Tom and Denise Rosenfeld of Earth First Farms, presenting some of the fruit of their labor.
Photo courtesy of Kate Gross Photography

by Sally Colby

When Tom Rosenfeld couldn’t find locally grown organic fruit near his home in Chicago, he decided to grow his own. The first-generation farmer purchased a 45-acre orchard property in 2005, which became the start of Earth First Farms, and the operation has continued to grow.

“This year we leased another orchard,” said Rosenfeld. “I have two blueberry farms, about 35 acres total. We have 75 acres of apples and 10 to 15 acres of strawberries, peaches and vegetables. Our total growing acreage about 110 acres – some is owned and some is leased.” All acreage is either certified organic or in the process of transitioning to organic.

Rosenfeld said apples are among the most difficult fruits to grow under organic methods. He found it took a while to settle on a production system, and in the process dealt with diseases, pests and nutrition. “Over the years we’ve developed a stable organic production system,” he said, “but it’s still challenging. The biggest challenge with organic apples is the materials we use are almost entirely preventative. Once we recognize there’s a problem, it’s usually too late. The challenge is committing to the system.”

While Rosenfeld relies heavily on scouting, the action he takes depends on the pest and a degree of willingness to accept less-than-perfect fruit. He tracks the first generation of pests carefully because it’s critical to impact insects in the larval stage. It’s also a matter of managing from year to year to determine the right time for management. “Everything from weather, new pests, bud break all equate to what kind of season will be,” he said. “Last year, apple flea weevil showed up and surprised everyone, including Cooperative Extension.”

Over the years, Rosenfeld has had difficult moments and said that if he hadn’t been committed to organic production, he would have chosen an economic decision rather than one consistent with organic and the environment. “Those are hard decisions because they have financial impact,” he said. “The first goal is to grow organic fruit. The second goal is to do that profitably.”

Rosenfeld said rootstock and scion selection for organic production are less important than the market. “We avoid planting scab-susceptible varieties,” he said. “I’ve experimented, and we don’t plant a lot of disease-free varieties because ultimately I have to sell the apple. My success is in growing apples people want to buy – if fruit has some damage, we have a dedicated and knowledgeable customer base and they tend to not care. It’s support of the organic practices as well as their own personal well-being, which is why we rely more on direct-to-consumer sales.”

While most new orchards are planted in a high-density system, Rosenfeld sticks with older but proven concepts. “We do traditional pruning,” he said. “It’s central leader style with scaffolding branches to develop the structure. Pruning creates scaffolding branches at each level and allows them to get large – they’re the source of the fruiting branches.”

Organic blueberries are popular among customers but are also challenging to grow organically. Rosenfeld maintains two blueberry farms – one certified and the other in its first season of transitioning to organic. As is the case with other fruits, organic blueberry production varies from year to year, and he has found that weather and insects (primarily SWD) are the main factors. Part of Rosenfeld’s system for managing SWD includes a three- to four-day mid-season spray cycle.

Blueberries are grown in an established organic system that works in the area. “We’re growing what was already in the ground,” said Rosenfeld. “We haven’t done a lot of new planting yet. If we plant more, we’ll keep planting early varieties that are ready ahead of SWD arrival. The later varieties are the problem.”

Rosenfeld attended MOSES (Midwest Organic Farming Conference) in February and said he picked up some good growing tips, including one he’ll try this year: overly heavy pruning one-third of the blueberries to cause plants to produce sooner. Rosenfeld’s approach to new growing concepts is to learn, think it through, and if it makes sense, try it.

A good farm manger is essential, and Rosenfeld credits his farm manager Gonsalo with keeping him informed about what’s happening throughout the growing season. “We have four different properties,” said Rosenfeld. “Gonsalo can be at one property and I’ll be somewhere else. I’ll send him a photo of what might be a problem, and he can see it right away.” Rosenfeld’s daughter Sydney manages the on-farm market and the CSA. Rosenfeld said working at the market has always been a side job for Sydney, but she became more interested in organic production after her son was born.

The Earth First CSA includes 250 shares. Rosenfeld said they’ve adjusted the CSA through the years – at one point they were serving 550 members. “We used to do only apples,” said Rosenfeld. “It was a niche CSA that started around Labor Day and ran through Thanksgiving. In the last year or two, we experimented with a full-season monthly CSA. It starts in June with strawberries and runs through Thanksgiving.”

Shares vary depending on what’s ready. During blueberry season, CSA customers might receive 10 pounds of blueberries, so Rosenfeld provides instructions on preserving. “The CSA allows for customization,” he said. “This year the May freeze wasn’t friendly to peaches so we’ll probably do a customized box with melons, tomatoes, squash and early apples.” When apple harvest begins, CSA customers receive three apple deliveries. Each share receives two five-pound bags of apples, and customers can choose the varieties they want.

Rosenfeld said CSA customers often select eating apples for their share and purchase seconds for preserving. “I’m a big fan of people eating organic seconds,” he said. “One big reason organics can be expensive is the amount of discards. If I have 100 pounds of apples and my conventional neighbor is packing out 85 pounds and I’m packing out 50 or 60 pounds, I have to sell for twice as much.”

Earth First Farms has a strong following from Eastern European customers who enjoy coming for U-pick. “We started the U-pick informally about eight years ago,” said Rosenfeld. “Each year more people come, and over time, we’ve grown together.”

Rosenfeld’s most recent orchard purchase was done in partnership with Gonsalo, who is transitioning to become a partner in the operation. Rosenfeld said that in addition to being an invaluable farm manager, Gonsalo has an incredible memory and can quickly recall harvest amounts and other critical information.

Earth First Farms makes a premium sweet cider from early October to mid-December. “If all goes well, we’re sold out and the coolers are empty by the end of the season,” said Rosenfeld. “We take two weeks off, then start pruning in mid-January.”

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