Apple Grower Of The Year: Mitch Lynd
When Mitch Lynd speaks, he conveys excitement. As he discusses plans for producing a new variety, his enthusiasm is contagious. When the topic turns to trade with a country that won’t accept imports of U.S. apples, he passionately advocates strong action to correct the situation.
But whatever the situation, it’s hard to imagine a grower who enjoys what he does more than Mitch Lynd. Both on a local level and nationally, Lynd is an ambassador for apples.
While he is not hesitant to promote his own operation in the 30 or so talks he gives to community groups each year, he also has the goal of helping the non-farm public appreciate the challenges growers face. In addition, he serves as a designated spokesperson when reporters need information on a food safety topic or other pressing issue.
His advocacy for agriculture has earned Lynd recognition as American and Western Fruit Grower’s 1995 “Apple Grower of the Year.”
When he speaks to local groups and presents a slide show on how apples are grown, Lynd has an opportunity to educate his audience about modern agriculture.
“Most of them really respect farmers, but they just don’t know anything about farming,” he says. “They are truly amazed at what is involved in growing fruit. It is a great opportunity to tell your story. I really think all growers should be looking for and taking advantage of opportunities to talk to local groups.”
As a spokesperson for the Agriculture Council of America’s “Operation Foodwatch” program, Lynd has received training in how to respond to the media when a food safety or similar issue arises. He points out that surveys show the public ranks farmers very highly — second only to doctors — in terms of believability.
But it is up to growers to take advantage of their status and speak out to counteract negative publicity about agriculture.
Apple Growing Heritage
Apple growing comes naturally to the Lynd family.
“The Lynds were growing apples when Johnny Appleseed was just a boy,” says Mitch.
The family started growing apples in southern Ohio in the mid-1800s before moving to the current central Ohio location of Pataskala in 1919.
Today, Lynd Fruit Farm Inc. consists of over 700 acres of land, about 400 of which are planted to apples. In addition to Mitch, who serves as president, brothers Lester and Dave also play key roles in the operation. Rounding out the management team are orchard managers John Kammeyer and Dick Wander, cousin Steve Lynd, and Mitch’s son Andy.
Fruit produced at the operation is marketed in two ways. The bulk is sold through Fruit Growers Marketing Association, a Newcomerstown, Ohio-based cooperative sales organization. The remaining volume is sold via pick-your-own, drawing heavily from nearby Columbus for a customer base.
Lynd is sold on the cooperative marketing approach.
“Even with 400 acres of apples, our volume alone would be nothing more than a nuisance to a retailer,” he says.
But in addition to collecting the volume needed to handle large accounts and employing a full-time professional sales staff, the critical factor in the success of Fruit Growers Marketing Association has been identifying specific markets and targeting buyers’ needs.
“(Fruit Growers Marketing) targets those areas in which we have an advantage,” says Lynd.
This advantage is often one of lower freight costs, but the ability to provide a “home grown” product or a specific variety mix is also important. But the big difference with Fruit Growers Marketing, Lynd says, is that grower-members listen to the sales side and adjust their plantings accordingly. It is a simple concept that most businesses follow: production answers to sales.
Too often in the fruit business, Lynd feels, the opposite approach prevails. What would happen to an auto company, Lynd asks, if the workers at the factory made the decisions on what cars they would build, rather than taking direction from the sales/marketing side and adjusting production based on what consumers wanted to buy?
“It bothers me when someone is planting trees, but they haven’t figured out where the apples are going to be sold,” says Lynd.
While wholesale will remain the main market for Lynd Fruit Farm apples, Lynd is enthusiastic about the contribution pick-your-own
makes to the bottom line.
“It accounts for about 10% of our production, 20% of our sales, and 50% of our net profit.”
With slim wholesale margins, receiving a near-retail price on fruit sold via pick-your-own is attractive, especially since overhead is low.
“Most of the cost of producing apples comes at and after harvest,” he says, pointing to expense and overhead items like packing lines, storages, containers, shipping costs, etc.
Pick-your-own eliminates most of those expenses, and Lynd feels the unharvested apples and waste associated with pick-your-own are no worse than the amount of fruit graded out on a packing line.
Match Apples to Markets
The needs of retailers and pick-your-own customers are different, however, making variety selection a challenge.
“In selecting varieties for the retail market, you sometimes have to sacrifice a little bit of flavor for appearance,” he says.
Retailers don’t want to handle cosmetically flawed fruit, because consumers just don’t buy them. But if those same consumers come to the farm to pick their own, they will happily pick the hail-damaged apples they would have rejected at the retail store — as long as the defect is explained to them and the apples have the taste and crunch they are after.
In selecting pick-your-own varieties, appearance can be sacrificed, but taste is vital.
Variety selection is critical at Lynd Fruit Farm, where almost 125 varieties are being tested. About 10 varieties account for the bulk of the volume, with Red Delicious and Law Rome leading the way. But the first major plantings of Fuji in Ohio were made on this farm back in 1986, and it is a variety that has done well for them when not overcropped.
Plans are underway to expand acreage of Gala, and some newer varieties such as Honeycrisp and Suncrisp are being carefully considered. A factor Lynd calls “crunch reliability” will be a key element to the success of any apple variety. The one thing that turns consumers off, he says, is a mealy apple.
Lynd feels better-tasting varieties such as Fuji and Gala will chip away at the market for older varieties, specifically Law Rome. But he is pragmatic in variety selection, again letting sales and profits dictate what to plant. For the last three generations, he says, other growers have questioned the Lynds’ decision to plant Romes, saying they were a mediocre apple.
The Lynds don’t disagree. Yet Romes are big and pretty, bear heavily, and people buy them — and thus they have been consistently profitable.
In addition to being a Foodwatch spokesperson, Lynd is active on many other fronts. Along with his role as a director and secretary of Fruit Growers Marketing Assoc., Lynd is a board member of International Dwarf Fruit Tree Association (IDFTA), a member of a “Project Reinvent” task force that is looking at restructuring the Ohio State University College of Agriculture, and a director of the Nature Conservancy.
This last position may strike some growers as odd, as they equate any “environmental” group with “antiagriculture.” But Lynd, who believes farmers are the original environmentalists,
feels this particular group takes the right approach.
“We need to preserve unique areas, animals, and plants,” he says. “But we shouldn’t do it by taking people’s property rights away or by eminent domain. When the Nature Conservancy wants to preserve a piece of land, they do it the old fashioned way — they buy it.”
Lynd appreciates being part of an industry that readily shares information.
“I can name dozens of growers who do a better job than me,” he says. “But growing apples is so difficult, you don’t have to worry about being put out of business by helping someone.”
Lynd puts that philosophy to work through his many activities and his willingness to be a voice for growers. It is this ethic that makes him deserving of the Apple Grower of the Year award.