by Sally Colby
Growing organic fruit adds value to the end product, but the Berger family is taking value-added a step further. Jesse and Carol Berger and their son Griffin operate Sauk Farm in Concrete, WA. The Bergers first grew grain on the former cattle farm, but Griffin said that venture wasn’t profitable.
“I decided to go to Washington State University to learn more about fruits and vegetables,” said Griffin, adding that his parents encouraged him to pursue that field. “I wanted to learn everything possible about growing and start doing more on the farm.”
In 2009, the family established their first vineyard block to produce wine grapes for themselves and local wineries. “Unfortunately, the vines succumbed to young vine decline,” said Griffin. “We replanted and the same thing happened. It took us a while to find varieties that worked, and we’re still trying to figure out the right table grapes for our area. We’re aiming for tonnage.”
The Bergers started growing table grapes to fulfill a request from the local co-op. They selected several varieties that fit the growing degree day requirements including Jupiter, Vanessa and Einset Seedless. When the fruiting buds of Vanessa wouldn’t set, those were pulled. Jupiter does well but doesn’t produce large clusters until the vines are mature. This season, Griffin plans to tweak plant nutrition for better performance.
Although Griffin sold grapes to the co-op one year, he used last year’s grape harvest for Sauk Farm’s red grape cider. “It’s worth more for us to make it into juice mixed with our other wine grapes for our own value-added products,” he said.
In 2013, the first block of apples was established. Griffin is increasing the size of the apple orchard by several blocks each year. He’s concentrating on dessert-style apples including Honeycrisp, Cosmic Crisp®, Ambrosia, Gala, Jonagold, WineCrispÔ and several crabapple varieties.
Griffin agrees with growers who say Honeycrisp is difficult to grow and requires extra management, but he isn’t deterred. “We’ve had great success growing Honeycrisp organically,” he said. “Our biggest problem is early fruit drop, but we can pick up the fruit, press it and sell it for hard cider.”
Bitter pit is also an issue with Honeycrisp, but foliar and root drip calcium applications have helped. “We soil apply it as calcium carbonate for 10 to 14 pounds of elemental calcium during the growing season,” said Griffin, “half foliar and half soil at critical periods when plants are taking up calcium – about six weeks post-bloom.”
Peaches at Sauk Farm include Harken, Redhaven, Cresthaven, Sierra Rich, Sweet Dream and Frost. Griffin said the peaches are doing well so far, but the oldest block is just four years old so they haven’t come into full production yet. “We’re pruning them correctly and we have peach leaf curl under control,” he said. “They are pruned in summer, then we thin the shoots to get good light because the fruiting buds only develop with UV light.”
The Bergers started to transition to organic production in 2015. Griffin said insect and disease challenges are the same for conventional and organic growers, but organic requires more diligent monitoring, overall cultural practices and inputs. “We’ve found good work-arounds and seen good results,” he said. “We aren’t up to conventional yield yet, but we’re getting closer as we refine nutrient blends.”
To ensure adequate nutrition for trees, Griffin tests soil samples in each block every year and does foliar tests at the same time to fine-tune his nutrition program. He also does fruitlet sampling so he can adjust plant nutrition at one of the most critical phases of fruit formation.
Griffin knows what has been spent on every aspect of the business, down to the penny, on everything from labor to infrastructure and nursery stock. “That’s important so we know what makes us money and what doesn’t,” he said. “Tracking inputs takes time, but it’s as important as trialing potential new varieties.”
Careful tracking helped the Bergers determine that value-added products would benefit their bottom line. For their first effort, they partnered with another grower to purchase a press and borrowed a grinder. “We made apple cider for ourselves, then fermented it for hard cider,” said Griffin. “We realized we’d always have culls and seconds, so in 2017 we built a processing facility so we could make juice and dried fruit.”
After deciding to fully pursue value-added products, the Bergers replaced an old barn with a mixed-use agricultural building, which Griffin described as a pole building with a concrete floor. “It was built on a hope and a prayer, without any contracts for sales,” he said. “My dad hired a consultant who was adamant that we put in a three-compartment sink, slope the floor, put in floor drains and other features. We used the facility for a while as a workshop, but when we decided to do value-added, we had everything we needed.”
To determine how to set up and manage various aspects of the processing area, Griffin took a course to become a Preventative Control Qualified Individual (PCQI). Sauk Farm’s product line includes apple and grape cider, dried apples, apple and grape powder, and apple and grape verjus.
“Grape juice is filtered; grape cider is not,” Griffin said. “Verjus is made from green, unripe fruit. Instead of thinning and dropping fruit to the ground, we put it in bins and use it for verjus. It’s the hardest to sell because people don’t know what it is.” They were introduced to verjus by a company that wanted the product and purchased 800 gallons, but Griffin decided they should make it to sell through their own outlets. However, verjus is difficult to sell and requires a lot of education and more marketing effort.
Making fruit powder was an easy choice for the Bergers since there was plenty of fruit pulp from pressing that they didn’t want to waste. “We noticed that apple powder was in a lot of health food mixes and blends,” said Griffin. “It’s high in digestible fiber.” Apple powder includes every part of the pomace – skin, core and stems. Griffin said testing showed arsenic levels far below acceptable levels.
“Apple powder is good in smoothies and as a thickener,” said Griffin. “It was a diamond we didn’t expect.” Although the family invested in a grinder and packaging for powder before knowing how well the product would sell, fruit powder is now selling out through Amazon.
Their value-added processes result in very little waste, and they’re even using the cores of dried apples. “We’ve dried the cores and they’re crunchy and caramelly,” he said. “The core has interesting flavors, but it takes a lot of selling and marketing – something to work on for the future.”
One new product is apple caramels made from just apples. “When we dry apples, some of the juice comes out and falls to the bottom pan,” Griffin explained. “It’s like a fruit roll-up. We save that, boil it, then fold it like taffy. It’s a shiny brown color and makes a delicious, tart and sweet treat, and it’s nothing but Honeycrisp apples.”
Since Honeycrisp are one of the most profitable apples, Griffin plans to add more. “We already made the mistakes of small plantings,” he said. “We also plan to focus on more Cosmic Crisp® and Crimson Crisp for both fresh market and processing. It will be good to have more diversity.”
Sauk Farm participates in Festival of Family Farms the first weekend in October. “We open the processing facility for tours and offer samples of fresh apples and value-added products,” said Griffin. “It’s a chance to give back to the community, and they can see what we’re doing.”
Visit Sauk Farm online at SaukFarm.com.