Lloyd Dyck of Fall River, Nova Scotia, a member of a tour sponsored by the International Dwarf Fruit Tree Association that stopped at Melick’s Town Farm in Tewksbury, photographs some Japanese beetles on the limb of a red delicious apple tree yesterday.  The group, made up of farmers from as far away as Canada, Italy, and Australia, visited four New Jersey orchards in two days to learn how they stay in business.

Peter Melick of Melick’s Town Farm shows one of the Hagrove growing tunnels to an international group.  The tunnels allow a growing season to be extended by protecting plants against frost.

Farm fours cultivate global interest


    Tree growers from around the nation have converged this week on New Jersey and New York to tour the states’ dwindling number of orchards and study how those farmers that remain have thrived on the growing interest in “pick-your-own” fields and farm markets.
    “One of the things that we’re focusing on is marketing, and New Jersey is just perfect for that,” said Susan Pheasant of Wenatchee, Wash., executive director of the International Dwarf Fruit Tree Association, which is running the tree-growers tour.

/news-article/small-news.jpg“The competition worldwide is more intense,” she said.  “But I’m amazed at the number of people that go through these farm stands.  When you have 500,000 people going through your family farm, that’s incredible.”
Win Cowgill, Hunterdon County’s agricultural agent, said the farmers that have adapted to the changing economics of the orchard industry are the ones that have survived.

“Particularly in North Jersey, growers were pretty good in realizing 30, 40 years ago that they couldn’t compete against high-volume” agribusiness from around the globe, he said.  As the rural land base was hacked up by development, small fruit growers cut their overhead by selling directly.
“Half of my fruit and vegetable growers go into New York,” selling at venues like the Union Square Greenmarket, one of the stops on the tour, Cowgill said.  Others, like Pam and Gary Mount at Terhune Orchards in Lawrence Township or the Melick family in Tewksbury, reach customers directly through farm markets and “pick-your-own” fields and orchards.

“With more direct marketing you get a better price for the product,” said Bastian Blok of Ada, Mich.  But in a relatively less developed part of the country outside Grand Rapids, his farm market accounts for only about 20 percent of sales. “We’re off the beaten path,” said his wife, Anna. “But we’re seeing more traffic because the beaten path is getting so busy.” Making his first visit to the United States, Stephen Vigiliatoro of Mooroopna, Australia, found the farms interesting, but foreign.

“A lot of things, we do way different,” he said.  “We have different diseases, different weather conditions, different practices, we don’t put trees as close.” Vigiliatoro “gets together in the off season to discuss problems” with other young growers from Victoria.  It was a  logical step to extend those chats to discussions with other growers from all over the world, he said. “In this business, you learn, learn, learn,” said George Melick, a Hunterdon County freeholder whose family has been farming in Tewksbury for 10 generations.

The International Dwarf Fruit Tree Association has about 800 members, with farms ranging from 20 acres to thousands, around the world.  An upcoming tour will take participants to Chinese orchards. Wally Heuser launched the association in 1958 because growers in his area around Lawrence, Mich., were interested in dwarf trees, but worried about how to plant and cultivate them, he said.  A “big monster standard tree” could grow 40 feet tall or higher, Cowgill said, but their spreading branches might only allow 40 to be planted per acre.  Dwarf varieties grow 8 or 9 feet tall, “but you can fit 350 to 1,000 of them, so it’s a lot more intense,” he said.

A new graduate of Michigan State, where he had studied dwarf trees with renowned horticulturist H.B. Tukey, Heuser began hosting meetings with the local agriculture agent and other growers. “We’d sit around on crates in our cold storage,” but when 400 people showed up to hear a visiting British researcher, Heuser knew it was time for a more formal organization.