LA CRESENT, Minn. — There’s more going on at Hoch Orchard and Garden than the name suggests. Harry and Jackie Hoch raise over 50 apple varieties on their farm, two acres of wine grapes, cherries, plums, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and apricots — all organic. There is also a herd of swine.
The farm is intended to be a pretty complex operation, admit the Hochs. They call the complexity “bio-diverse” and it goes beyond the wide diversity of crops.
“We time the mowing in our orchards to allow ground cover plants to always be flowering,” Harry said. “Regular mowing selects for a few species of grasses, but our orchard floor is covered with many types of plants in addition to grasses. The flowering plants are a pollen and nectar source for insects that are beneficial to the orchard. Greater diversity of plants and insects makes for a healthier orchard.”
The Hochs also rotate pigs through the orchards.
“The pigs clean up fallen apples and that stops the life cycle of apple pests that go through part of their development in the fallen fruit,” Harry said. “Pigs will also cultivate the soil under the trees. Their fresh manure fertilizes the soil and attracts soil organisms that loosen and aerate the soil.”
Building up the health and biological diversity of the soil is the key to a healthy organic and bio-diverse orchard which produces delicious fruit.
“We focus on building a strong soil and apply compost tea to enhance the proper biology in the soil,” Harry said. “Adding nitrogen with synthetic fertilizers or commercial composts can increase apple growth too much and basically water down the flavor components in the apples. We do not add fertilizer or commercial compost to the orchards.”
Another soil health measure practiced by the Hochs is to shred pruning from the trees and leave them in place rather than haul them away.
“Prunings decompose quickly when chopped with a flail mower,” Harry said. “There are a lot of nutrients in small branches. The woody material enhances the fungal portion of the soil organisms.”
Following all these ecological practices doesn’t mean that Hoch Orchard and Garden doesn’t have insect and disease problems.
“The last few years the challenge has been figuring out how the high heat and record rainfall will affect the pest activity,” Harry said. “We already use weather data loggers and computer modeling and insect monitoring to pinpoint the timing of pesticide applications. Even with that, getting the necessary organic pesticides applied between the rains has been challenging.”
Some apple varieties simply don’t do well in an organic orchard in southeastern Minnesota. So they are simply eliminated from the orchard.
“There are some fruits and some varieties of apples that require too many inputs in an organic system in our climate,” Harry says. “It’s not worth it in that case. The solution to that problem is don’t try to grow crops that are not well adapted to our region.”
“McIntosh and Cortland are common varieties, but very susceptible to apple scab,” he said. “Gold Rush is immune to apple scab but highly susceptible to cedar apple rust.”
Significant portions of those varieties have been removed from Hoch’s orchard, although Henry says there are still a few here and there on the farm.
Biological and crop diversity make for a healthier and more resilient orchard. The crop diversity also makes good business sense, according to Harry.
“We are delivering fresh fruit from June through October, and stored fruit through the winter,” he said. “As a consequence we utilize our equipment and facilities almost all season long.”
That means that Hoch’s customers (which include area food cooperatives as well as the regional distributor Coop Partners) are supplied with fresh, locally-produced fruit for more than half the year. Harry does point out some fruits and apple varieties are only available seasonally and supplies may be limited later in the season.
“We start harvesting strawberries in late May or early June,” Harry said. “Before the strawberries finish, we start on red raspberries and then blueberries. The black, purple, and yellow raspberries come after the early reds. Cherry plums overlap the berries and then the American hybrid plums start and continue to ripen into early September overlapping the summer apples. The high quality fall apples begin in mid September and then the winter apples are harvested in October. Winter apples are kept cool and crisp in our refrigerated storage and are sold into January.”
The crop diversity and the long harvest and storage season have another advantage.
“Small fruit production requires a lot of labor,” Harry says. We can hire workers eight to ten months in a year with a diversity of crops. With only apples we would have to hire a bunch of people for only a few weeks. This is an ethical question for us. Do you design your business to require short term migrant workers or for more stable employment for people from your community?”
Harry says the extra paper work and more intensive, and sometimes more expensive, management of fruit crops are well worth it. That’s especially true since organic shoppers recognize the value of the organic label and are willing to pay a premium price for it.
The website for Hoch Orchard and Garden is hochorchard.com.