Dec 3, 2010
Organic tree fruit growers get together

Not only is it possible to grow organic tree fruit commercially in the humid Midwest, there’s actually a big demand for it. More organic growers are needed, though, and those that exist could always use more knowledge.

That’s where the Organic Tree Fruit Association (OTFA) comes in. A group of several dozen growers in the Midwest, the association focuses on education, research and advocacy for commercial organic tree fruit production, said Jackie Hoch, the association’s president.

With her husband, Harry Hoch, Jackie runs Hoch Orchard and Gardens, a certified organic fruit farm in the southeast corner of Minnesota. She gave a brief history of OTFA.

A few years ago, Deirdre Birmingham, an aspiring organic tree fruit grower from Wisconsin, posted a notice at the annual conference of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). She was looking for others interested in growing organic tree fruit. The group that responded to her notice became the Midwest Organic Tree Fruit Growers Network, a listserv that now has more than 700 members worldwide, Jackie said.

Three years ago, a group of growers within the network decided to form an association with more specific goals, one focused on the needs of those who produce organic tree fruit as a business. That was the birth of OTFA.

The association now has more than 50 members, most of them either certified organic or in transition. Their farms and orchards range across the Midwest, from Missouri and Minnesota to Michigan. Such a vast geographic spread makes it difficult, but beneficial, for the members to get together, Jackie said.

As for OTFA’s three main focus areas – education, research and advocacy – the association has nailed down the first category pretty well, but has some work to do with the last two, she said.

OTFA works closely with MOSES, university and Extension personnel to meet its goals. It publishes a quarterly newsletter called Just Picked; it organizes educational events every year, where experienced growers and researchers share information on all aspects of organic tree fruit production – from growing techniques to dealing with paperwork (the association plans to host a seminar during the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO this month). OTFA members are actively seeking university and Extension research projects to host on their farms, according to Jackie.

OTFA members meet every February during MOSES’ annual conference in La Crosse, Wis. They also organize at least two summer tours every year. Members have to pay annual dues, she said.

As the owners of an organic orchard, Jackie and her husband know firsthand that markets are hungry for organic tree fruit. Their entire operation became certified this year, from their 45 acres of fruit to their on-farm processing, packing and distributing facilities, which produce cider, juice, sauces, jellies and preserves for the wholesale market.
The Hochs grow berries, cherries, plums, apricots and grapes, but their main crop is apples. They grow more than 50 varieties, according to their orchard’s website.

Jackie thinks her orchard is healthier using certified organic growing techniques – but that’s just an observation. She can’t prove it scientifically, she said.

They decided to go fully organic three years ago, and became completely certified this year. It wasn’t just a philosophical decision. They were convinced the transition could work for them financially, and it has. They don’t need off-farm jobs anymore to support themselves (they even have a daughter in college), she said.

In fact, they’re not even close to fulfilling the demand for organic fruit that’s out there. Jackie isn’t sure how big organic tree fruit farming can be in the Midwest, but she said there’s plenty of room for growth.

Matt Milkovich

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