Learning Is A Continual Process For Apple Grower Of The Year, Mo Tougas
Maurice”Mo” Tougas did not grow up on a farm. In fact, until he founded Tougas Family Farm in Northboro, MA, in 1981, he had never grown a fruit tree in his life. However, farming had always been in his blood.
This passion began to take shape when he earned a Bachelor of Science in horticulture from the University of Rhode Island in 1975, and then a Master’s degree in education in 1977. It continued to emerge during his time as an Extension agent with the University of Massachusetts (UMass).
By the time Mo and his wife Phyllis made the decision to purchase an existing pick-your-own apple and peach orchard, they knew they were ready to make apple growing a 24-hour, seven days a week commitment.
Today, Tougas Family Farm is a prominent, 120-acre fruit operation in the heart of New England. But if you ask Tougas, the 2011 Apple Grower of the Year, how he got there, he will mention not only his love of fruit growing, but also his constant drive to educate himself, serve the needs of his own farm and the entire apple market, and pass along the knowledge he has gained onto the future of the apple industry, both on his farm and elsewhere.
As mentioned, Tougas spent three years as an Extension agent with UMass. These years were marked by some rapid changes both in his personal and professional life. In 1979, Tougas’ office mate, who was a vegetable specialist, hired Mo’s soon-to-be wife Phyllis to conduct a marketing project.
Three months later, Mo and Phyllis were married. The next year, their son Andre was born. In 1981, they purchased Tougas Family Farm after seeing an ad in a familiar source (see “Orchard For Sale” sidebar). They quickly began diversifying into other crops, such as cherries and berries. Their daughter Nicole was born in 1982, and four years later, their youngest daughter April was born on the same day they sold the farm’s development rights.
The next few years, Tougas recalls several experiences that he says were paramount to taking the family business in new directions. The first came when he attended a meeting of the North American Strawberry Growers Association. Tom Chudleigh, a fruit grower in Ontario, gave a talk on marketing and pointed out that growers needed to recognize that when they were direct marketing, they were not just selling fruit to their customers, but they were selling an experience and a relationship.
“When Tom talked about that, it turned a light on in our head,” says Tougas. “We started thinking in a new direction with the farm,” he says.
Rather than looking at PYO as a low-cost way to get fruit picked, they started viewing it as a way to attract customers to your farm and learn more about their variety preferences.
The next turning point came when Mo began attending meetings with the International Dwarf Fruit Tree Association. While on a trip to New York, he visited a systems trial that had been set up by Cornell University researchers Terence Robinson and Steve Hoying. He came home and worked with local UMass Extension agent Wes Autio on setting up his own systems trial.
“That’s when we really started getting into understanding different systems with dwarf rootstocks,” says Tougas. “That experience got us going into using dwarf trees and high-density plantings.”
Down the road, Tougas would get even more advanced in experimenting with new systems.
Finally, in the mid 1990s, while he was president of the Massachusetts Fruit Growers Association, Tougas introduced Jon Clements at an industry meeting. Clements had recently come to UMass as an Extension agent, and he was working with Rutgers University’s Win Cowgill on a new digital communication network for apple growers. This network came to be known as the website VirtualOrchard.net, and the Apple-Crop listserv.
“Jon and Win got me interested in the Internet, and that has really helped our business take off,” he says.
Since those days, Tougas has never stopped learning, and is always looking for ways to grow high-quality fruit and learn more about what his customers are looking for. However, he also spends much time passing along his experience to the future leaders of the industry. This starts with his children.
Both Andre and April have responsibilities on the farm (Andre spends much of his time in the orchard, and April works in the bakery and market). Outside the farm, Tougas has spoken at meetings such as the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market Expo (he talked about apple training and support systems) and the North American Farmers Direct Marketing Conference (he led a class on starting up an apple orchard).
Once Tougas built up his PYO farm into a successful business, it would have been easy for him to stay in his niche. However, he recognizes that there are issues that drive the fortunes of the entire apple industry, and that it’s unwise to live in a bubble. Because of this, Tougas is a big believer in traveling outside his area to see what others are doing around the world.
“Unless you get out of your region and culture and see what people are doing elsewhere, things get stagnant,” he says. “By traveling and seeing what others are doing, and if they have better ideas, that’s how we progress and grow in our business.”
In the orchard, this has translated to new and improved production systems, starting with a super spindle planting in the 1990s. Not only has the super spindle led to higher yields, “nothing will hone your skills in production more than having a super spindle orchard,” Tougas says.
More recently, on a trip to Europe with Clements, Tougas met a grower from Belgium who showed him what they were doing with fruiting walls.
“It looked like a natural progression from tall and super spindle,” says Tougas. “We’re now hedging about an acre of different varieties at different timings to see what a good timing would be for us.” Down the road, as labor quality continues to be an issue, “this fruiting wall could hold a whole lot of potential for us.”
Speaking of labor, Tougas is keeping a close eye on issues such as H-2A reform and E-Verify legislation. As an H-2A user, Tougas knows all too well how complicated and expensive the system can be. He relies on it because with Massachusetts not being a state heavy in agriculture, there isn’t a steady supply of labor.
However, he says there’s no way growers in his region could survive if they are not allowed to hire people with experience, and if they aren’t allowed to have some system of production standards. Unfortunately, recent changes in the H-2A program have moved in the opposite direction, and as a result, many apple growers won’t get their harvest crew here this year.
“If this isn’t solved in the next few weeks, it could be devastating for guys picking for wholesale,” he says.
One opportunity Tougas sees in today’s apple market is the chance to increase apple consumption, especially among young people.
“Many in society are recognizing that juvenile diabetes and obesity are real concerns. The issue of people recognizing the importance of increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables is something we can work with,” he says.
For their part, Tougas Family Farm supports the local Juvenile Diabetes Association. Beyond that, though, Tougas says there are other things that must happen to make this vision of new consumption a reality.
– “We have to be able to deliver a product young kids want to eat. You have to convince kids they want an apple and not a candy bar. Consistently giving them a product that is appealing is critically important,” along with finding a method such as fresh slices that they might be more interested in.
– “We have to target young families and young mothers in particular. We get them into the habit of buying fruit. Then we’ll see a natural increase in consumption.”
– Perhaps differing from some of his peers, Tougas sees managed varieties not as a threat to his business, but as a way to build excitement for apples.
“As these growers and marketers produce apples and get involved with how they’re going to promote them, it will get more people interested and excited to eat apples.”Â Because managed varieties won’t be produced in a high-enough quantity to fulfill all the apples needed to feed the country, “people come and want to eat our apples.”
The Next Generation
One thing that makes Tougas stand out from his peers is that, as evidenced by the examples above, he doesn’t think like a smaller grower. Tougas recognizes that regardless of the size of your orchard or who you are selling to, the end goal should be producing the highest-quality fruit possible. Tougas has invested heavily in everything from high-density plantings to high tunnels for his cherries to a Darwin blossom thinner for his peaches. These may come at a high price tag, but he knows the investment will be worth it down the road.
Over the years, Tougas has spent a lot of time and money in traveling and studying, and trying to become more educated and looking at different ways of doing things. While these efforts have been fruitful, Tougas hasn’t done it just for himself. Mo and Phyllis have made it a priority that their kids get a solid education, and try as much as possible to make sure their children get to know people in the field and develop their ability to think for themselves.
“This is probably the most important thing we can do to make sure the orchard survives,” says Tougas. “If we hadn’t been able to excite our son into coming back to the farm and wanting to take it over, we would have lost interest a few years ago, and I don’t think we would be nearly as involved today.”