by Sally Colby
Glenn Cook grew up in a large family, loved being outdoors and had been exposed to gardening since childhood — a good start for what would become his career. He had plans to become a forest fire fighter, but ended up as a horticulture major at Virginia Tech, specializing in pomology. Several farm purchases,lots of scrimping and saving and about 35 years later, Glenn, his wife Karen, and Glen’s father Ed now operate a successful fruit and vegetable farm on 70 acres in Amesbury, MA.
“I had a five-year cash flow plan,” said Cook, describing his start in the business. “I knew we needed apples, so Karen and I squeezed together everything we had and bought 900 fruit trees.”
The Cooks’ first plantings included 10 semi-dwarf and also some interstem three-piece trees. Although about 100 of the original fruit trees are still standing, most have been pulled and replaced with high-density plantings. “We’re also experimenting with a wall system where the trees are 2’, 3” apart,” said Cook, adding that block includes Honeycrisp, early Fuji and McIntosh. “We have one acre with 900 trees.”
Several years after planting the first apple trees, the Cooks were ready for customers. They started selling from a picnic table, progressed to a wagon, and eventually to a small shed. About five years into the venture, they revamped the bottom floor of a working chicken house to serve as a farm store, complete with viewing windows so customers can see the chickens. They also started growing vegetable crops for more variety at their farmstand.
Cider Hill started making cider on the farm in the mid 1980s. “Early on, we bought a horizontal press,” said Cook. “It was all plastic and stainless steel. We won the cider contest in Massachusetts four out of five years, then the E.coli breakout happened. We’re still selling unpasteurized cider, which we can do if we sell it only from our own farm store.”
Although the Cooks aren’t organic growers, they aim for IPM as much as possible. With 15 beehives and an abundance of native pollinators, Cook is keenly aware of the damage potential with the overuse of sprays on fruit trees. “We’ve had colonies on the farm since day one,” said Cook. “We try to run a good IPM program using as many organic-minded techniques as possible. It’s always encouraging when I see healthy beehives in the middle of a conventional farm.”
Cook recalls that when they started farming, the fields were about two percent organic matter. Today, all of the fields are more than 10 percent organic matter, which Cook says is the result of sourcing a lot of compost along with diligence in building the soil. Conservation measures include contour planting to prevent erosion and leaching. All vegetable crops can be irrigated through either overhead or trickle irrigation, with water from a spring-fed pond.
To help extend the season, Cider Hill has 12, 20’ x 100’ heated high tunnels, each covered with two layers of plastic. Ten of the tunnels are used exclusively for growing tomatoes in either compost beds or bagged media. Tomatoes are started every few weeks and are picked from about June 10 to Thanksgiving. Cook grows some tomatoes outside, but has found that he has fewer disease and insect issues with greenhouse tomatoes. When late blight swept through the area several years ago and wiped out tomatoes grown outside, the Cooks closed their greenhouses and didn’t allow anyone from other farms to enter. This measure prevented late blight from affecting any of their tomato crop.
Cider Hill Farm started their renewable energy effort with three small wind turbines in 2007 and 2008. “We’re only a few miles — as the crow flies — to the Atlantic Ocean,” said Cook. “We get a lot of sea breezes in summer. I thought we’d be a good site, and the wind charts indicated that we’re class ll, which is acceptable.” Although the turbines aren’t performing quite as well as Cook had anticipated, customers love to see them. “It says ‘we’re trying,’” he said.
In 2008, when Cook realized that wind production wasn’t going to meet their energy needs, he installed a 10 kw solar array and compared the expense of that to a 10 kw wind system. “One 10 kw solar in our area produces four to five times the energy of a 10 kw wind system,” he said. “That told us that we needed to move toward solar. The price of solar was quite a bit more when I did the first installation, but it’s coming down.”
Cook found he could expect consistent results from solar power from year to year, and today Cider Hill has 130 kw of solar power in 650 panels erected in several installations. “The panels are becoming more efficient, the inverters are more durable, and programming is better,” said Cook. “We always put solar installations in areas where they won’t affect production because we need every square foot of land to keep up with our business.”
With a combination of wind and solar, Cook estimates they’re producing about $30,000 worth of electricity each year. Major electricity drains on the farm include large coolers, a farm store, bakery, walk-in freezer, donut machine and four homes. “Our electric bill is around $30,000 to $35,000 a year, and we’re producing about 90 to 95 percent of our electrical needs.” With the help of Farm Bureau and their own efforts with the energy board, the Cooks helped pass a law for annual net metering. “We’re able to carry our monthly energy credits forward,” said Cook. “When the farm store is using a lot of electricity, we can use the credits produced in winter and spring when usage was less.” The Cooks have increased energy efficiency by updating refrigeration systems with scroll compressors, re-insulating coolers and freezers with environmentally safe spray foam, and changing all lighting to fluorescent or LED bulbs.
In addition to having a successful PYO and farm store, Cider Hill started a CSA. Now in the fourth season, the CSA offers 330 shares. Customers signed up from the farm’s email list — no advertising was necessary. CSA shares include eggs from the farm’s chickens, seasonal fruit including apples, nectarines, peaches, plums, cherries, pears, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and pluots, and variety of vegetables.
“People come to the farm and we distribute shares one day a week on a swap table,” said Cook. “Nobody is stuck with something they don’t like. We pick real heavy for the CSA the day before and the morning of pickup, and two guys set up the boxes. On Wednesday, we’re there to greet them, sign them in and talk about the products.” Cider Hill also participates in two weekly farm markets — another opportunity to attract CSA customers. Cook’s wife Karen helps out on CSA distribution day, handles social media for the farm and educates visitors. She also works with the seven international interns hosted by Cider Hill through Communicating For Agriculture.
When customers ask if Cider Hill fruit and produce is grown organically, Cook explains the IPM concept. “I want them to know how interested we are in safety, how we’re careful with the land and environment,” he said. “I also explain that we’ve tried to grow organic apples and had marginal results. We have significant insect and disease pressure, and have been at the cutting edge of IPM since the 1980s. Everything we use is carefully chosen, and our vegetables are chemical free. Most people I talk to are satisfied with that.”
Visit Cider Hill Farm on line at http://www.ciderhill.com
Success with sustainability
by Sally Colby