches, elderberries, aronia, apples, figs, kiwis, persimmons, cherries, hazelnuts, walnuts, pears, mushrooms, squash, wild blueberries and grapes.

Stevens believes that a few underutilized species are especially well suited to and have potential for organic production because they have survived his no-spray regime and produced nice fruit, and they enjoy a market niche because they are new and unusual.

Honeyberry

Honeyberry (Lonicera caerulea), a fruiting shrub in the honeysuckle family, is one of those underutilized species. The fruits are a traditional food in Siberia and northern Japan.

Stevens has several hundred plants in the ground but only a handful produced fruit this year, so at this point he is testing the market and educating consumers.

The plants are not as picky about soil pH as are blueberries, and they are widely adapted and are cold hardy to zone 3. Stevens plants them 3 to 5 feet apart within rows, depending on the cultivar, and 12 feet between rows. Plant more than one variety to ensure pollination, he said.

They start bearing small crops in the second or third year and come into full production in year four or five. Shrubs can live for over 100 years.

Berries can be harvested mechanically or shake-harvested off the bush (e.g., with a custom-built harvester or a cordless Sawzall with a crook on the end of it) onto a tarp or sheet or into a kiddie pool with a keyhole cut out of it.

People compare the honeyberry to a highbush blueberry, said Stevens, with its blue, oblong fruits, but it has some significant advantages over highbush blueberry. Honeyberry leafs out and blooms early and is impervious to frost. Fruits begin to ripen very early in the season, with strawberries in late June and early July, so they sidestep a lot of issues, including spotted wing drosophila (SWD).

Their full, rich flavor attracts those interested in value-added products. They’re a little intense for some people, Stevens noted, but their complex flavor shines through and is unique in baked goods, preserves or beverages. “Chefs love them,” he said. “They’re as sweet as a wine grape, and a winery in Meredith, N.H., is making a good honeyberry wine. Once people know about their positive attributes, I can foresee greater demand.”

Stevens knows of one commercial honeyberry producer in North Sandwich, N.H., and some significant acreage is being planted in Aroostook County, probably for the wholesale commodity market rather than the niche wholesale market that he’s targeting. Canada is putting in hundreds of acres, mostly to export to Japan.

The North Sandwich growers sell berries for over $5 per pound frozen in 25-pound bulk quantities. Stevens gets $7 or $8 per pound (about a pint) when he delivers fresh berries to restaurants. He expects yields of 5 to 10 pounds per bush eventually, with 500 to 700 bushes per acre.

Deer will nibble on honeyberries. Birds like the fruit, and the berries need to hang on the bush for at least a week or two for optimal sweetness. (Stevens tests them, looking for 18 to 20 Brix.) He nets the rows to avoid predation by birds while sweetness develops.

Japanese varieties produce a larger, sweeter berry, but they ripen later, so Stevens is holding off on them. The University of Saskatchewan is breeding honeyberries. Stevens has heard that the Tundra variety is durable and amenable to commercial shake harvesting, and that newer varieties (especially Aurora) are larger and sweeter.

Hardy Kiwi

Hardy kiwi can be produced without any sprays, and few insects bother it. Japanese beetles will feed on the upper foliage.

Stevens grows Arctic kiwi (Actinidia kolomikta), the hardiest of his varieties, which is adapted to semi-shade and ripens in August. The fruit is about the size of the end of a pinky finger, and the vines aren’t as vigorous as those of A. polygama and A. arguta.

The silver vine (Actinidia polygama), also a semi-shade plant, has yellow fruits that are pointed at one end. Some have a spicy flavor. The leaves have a similar effect on cats as catnip. Stevens said that A. kolomikta and A. polygama are good plants for homeowners.

The  hardy kiwi (A. arguta) has potential for a commercial orchard. The University of New Hampshire is working with hardy kiwi production and published “Growing Kiwiberries in New England – An online guide for regional producers” (http://www.noreastkiwiberries.com/).

Hardy kiwis need a good trellis to support their vigorous, lush vines and up to 100 pounds of fruit per vine. The vines need to be pruned rigorously at least once and maybe two or three times per year, said Stevens.

Kiwis can be picked once they are physiologically mature and before they’re ripe. Growers can test their maturity by Brix or by observing whether the seed coat has turned from yellow to brown or black. They will ripen in refrigeration or on the counter and can keep for up to six months in a climate-controlled refrigerator. They taste like a regular kiwi but are better because you don’t have to peel them, said Stevens They typically ripen in September.

Asked about the potential for hardy kiwi to be invasive, Stevens said that a recent study determined that it was not a threat in Massachusetts, where it is not spreading by seed. The plant has become problematic on neglected estates where the vines layer themselves into the soil and form dense mats. “Be friends with your pruners,” said Stevens.

