Growing up in a rural farming community in Ontario, Canada, it was common for me to see commercial orchards and vineyards with very few homes nearby — except for those of the farm owner or his neighbor. In many parts of North America today, however, the landscape is changing. The geographic and climatic locations that are suitable for growing fruits — and where they have been historically grown — are becoming increasingly more attractive areas for urban sprawl. Housing developments, commercial businesses, golf courses, and even public schools are beginning to encroach ever closer to some of the best fruit growing land that we have. This situation can create fear and consternation for the commercial fruit grower on the one hand, but also afford genuine hope and opportunity on the other.
The key to successfully navigating these changing times is being a good neighbor. This is an old concept and teaching but one that has practical significance to the fruit grower today. I am reminded of two very helpful verses of Scripture, “Do to others what you would have them do to you” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 7:12 and Matthew 22:39, respectively, New International Version). Building relationships based on honesty, trust, and regular communication can help to ensure that a vital coexistence and mutual benefit might be fostered between the fruit grower and his neighbors.
First, be an educator! The vast majority of people did not grow up on a farm and they have little or no experience growing plants — let alone fruit crops. They may have never even set foot on a real farm or even met a real farmer before. You can be the “face” of agriculture that they become familiar with and you can create a lasting, positive impression not only to build a loyal customer base but also as a provider of safe and delicious food to the locavores around you.
Maybe you already have a farm website or you produce an online newsletter or even have a web log (blog) to let people know what is going on at the farm. If not, how might you use modern tools of communication to share information with your neighbors? Pictures and editorial commentary on your website could be a great way to educate — even with a video, perhaps on YouTube. For example: “Today at our farm we are pruning our peach trees. We do this each winter to remove dead branches, to direct tree growth to produce more fruit, and to help open the canopy so that it can receive more sunlight to make our peaches more colorful and flavorful.”
Second, give back! Set aside some trees — part of an outside row, perhaps, that can be used for gleaning. Local food banks, soup kitchens, etc. can benefit from the seasonal availability of high quality and delicious fruits from your farm. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act (1996) was signed into law to protect you as the donor from liability when donating food to non-profit organizations. There may also be a local Master Gardener group who would be willing to come and pick fruit to share with the needy. Your provision out of your abundance can be used to nourish someone who is suffering for various reasons unknown to you. In our current economic climate, unemployment is increasing and more people are experiencing genuine need.
Third, be a good environmental steward! Your entire farm philosophy should encompass this goal, especially in areas where your neighbors are close. You need to demonstrate and communicate the efforts you are taking to be a good neighbor. For example, develop a pest management program that is as safe as possible. This could include using “soft” chemicals, sprayers that limit drift and even recapture spray, spraying at night, use of pheromone mating disruption, etc. Your state Extension specialists can help you learn about new techniques and technologies to ensure that your practices are the safest possible. Another aspect of this stewardship relates to sanitary practices in the field and at the market to ensure that the fruit is free from harmful human pathogens (i.e., E. coli) and safe to eat.
Finally, if you have some particular examples where you have successfully navigated these challenges that you think others might benefit from hearing, I would like to hear from you! I hope to devote a future column to this topic and make reference to successful “neighbor” stories for the benefit of all of our readers.