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Who Wants To Be An Orchardist?

Published: Jul 2023
By: Bonnie Warndahl, owner and operator of Winnowburrow Farm & Florals, Farmland Access Navigator

You may have seen recent announcements about the Hoch Orchard & Gardens Livestock Giveaway. This event, held in May of 2023, was another effort by Harry and Jackie Hoch to help local beginning farmers get a foothold as they start scaling down their own operations on the road to retirement.

As a staff member at Renewing the Countryside (RTC), I’ve been working with the Hoch’s since last summer to help them find successors for their multi-faceted orchard and cidery business in La Crescent, Minnesota. Like many other food producers in our country, the Hoch’s find themselves with a tough decision to make—how to exit their farming career while also making sure that the land and community they have nurtured continues to thrive in the hands of new stewards.

In the early 1950s, Harry’s father Andy Hoch bought what was then an on-again/off-again dairy farm and started planting apple trees but the busy man that he was, never managed to get a thriving orchard business off the ground. Approximately 40 years later, Harry and Jackie decided to move back to the family farm and revive the orchard Andy had started. Over the last 26 years they have established over 10,000 new fruit trees and berries within a biodynamic system including pears, plums, apricots, blueberries, raspberries, cherries, grapes, and strawberries, and developed three separate enterprises on the farm: selling fresh apples and juice; a jam and jelly business; and a hard cider/winery business. Now, as they make plans for the next chapter of life, the question remains: who will take over?

The Hoch’s children, like many others in their situation, do not have ambitions in the farm business, but Harry and Jackie are determined to see their hard work and fruitful land (pun intended) continue to be cared for. The hunt for new orchardists is on and a pack of invested organizations are leading the charge!

The idea behind the livestock giveaway was Harry’s. In his first year of a two-year plan to scale down before moving to Belize, Harry decided it was time to re-home the pastured hogs and sheep who managed the weeds and fallen fruit in the orchard. Marbleseed, RTC, Sustainable Farming Association, Land Stewardship Project, and Practical Farmers of Iowa all jumped in the apple cart, ready to spread the word and work together to choose beginning farmer applicants based on three major criteria:

How acquiring breeding stock would improve their farm business and quality of life.

Existing facilities and pasture for the animals

Knowledge of pastured livestock and access to mentorship

On Tuesday, June 13 Sal Daggett of Roosterhaven Farm (Deer Park, Wisconsin), along with her husband Joe, arrived early to pick up their new breeding boar Basil, and two breeding sows.

Kiffah Abdi of Abdi-Mayfield Farm (Lindstrom, Minnesota) arrived shortly after to pick up 11 ewes, 1 ram and several lambs. Joined by her husband Mark and their children, they loaded a total of 22 sheep onto their trailer.

While Harry could certainly have sold such well-cared-for, healthy breeding stock, gifting them to new farmers felt like an investment in the community and an opportunity to raise awareness about the bigger prize—a well-established orchard and cidery business.

While Harry and Jackie can’t give away their family farm, they are making every effort to make it as affordable as possible for the next generation. They have been working with RTC and American Farmland Trust (AFT) to implement an Agricultural Conservation Easement, which will reduce the purchase value by nearly half for incoming farmers and protect the land from development in perpetuity. Additionally, Harry is offering new owners ongoing mentorship if they want it, to help ease the transition and ensure success. The trick is to find farmers who have both ample orcharding experience and who are financially ready to purchase and run an established orchard.

Renewing the Countryside is looking far and wide for successors, extending the call to “apple-producing” states such as New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio—but we haven’t given up on generating local interest. With its proximity to La Crosse and a large commercial kitchen (including an enclosed loading dock, office, two cooling rooms, and potential space for an on-farm store) the possibilities for this beautiful farm are vast.

If you or someone you know is interested in this great opportunity, please do not hesitate to reach out to me at any time. I am excited to chat with you and I can be reached at 612-462-9311 or bonnie@rtcinfo.org.