Feb 11, 2024Frecon Farms: 8 decades of Pennsylvania apples
Sustaining soil health is a key ingredient in Frecon Farms’ success.
The third-generation farming operation, which grows apples and peaches, began in 1944 in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, 37 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Frecon Farms, which celebrates its 80th year this year, also grows blueberries and smaller volumes of cherries, plums and nectarines.
Because of an unfavorable climate, cherries, pears and plums can be unreliable crops in Pennsylvania. Freezing temperatures can devastate a plum crop. Though cherries may look well, an afternoon storm can destroy them all.
Steve Frecon described growing cherries like a volatile relationship.
“When you’re ready to give up on it, then they’re nice to you, so you go back,” he said. “Cherries for me have been heartbreaking.”
Frecon employs traditional soil amendments, pulling soil samples from 1- to 2-acre blocks across his properties. The testing reveals significant orchard differences, allowing tailored fertilizer programs for trees planted in heavier clay soils, which possess different nutritional needs than trees planted in more loamy soils.
Because soil variations produce tree tissue variations, Frecon works to understand a tree’s unique growing environment and adjusts accordingly.
Returning to the soil
As a child, Frecon remembers his family disposing of large limbs and pruning waste. Today, everything remains in the orchard. Chippers process pruning decomposition. A 2-acre block of nectarines Frecon recently removed was ground, chipped and fed back into the soil.
Frecon works large volumes of compost from local nurseries and leaf cleanup crews into the soil where old apple and peach blocks were removed.
“Along with the organic material we’re adding back into it, it’s just a much better way of enhancing the soils,” he said. “I feel like we’re never going to make it up on our own. The opportunity to get some of that free compost and plow it in and add a lot of organic matter when we’re starting from scratch with new blocks is really important.”
Blowing grass clippings back into the orchard rows under the trees helps build stored nitrogen.
“The more we can do things like that, the stronger our soils will be,” Frecon said. “Aside from all the implements and things we can add, a healthy tree is what’s going to produce your best crop. Healthy trees start in the soil.”
Frecon began introducing mulches and composts into the soils in 2016. He adapted blueberry composting techniques to tree fruit orchards. The importance of mulching was one of the first things he was advised on when he began
growing a small patch of blueberries. After a decade of mulching his blueberries, Frecon’s bushes often don’t require irrigation. In 2023, Frecon Farms picked more blueberries than ever.
Installing an irrigation system for fertigation will be Frecon’s next upgrade. Because the orchards receive adequate rain, Frecon limits irrigation. He wants to employ the science behind the soil to precisely feed his trees when required.
Orchard machinery improvements are increasing the success of growing orchards on slopes. The Frecon family phased out two-wheel drive tractors for compact tractors more suited to the orchard’s hills and slopes.
Sorghum and rye are Frecon’s main cover crops. The cycle of sorghum planting, mowing and decomposition is repeated.
Difficult growing environment
In southeast Pennsylvania, rain and heat can foster insects and disease. Moisture, from rain or humidity, can cause an explosion of diseases, including apple scab.
Bacterial spot is usually an issue, but wasn’t in 2023. The best thing a grower can do to prevent perennial weeds from establishing themselves is to work proactively during planting. Start with a clean slate by making sure early tree plantings are immediately treated with pre-emergent herbicides, Frecon said.
Frecon plants trees 18 to 24 inches apart, with 11-12 feet between rows — tight spacings on challenging slopes. Because of the steep terrain, instead of weaving trellis wire between posts, Frecon runs wire on the uphill side of the posts, and then plants the tree on the uphill side of that trellis wire. Instead of pulling from the post, trees leaning onto the posts offer mechanical and support advantages.
Frecon Farms added u-pick in 2004. While agritourism helps the consumer better understand agriculture, it is costly to operate.
“What we love about agritourism is it connects the pieces together,” he said. “When a school kid in Philadelphia or Reading who is getting our apples in their school lunches can actually make a trip out to the orchard and view it in person, they gain a direct relationship to agriculture. It has to be good for us and the whole agriculture industry.”
Frecon’s 2011 entrance into hard cider processing was an eye-opener. After discovering he wasn’t growing the right apples for fermenting, Frecon found that heirloom varieties are important to adding cider character and quality, with Jonagolds and Goldrushes producing tasty cider. The busy cider season coincides with apple harvesting. September and October public events are simultaneous with bottling and when growers are busy with apple orders.
“We had to work on diversifying the apples we grow to make a better cider,” he said. “We thought it would be a lot easier than fruit growing, but it turned out to be challenging. It’s a great business to be in, but it isn’t as easy as one might expect.”
When Frecon graduated from high school in 1997, he saw limited orchard opportunities. By generating more community farmers markets and opportunities to sell directly to consumers, the local movement changed the industry and prompted him to leave his financial technology career in Manhattan, New York, and return to run the family farm. He applies his spreadsheets and budgets experience to farming.
Frecon recommends growers seek advice from other growers.
“I get so much advice and guidance from so many older growers and people in the industry,” he said. “You must be willing to work with your neighbors and have an open mind to see what’s going on around you and a willingness to talk about your problems, as others may face similar challenges.
“Because we work by ourselves in this big, vast open space all the time, we as fruit growers have a tendency to not reach out for help and share information,” he said. “The more we stick together and work together, especially at my size of operation, the better we’re all going to be.”