Hilltop Community Farm, in La Valle, WI, is true to its name in more ways than one. Not only is community-building a part of their farm’s mission, it is also how they grow. By building forest garden communities — called guilds — farmers Erin Schneider and Rob McClure have created a multi-layered permaculture orchard of unusual fruits. And they’ve utilized these fruits to invite farmers and consumers out to their CSA farm, to learn how it is done, assess the market and pricing potential of these uncommon fruits, and to taste the results.
While their one-acre orchard of unusual fruits may be small in comparison to your average tree fruit orchard, it packs a big punch. The orchard served as the basis for several Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grants, addressing the feasibility of growing unusual fruit in an agroforestry environment. With the goals of utilizing small fruits to increase farm resilience, to offer customers a wider-range of locally-grown fruits, and to enhance the orchard ecosystem, the couple designed their one-acre orchard around forest garden guilds.
Building the Forest Guild
“A forest garden guild is not a new idea, but an idea whose time has come,” Schneider said. “We can consciously apply the principles of forest ecology, structure and function to our farm and garden landscapes. The advantage for forest garden guilds is that we can stack functions, planting fruit trees and shrubs that are good for fresh eating, for value-added products, and serve a niche in the landscape.”
The guilds are designed to include overstory, shrub, understory and groundcover layers. The mix of species is complementary. Rather than compete for resources, the relationships are mutually beneficial. Having plants which serve dual functions for food as well as fuel, fiber, fertilizer or medicinal purposes, is also a part of the forest garden guild philosophy.
Schneider and McClure planted 358 trees and shrubs in the orchard. They planted in four different planting strips, incorporating a total of 23 forest garden guilds. Fruit trees — primarily quince, with a few apple, cherry, apricot and persimmon — are planted as the overstory. The shrub layer includes a mix of unusual fruits. Two dozen seaberry, elderberry, saskatoon, honeyberrry and hazelnuts were planted, along with 60 currants and 60 aronia berry bushes. Elderberry serves in a pest management capacity, and is medicinal. Seaberry is nitrogen fixing shrub.
In each guild, currants and honeyberries are planted along a northern drip line, with aronia plants on the southern drip line, all on five foot centers. Fruit trees are at the center of the guild. Elderberry is planted at the northernmost tip, while seaberry is at the southern tip. Saskatoons are on the northeast corner.
In the guilds, the understory and groundcover layers include plants which enhance fertility by capturing macro and micro nutrients. These serve as cover crops, green manures and companion plants in the orchard. Rather than a traditional herbicide strip under the fruit trees and berry bushes, comfrey, lovage, clover, blue false indigo, chives, dill, yarrow, coneflower, butterfly weed, aster, phlox, fescues and perennial rye keep the ground covered. These plants help attract pollinators and beneficial insects, prevent erosion and enhance soil fertility. “Once established, maintenance needs are minimal,” Schneider said of the forest garden guilds. Harvesting, monitoring for disease and insects, and pruning are the routine needs.
Other areas of the farm include more traditional fruits, such as apple, pear, peach and plums trees. These fruit trees are also planted in guilds. Some guilds incorporate culinary herbs, vegetables and native cut flowers, which are a part of the farm’s CSA offerings. They also have raspberry and blackberry bushes, along with hops, kiwi and grapevines.
Marketing Uncommon Fruit
Perennial fruiting plants don’t require annual tillage and cultivation, and thus are more friendly to the soil from a conservation standpoint. By mixing types of fruit trees, the risk of crop loss from weather, disease or insect pressure is decreased. And, with a selection of fruits available throughout the growing season, a mixed fruit orchard can provide added interest for CSA customers. “We wanted to experiment with fruits that are high-yielding, growing-friendly with not a lot of inputs needed, and exceptionally nutritious,” Schneider explained. Offering a full season of fruit, from June-October, was an important consideration, too.
The marketing aspect of the fruits has been a major portion of the SARE-funded research. Data collected from participatory events has indicated that lack of knowledge about unusual fruits, limited access to these fruits, and uncertainty about their culinary uses were barriers to selling uncommon fruits. Customers were willing to pay more for these fruits once they were educated about their uses and nutritional value, potentially allowing small farmers to add these fruits profitably to their diverse operations.
“When people have a chance to taste the fruit, and talk with the farmer, they’ll spend extra time and money,” Schneider said. “Teaming up with a local chef, having a pie contest, and sharing recipes are all fun ways to encourage people to both try new fruits and realize that it is easy to cook with and enjoy these fruits.”
Hilltop Community Farm hosts annual on-farm events for both farmers and consumers, with events attracting an equal number of both segments of the community. On-farm planting events, picnics and tasting events, and workshops on growing unusual fruit have all been a part of the farm’s community-building focus.
While customers are intrigued to try unusual fruits once, the challenge is turning them into repeat customers. Schneider has used several strategies to attempt to make uncommon fruits more popular. Their “Currantcy” program allows customers to purchase “fruit bucks” which can be spent throughout the season on any of the farm’s fruits. They also sell fruit in bulk to retail customers, and have several wholesale outlets as well.
“Overall, fruit sells! It is less disruptive to soil systems, and yields a greater energy in terms of labor/energy input to food/calorie output, often 14 times greater return per square foot than annuals,” Schneider said. “Having fruit on our farm has enabled us to remain farming for the long haul.”
They’ve put together data on their return on investment as a part of their SARE report, to serve as a guide for other small farmers interested in the potential benefits of adding unusual fruit to diversify their farms. They’ve also designed fruit cards, which explain the characteristics of each fruit for consumers, and have recipe cards to give to customers.
“Start small, fuse unusual fruits into existing marketing channels. Expect to spend 25 percent of your budget on education and marketing efforts,” Schneider said. “The rewards are worth it in building long-lasting relationships and really getting a fine-tuned sense of where fruit fits into your farm mix.”
For more information visit www.hilltopcommunityfarm.org .