Other Crops

Stevens is also cautiously optimistic about American persimmons in his area, with its hot summer. (They may not do well in cooler, coastal areas). The plants are pest-free and unique. He has also planted several species of hazelnuts, which start producing crops relatively quickly and are delicious.

Molly DellaRoman and Tim Skillin grow fruits and perennial stock at their 5 Star Orchard in Brooklin, Maine. Photo by Dawnielle Peck
Molly DellaRoman and Tim Skillin grow fruits and perennial stock at their 5 Star Orchard in Brooklin, Maine. Photo by Dawnielle Peck
 

5 Star Orchard

Molly DellaRoman and Tim Skillin grow fruits and perennial stock at their 5 Star Orchard in Brooklin, Maine. They purchased the MOFGA-certified organic orchard in 2017. DellaRoman had been a vegetable farmer for 15 years before that, and Skillin had worked for a health care company for 30 years when they decided to make career changes.

The 3 acres of productive commercial orchard grow 30 to 40 varieties of heritage apples, about 60 peach trees, European and Asian pears, and plums. The farmers grow mixed crops outside of the orchard and are planting between fruit tree rows. Fresh apples, peaches, plums and pears currently makes up most of their sales.

Pawpaws did not do well on their land with its cold spring weather. Persimmons are doing a little better.

To make cider, vinegar and hard cider, they had to become a licensed juice facility, which included having a septic tank installed. They can now sell unpasteurized cider off the farm. Their apples that are not good enough to sell fresh can go into the cider.

They’re working on dried apples and peaches to sell at spring and summer farmers’ markets.

DellaRoman said they’ve added strawberries, raspberries, highbush blueberries and elderberries to the crop mix to shift the harvest to coincide with summer visitors. They use their land intensively, with asparagus planted right up to the orchard and strawberries planted wherever they fit. Skillin said they hope to get an NRCS grant to install a culvert for drainage so that they have another half acre suitable for planting raspberries and other berries.

They put raspberries between small, newly planted plum trees also so that they can get a crop from that land while they wait for the plums to produce.

They are working with a pig farmer to expand the orchard area so that they can add apple cider varieties.

An area with low-growing native shrubs serves pollinators, beneficial insects and birds, and holds their native perennial nursery – their second best income producer after the orchard and an increasingly viable part of the farm. The farmers have been working with the Maine-based Wild Seed Project to start their perennial nursery, and now they have about an acre of plants from which they can collect seed and cuttings. They grow native varieties, not cultivars. The began with native flowers but then found that native shrubs, such as dogwoods, beach plums and native roses, are also in demand.

Seeds of many natives need to be cold stratified to germinate, so DellaRoman sows them in November or December and leaves them outside with screening over them for protection from squirrels. She covers them with a thick ground cloth cover, such as heavy-duty Agribon, for winter protection.

Perennials fit well into their orchard system because they grow in small pots and need only a small strip of material such as cardboard or landscape fabric to keep grass down. In one strip they get $10 per pot, generating a lot of money from a small space.

Skillin said that people are becoming educated about planting native species, and DellaRoman added that landscapers are coming to them because their customers are asking them to plant natives. While nursery trees aren’t ready to sell for two to three years, perennials are ready in one year – and they don’t need a greenhouse.

Different crops have different soil needs, said Skillin, so that has to be balanced in a multicropping system. Also, interplanting can be somewhat limited by cultural practices, such as the peastone gravel they put around fruit trees. “We don’t want to invite borers, so we don’t plant anything close to trunks. Sanitation in an organic orchard is huge,” said DellaRoman They plant in rows to facilitate mowing. Overall, having numerous products creates a steeper learning curve, Skillin said.

According to Skillin, 3 acres is about the limit two people can manage without hiring help.

Farmers’ markets are a big part of their sales, DellaRoman continued. They also have a small, self-serve farm stand on the property, and the farmers go as far as Portland with their fruit, mostly to co-ops, which pay better than some other outlets. They sell to some restaurants, and breweries are a big market for their peaches, including seconds.

Given their total land area of 17 acres, they are interested in ecotourism. Both are avid bird watchers and volunteer with DownEast Audubon, so they would like to extend their farm season by incorporating nature walks on the land.

The previous owners focused on fruit trees and then added vinegar. By diversifying even more, Skillin and DellaRoman are spreading the risk. Some years apples produce heavily, while other years they don’t. Their marketing season begins with nursery trees, then perennials, followed by berries, peaches and apples. Because of that diverse and steadier income, they have almost eliminated their need for off-farm jobs.