Tom Burch admits that he and his wife Cathy knew almost nothing about growing fruit when they acquired their orchard in Marietta, Ohio.
“We started operating in the 2011 season,” said Tom. “Fortunately, the previous owners were able to act as consultants the first year, and they had a good program to help us get started. It was a steep learning curve — we learned a lot, made plenty of mistakes and we’re still making them.” As they got started, the Burches found the Ohio Fruit Growers were helpful in providing guidance, especially with pruning and IPM. Tom says he appreciates the expert help from Ohio State University extension.
Although Hidden Hills Orchard’s main crop is apples, they also grow sweet cherries, tart cherries and peaches. Peach varieties include Glowing Star and Blazing Star, which yield several thousand pounds of fruit each season. “In this part of the country, it’s difficult to grow peaches because of the weather,” said Tom. “They’re subject to winter kill and late frost. We warm up faster than most of the state, then get hit by cold nights.” Since peaches don’t ripen all at the same time, they’re not offered as a you-pick option.
Last year, Hidden Hills offered you-pick cherries, which was popular with customers. However, Tom says the recent rough winter means no cherries this season. In an ideal season, ripening is spread out, so there’s a smooth transition from one fruit to the next. “Cherries are ready the first two weeks of June, peaches come in late July through August, then we start on apples,” said Tom. “There isn’t too much overlap.”
Hidden Hills’ apples are grown in a high-density system with up to 1,089 trees/acre. Most varieties are on Bud 9 rootstock, which Tom says is a good choice for the clay soil. Trees are spaced five feet apart, supported by wire trellises and poles. “The nice thing about dwarf trees is that it’s easy for U-pick,” said Tom. “If the trees are properly pruned, we can pick 75 to 80 percent of the crop without picking poles or ladders.”
Tom noted that he didn’t have to blossom thin apples this year, except for Granny Smith. “Everything was hit hard by either being biennial bearing or the mid-April frost,” he said. “We might go through and knock down a few clusters, but not many.” Like many other growers this season, Tom has spent a lot of time trimming out fire blight. He noted that certain varieties seem to be more susceptible to fire blight, including SunCrisp® in third leaf.
Hidden Hills offers U-pick apples starting with Buckeye® Gala in early September to Gold Rush that’s ready mid to late October. “People like the older apple varieties, but also like newer varieties like Honeycrisp,” said Tom. “They don’t all ripen at the same time, but we coach people through that.” New plantings of Pink Lady® and Suncrisp® where infrastructure is already in place help fill in spots where trees have been removed.
U-pick apples are sold by the pound, which makes it convenient for customers who want to purchase just a few pounds for making apple butter and applesauce. Hidden Hills sells wholesale to several supermarkets, to local colleges that want to offer locally grown fruit to students and the farmers market in Marietta. Tom says customers ask a lot of questions about growing practices, but added that meeting and talking with the farm owner helps them understand growing practices.
In addition to in-season fruit, customers who visit the weekly farmers’ market enjoy Hidden Hills’ applesauce, apple salsa and cider. Hidden Hills cider was awarded the gold medal in the 2013 apple cider contest sponsored by Ohio Apples. “The cider is made on the farm,” said Tom. “It’s UV treated — that way we can wholesale and retail it.”
Although Tom has used rented honeybees in the past, this year he relied exclusively on natives. “It’s amazing how many different types of natives I saw this year,” he said. “We saw mason bees, and we’ve seen bumble bees, moths and other pollinators.” Mason bees have established themselves in plastic boxes with tubes, and Tom plans to make more since they seem to work well. Boxes are placed so the bees can obtain early pollen from a nearby willow tree.
Tom says plum curculio is one of the most challenging pests in his orchard. “If I don’t keep after them, we get a lot of scars on the apples,” he said. “We’re surrounded by woods, and I think that’s part of the problem. Mating disruption works well to control coddling moth and oriental fruit moth. I don’t have to worry about degree days, and I don’t time any sprays, but it leaves us a little more vulnerable to stinkbugs.” Tom says he’s heard a lot of tips for managing the BMSB at extension meetings, and noted that the perimeter spray he used last year helped keep the BMSB out of the orchard.
Challenges to successful growing include dealing with hilly terrain, ruts, clay soil and water ponding. “It’s a combination of the soil type and rows that are so close together that it’s hard to get the tractor in,” said Tom, adding that he plans to install drains to help with water control.
To help keep energy costs in check, a 6,000 square foot solar system was installed in July 2011. The system is mounted on the packing house, which is oriented for the most efficient light collection. Tom says the system runs on overcast days, and collects scattered light late in the day. “We have a net meter — we build credit and then debit that credit when we’re in the main part of the season,” he explained. “It works out to be about neutral.”
The system provides about 95 percent of the energy required for the packing house operation, including power for the walk-in cooler, which the Burches start during peach season and run until the end of the season — around Dec. 15th. Hidden Hills Farm has participated in the Green Energy Ohio tour every year since the installation.