Opinion: Real Leaders Think Outside The Box

Brian Sparks

Thinking outside the box, even if it involves taking a big risk, can be a rewarding experience.

In fact, thinking outside the box should mean taking a risk. Any time you step outside your comfort zone, whether it’s planting a new variety, adding a new item to your farm market, or even buying a new piece of equipment, there’s a chance for failure. But the best growers out there recognize that sticking with the status quo in a competitive market, both domestically and internationally, won’t cut it. The key to long-term success means taking a chance, and not just hoping, but planning for it to succeed.

New Territory

Consider, for example, the many growers who shared their experiences for American/Western Fruit Grower’s July 2013 cover story on the evolution of the hard cider industry. Each of them got into the hard cider game for different reasons: some because they saw an untapped market opportunity, some because they needed a way to use apples they wouldn’t otherwise be able to sell, and some simply because they wanted to try something different.

When Mike Beck of Uncle John’s Cider Mill in St. Johns, MI, first starting making hard cider about 12 years ago, he says the cider market wasn’t near what it is today. “We had to do a lot of hand selling and education, and explain to our customers what it was, and how we do it,” he says.

Crystie Kisler at Finnriver Farm and Cidery in Chimacum, WA, says her company’s biggest challenge was simply confusion about the differences between apple juice, apple cider, and hard cider. “Some education was necessary,” she says. “The commercial industry had been focused on the sweeter ciders and some folks were surprised when we started doing more traditional dry ciders.” Kisler also says they learned the hard way that managing an orchard and producing cider are two all-encompassing projects. “We now know how much time it takes to do both.”

Steve Wood, a former Apple Grower of the Year and owner of Poverty Lane Orchards & Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, NH, says the big risk in hard cider involves constant experimentation with different varieties to see which create the best cider. “You can’t just plant something and say ‘I’m going to get on that bandwagon.’ Because you may not be able to grow it.”

For Beck, Kisler, Wood, and the other growers we talked to for the cover story, their risky venture has paid off. This was clear in their overwhelming willingness to describe how they were able to jump head-first into a relatively unknown market. Today, as Beck notes, the hard cider industry is poised to take off into the stratosphere in the coming years.

A Grassroots Effort

A recent article on the latest advancements in apple harvesting technology also highlights why thinking outside the box not only has the potential for success, but may even be critical to an industry’s future.

It seems like forever that apple growers have been reading and hearing about how close they were to seeing automated harvesting machines in action. Yet it’s only been the past couple of years that a fragmented group of growers, manufacturers, and the university Extension community decided it was time to step up and take action. Despite limited federal funding that always seems to hang in the balance, and limited time that must come out of everyone’s schedule, these individuals came together and started working to bring this technology to the forefront. As Washington State University’s Karen Lewis notes, the companies behind much of this effort are not Fortune 500 types. They are smaller manufacturers and, in many cases, smaller growers, yet they saw the need for quicker progress. “All of these companies and people have a vested interest in finding solutions so the industry can build its future,” says Lewis.

Lewis should be commended, along with folks like Mike Rasch, Phil Brown, Chuck Dietrich, and Phil Schwallier in Michigan; Jim Schupp, Bruce Hollabaugh, and Paul Heinemann in Pennsylvania; and countless equipment companies and growers in Washington. They have stepped up to the plate and are making sure this type of orchard technology hits the commercial market sooner rather than later, and are also working to ensure all growers have access to it.

So what can you do to follow their lead? Quite a bit, actually. If you sell direct to consumers, keep up with emerging trends, and identify products or services you could add if there is a demand for them. In the orchard, determine whether your production system is designed to accommodate new technology. If it’s not, do what you can to change it. Even if it means thinking outside the box.

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