by Sally Colby
When Lisa Rettinger decided to make a career change, she made a rather drastic move – purchasing an overgrown orchard. As a first-time orchard owner starting out with only what she learned from her home organic garden, Rettinger was eager to revive Grandview Orchard in her hometown of Antigo, WI.
Rettinger still doesn’t have an answer for the question “What made you quit your job and buy an orchard?” but said her interest in organic and regenerative agriculture and an affordably priced property sealed the deal.
“When I bought it, I went cold turkey organic,” Rettinger. “It was quite an undertaking, but I never grew conventionally so had no comparison. I didn’t have any background growing fruit trees, and I chose to not learn the conventional approach. I spent a lot of time staring at the trees – I didn’t know where to start.” Although Rettinger hasn’t yet obtained organic certification, the orchard is eligible since she hasn’t used any chemical inputs.
Grandview Orchard included about 1,000 trees when Rettinger purchased it. As part of the renovation effort, she removed about 500 old trees and started 1,500 young trees in a free-standing system. “They’re primarily semi-dwarf on M-7 rootstock,” she said. “Some dwarf rootstock will be supported individually rather than in a trellis system.” Rettinger participated in the DNR crop damage program to erect deer fencing, which she said has made a significant difference in crop yield.
While the short growing season means Rettinger can’t grow some of the most popular varieties, she’s concentrating on established selections that thrive in her climate zone. “Wealthy was the first cold-hardy variety to be grown successfully in Minnesota,” she said. “Wealthy keeps for about six weeks, but it bruises easily so you’ll never see it in the store.” Other varieties include Duchess of Oldenburg, Viking, Paula Red, Cortland, MacIntosh, Haralson, Spartan, Macoun, Regent and Empire.
Rettinger is aware of variety limitations that come with her location, but said there are plenty of new varieties available including Sweet Sixteen, Zestar!®, SnowSweet®, Liberty, Freedom, Enterprise, Wolf River and Golden Russet. Rettinger also added 400 Honeycrisp trees that are just starting to yield saleable fruit.
In an effort to preserve as many productive trees as possible, Rettinger opted to plant new trees among older trees rather than removing entire blocks. “I also want to keep vegetation under the trees,” she said, adding that it took a long time to establish healthy vegetation. “The more photosynthesizing plants are growing, the higher the organic matter and microbial activity in the soil. With bare soil, I’d be killing off the microbes in the top few inches.”
Rettinger puts mulch or pea gravel under new trees for the first few years to inhibit weed growth. Once trees are well-established, she encourages vegetation around the trees, and mows primarily during the U-pick season. Since making cultural changes, Rettinger has seen improved soil appearance and apple flavor. After planting about 300 new trees the first year, Rettinger didn’t see any earthworms, and the soil was light colored from lack of organic matter. After just a few years, the soil is darker and earthworms are thriving.
As a grower focusing on organic and regenerative practices, Rettinger relies on sap analysis to determine trees’ nutritional needs. “That shows me what’s in the tree rather than in the soil,” she said, adding that sap analysis is different from tissue testing. “I do nutritional sprays based on that analysis. I collect leaves from three different varieties to send for testing. There are certain times I want to know what’s going on, like the several weeks after bloom. I do the first sampling of the year as soon as I can get leaf tissue.” Records show differences in how varieties respond to nutritional supplements, and test results lead to tweaks in management plans.
Rettinger realized pruning is an essential part of maintaining a healthy orchard, and knew she had to learn how to prune correctly. While she admitted her first attempts at pruning were less than perfect, she learns more each year from both her own experience and spring pruning workshops. “From the beginning, it was a matter of ‘What’s my goal for this tree?’” she said. “What makes sense to open it up? It’s hard – you can watch videos, read books and still not know what to do with a tree.”
Rettinger said the first year, only 5% of her apple crop was saleable as number one apples. “I made a lot of cider, then I had to figure out how to sell all of that cider,” she said, adding that she can sell unpasteurized cider on site and at farmers markets. “The cider is really popular – a lot of people buy it for making hard cider. Now my crop is about 70% number one apples. Apples that are imperfect or too small are seconds, which customers can purchase for pies or sauce. The rest of the seconds are used for cider or the pies.” Rettinger installed a commercial kitchen where her aunt Ruth makes take-and-bake pies. “That has really taken off,” she said. “With frozen pies, there’s no concern about shelf life, and customers can stock up.”
While achieving top yields is a worthy goal, Rettinger believes it’s more realistic to focus on margin. “My cost of inputs is going down, production is improving and the quality of my apples is improving,” she said. “It’s about preventing problems from happening rather than reacting to problems. I’ll always have to supply calcium and monitor closely, but inputs are already going down.”
Rettinger said her location close to the lake region means many of her customers are owners of second homes. “We see a lot of people from Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and Green Bay,” she said. “When I first started, I didn’t have those customers, but now I’m getting more. Some of them care that the fruit is organic, others don’t – they just want the experience.”
After opening her orchard to U-pick customers, Rettinger found there’s a lot of consumer training involved. “One weekend I had Macoun, Spartan and Regent ready,” she said. “If you’re a suburbanite from Illinois, you haven’t heard of those apples. I told people to try each one and decide what to pick. They’ll come back and buy more bags because the apples are so good.”
Rettinger is a member of OFGA (Organic Fruit Growers Association) and hosted a field day for the organization. “I enjoy doing more technical tours,” she said. “I like having discussions with others who have their own orchards.” The association coordinates rootstock orders, scion wood exchanges and manages a listserv for members’ questions and answers.
When she talks about the first few years dealing with an orchard that needed a lot of work to become profitable, Rettinger doesn’t mince words. “It was really rough, but I’ve learned to enjoy the journey,” she said. “I’ve learned to enjoy the process.”
Visit Grandview Orchard at grandvieworchard.com.