by Sally Colby
The difficult, year-round work involved with owning a farm isn’t every family’s dream, but it was for the Gradinarius. After spending 10 years operating commercial turkey farms, the family moved to Brighton, MO, where they purchased an orchard.
Andrei Gradinariu, known as Farmer Dre, is the eighth of the family’s 10 children. Dre was in high school when his parents purchased the 55-acre orchard in 2013.
“My parents were never afraid to jump into an endeavor because they had willpower and plenty of help,” said Dre. “There were 20 acres of apple trees and one acre of peach trees when they bought it. That was the beginning of Gardener’s Orchard & Bakery.”
After Dre finished high school in 2016, he entered community college and took general education courses as he continued to help with the family venture. “We got our first high tunnel through EQIP in 2018,” said Dre. “I took charge of that and grew high tunnel tomatoes. That’s when my passion and energy for the farm started.”
Dre took his passion to Missouri State University, where he pursued a degree in horticulture. As he commuted to classes, he continued to work full-time on the farm. “I already had so many years of hands-on experience that the science made sense to me,” he said. “I saw the whole process from bloom to harvest. During my junior and senior years in college, I fell in love with orchard work. That’s when I realized I could make a living doing this.”
However, Dre knew that to continue farming as a serious business, the family would have to grow enough produce to sell from May through October.
“Now we have four high tunnels,” said Dre, who handles farm operations with the help of several siblings. “We added blueberries in 2015, and in 2018 we planted more peaches. In fall 2019, we put 10,000 strawberry plants in the ground, and we planted the first high density apple block in 2019.”
Rootstock for high density apples is primarily Geneva 41, with season-spanning varieties including Gala, Granny Smith, Sun Crisp, Jonathan, Golden Delicious, Arkansas Black, Rome, Cameo, Early Blaze, Braeburn, Grimes Golden, Pink Lady and Liberty.
The peach orchard now includes seven acres, with Redhaven, Cresthaven, July Prince, Ruby Prince, Harvester, Blaze Prince, Loring, Contender, August Prince, O’Henry, Sweet Sue, Big Red, Autumn Prince, China Pearl and Gala.
The family started selling produce at farmers markets in 2016, and now attends eight markets every week. Dre said the markets require a lot of labor-intensive work, but the return is worthwhile. Gardener’s has since initiated U-pick, and promotes that aspect at farmers markets to encourage more people to visit the farm.
Dre’s brother Val purchased 10 acres of land next to the farm to establish blackberries. Blackberries are a highly saleable fruit, but in some regions, commercial production is hampered by cane damage due to cold temperatures or extreme sunlight that results in sunburned fruit. To avoid these problems, the Gradinariu family was willing to try a new growing technique. The rotating cross arm (RCA) trellis system was developed by horticulturist Fumiomi Takeda of the Appalachian Fruit Research Station in West Virginia. Patrick Byers, regional commercial horticulture specialist at the University of Missouri, introduced the Gradinarius to the RCA system.
With the RCA system, plants are trained to produce fruit on one side of the canopy. This allows easier harvest as well as more efficient insect and disease management. Fruit has less sunscald in summer, and in winter, the entire plant wall can be placed on the ground and protected from freezing temperatures. Although the system is more expensive to install and involves different training and pruning methods, Dre said the payback has been worthwhile.
Dre selected 1,000 Natchez and 10 Ouachita (due to limited availability) plants based on early ripening, good yield on the RCA trellis, good flavor and quality and large berries that are perfect for U-pick. Blackberries were established on raised beds covered with landscape fabric, with four to five feet between plants and 12 feet between rows. Dripline was placed below the fabric at planting. A cross arm assembly was placed every 15 to 30 feet, with the longer arm of the trellis on the fruiting side (east or north) of the row.
“We trained primocanes to the first wire and cut off the apical meristem,” said Dre, adding that three canes per plant is ideal. “Lateral branches trained up to six inches or a fist apart. Row cover (1.5 ounces) was put down after the plants were in to protect canes from winter dieback. We had already spent a lot of money so it was worth saving plants from cold damage.”
The trellis is laid down horizontally at dormancy, which makes it easy to cover plants for the winter. This requires several workers who must work as a team to prevent plant damage. The trellis remains in the horizontal position through flowering, which promotes growth of the fruiting vegetation on one side; it’s then raised for the growing season.
“The fruit is easy to pick,” said Dre. “We have increased yield because more of the primocanes are on one side. There’s more bearing surface, so it’s easy to spray for insects, and we can spray directly on berries.” Although the RCA trellis for the first blackberry planting was commercially made, the Gradinarius made their own for subsequent plantings.
Dre said the initial cost of the system, which he estimates at about $20,000/acre, was worthwhile. “The bigger question was the labor required to train the blackberries to the RCA trellis,” he said. “It’s very labor intensive and it takes someone highly qualified to train the blackberries.” Dre’s goal for the first full crop in 2021 is 5,000 quarts/acre.
A value-added effort that’s paid off well is the on-farm bakery. After training as a pastry chef, Dre’s older sister Aurora agreed to stay on the farm if there was a bakery. “Aurora makes a lot of different fresh pies and pastries,” said Dre, adding that the bakery is a good outlet for otherwise unsaleable fruit. “We also have a canning license, so hopefully in a few years we’ll have our own canning line.”
In addition to selling from the farm and farmers markets, the bakery supplies some coffee shops and restaurants with baked goods. “In the last few years, the bakery has increased sales significantly,” said Dre. “Last year, about one-third of the income came from the bakery.”
In autumn, cider made from Gardener’s apples is a top seller. It’s pressed weekly and retains full flavor after UV treatment and no additives. Customers can purchase cider directly from the farm, at farmers markets and at several grocery chains.
Despite losing some wholesale bakery accounts due to closures during the pandemic, Dre said U-pick and other on-farm sales made up for the difference, making 2020 the biggest year yet for the farm store.
In addition to being active on Facebook and Instagram, Dre has his own YouTube channel, “Farmer Dre,” which has attracted more than 22,000 subscribers. He shares what’s happening on the farm throughout the year, from seeding and planting to picking and preparing for market. A video to advertise strawberries received 3,000 views and the crop was sold out for two weeks following the video.
“Our whole family is innovative,” said Dre. “We’re always trying something new to keep on growing.”
Visit Gardener’s Bakery & Orchard online at GardenersOrchardandBakery.com.