What was originally a trial on a diverse block of apples and rootstocks, turned into a partnership between Jim Koan and Mother Nature. Koan was one of the first apple growers in Michigan to convert his orchard, Almar Orchards in Flushing, MI, to organic production 20 years ago. He did so without the resources and guides available to growers now.
He readily admits that his conversion to organic production was in itself a grand experiment. Some friends of his had asked him to grow organic apples about 35 years ago, but he dismissed it at the time. Koan revisited the idea and took the plunge when interest and demand for organic produce grew and he began getting requests at his farm market about growing organically.
“I didn’t think I could really do it because nobody else was really doing it at a larger scale. You had organic growers that were doing one or two acres. But to do 100, 150 acres, there wasn’t anybody out there,” he says.
To make the conversion to organic, he selected a 20-acre orchard with 8 to 10 different rootstocks and approximately 10 varieties planted as a sampling of his farm. He originally transitioned to a split-operation, keeping some blocks as a conventional IPM orchard, and the first years were easier than he expected.
“After that, you start running into more problems because of the system trying to balance itself correctly. And you think you know it all, but you don’t,” he says. “It was probably a 10- to 12-year learning curve for me to figure this out and a lot of mistakes made — and mistakes are costly.”
Sustainability In The Orchard
Koan says organic apple growing is in part trying to “outsmart” the bad bugs. And this is actually less difficult than with a traditional spray program on a conventional orchard. Allowing Mother Nature to have a hand in the organic orchard is more sustainable, he says.
“We’re losing soil quality and our major insects are now becoming resistant to all these chemistries because we don’t have minor predator insects. We eliminate their food soucres so the predators aren’t as diverse and they don’t hang around, which means we’ve got to spray more often and use the same chemicals and create more resistance and so on and so forth,” Koan says.
Organic production is pioneering this push for more sustainable apple growing, this is not a new trend, but in fact revisiting past practices. Koan advocates using manure, focusing on soil nutrition, and increasing the diversity of minerals in the soil. He likens an apple orchard as planting 20 years of one crop without diversification.
“The problem with apples is we can’t do crop rotation like we do in vegetables and in other annual crops. We really have to pay attention to our soils to make sure that we keep them up. We just can’t mix something back in the soil again as it gets depleted and continue growing and get abundant crops out of it,” he says.
Koan works with Michigan State University researchers to test practices in a commercial organic orchard. He sees this as a vital partnership.
“They’re limited on what they can do to three or four different projects each year because they’ve got to have enough acreage in order to verify that their research is valid. There’s not that many apple orchards that have the acreage that they can actually perform research in which means that they utilize everything they can out of mine,” he says.
Koan has worked with Matthew Grieshop, an associate professor in Michigan State University (MSU)’s Organic Pest Management lab. Mating disruption, scab management, and strip cultivation have all been researched on Koan’s orchard.
This year, researchers are looking at bare ground under some of the trees and tilling to eliminate weed competition for nutrients. Buckwheat is also being studied as a soil insulator.
“It’s going to collect more energy from the sun and hopefully the soil will hold that and we’re looking to see if we can gain frost protection,” Koan says.
The research team will also compare the soil nutrition in using buckwheat with the nutrition of the bare soil, and how this impacts both beneficial and predatory insects in the orchard.
Koan also raises organic hogs, which help to control plum curculio. The hogs eat dropped apples before the larvae burrows in the soil. This originated as a research project with Michigan State University.
Hard Cider And The Orchard
As Koan was converting to organic apple production, he quickly realized that there would be a high percentage of culls. Although those imperfect apples could go into traditional sweet cider, Koan sought out other value-added options. Koan added J.K. Scrumpy, a farmhouse organic hard cider. Aside from some commercial wineries that were making an apple wine, the industry was wide open in Michigan.
“Organic growing is sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture is using everything you can on the farm, every resource that you have. That means multi-valued crops,” he says. “It would be nice to have something that was shelf-stable and it made sense at the time to do the hard cider.”
J.K. Scrumpy, found at OrganicScrumpy.com, is now sold by 60 distributors in 40 states. More than 30 varieties of apples grown on the orchard are used to make four types of organic hard cider without artificial flavors or additives. The hard cider was recently certified kosher.
Hard cider has become a popular option for Michigan apple growers, and Koan points to new legislation passed in the state that will allow small operations to make a fermented product, like hard cider, and sell it directly to consumers at farmers’ markets as opening even more opportunities.
“This is exciting to me because it opens up options for people to use their culls for something other than fresh cider.”
Coming Back To The Orchard
After attending college at the University of Michigan and earning a master’s degree, Koan spent several years as an educator. His exodus from the farm was simple and intentional — he had no plans on returning and had a career path plotted out. But, his perspective changed as he returned to help on the farm in his mid-to-late-20s, even his relationship with his father. Ultimately, Koan realized that his success or failure on the farm was entirely dependent upon his perspective.
“I also recognized that because I chose the apple business over other careers, if I failed, it was my fault, not anyone else’s. So many of my generation were expected to come into the farm and take over the farm for their dad and then when things got tough, they blamed other people for their mistakes or for the hard times they were experiencing. I couldn’t blame anybody but myself,” he says. “I had to persevere and pick myself up by the bootstraps and keep going through the motions whether I felt bad about it or not. That was a huge, huge aid in keeping a positive attitude.”
The orchard was founded in the 1800s by Albert Koan Sr. and was a diverse and sustainable farm. Currently Almar Orchards is a 500-acre farm, 150 of the acres in organic apples. Koan also grows organic corn, soybeans, wheat, and barley. At the Great Lakes Expo this past December, he was presented the Michigan State Horticultural Society Distinguished Service Award. Koan serves on the board of directors on several agricultural committees, including the Michigan Apple Research committee.
As his children grew up, Jim and his wife Karen encouraged them to get an education and have experiences away from the orchard.
“They also needed to get out in the real world and in their mid-20s if they wanted to come back to the farm after they had other careers and career choices then they would be repeating the same thing that I had experienced and it was going to be more positive for them,” he says.
The Koans’ children, Monique and Zachary have returned to the farm. Zachary is the production manager of the J.K. Scrumpy business. Monique, the oldest, has a PhD in analytical chemistry and is the orchard’s accountant and marketing manager. Mignon, another daughter, just wrapped up her master’s degree and would also like to return to the farm and help with the hogs. Jim and Karen’s other daughter, Michelle, is a veterinarian and their son Jacob is pursuing other ventures.
Opportunities Abound For The Next Generation
“There is more opportunity for younger people to get into agriculture. If they do, I definitely want them to consider sustainable agriculture, organic-type agriculture,” Koan says.
He and his wife traveled to the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service Farming Conference and saw firsthand the number of young organic growers that flock to the event.
“I realized that a conventional farmer needs a 100, 150 acres of orchard or 5,000-6,000 acres of vegetables to make a living for him and his family, but organically you can make a living for 20, 30 acres and you could farm it with a team of horses,” he says. “These people could enter in to agriculture on small scale, with minimum labor, a lot of knowledge, and a small amount of land and equipment, and they could make a living. They don’t have to have a father, family member, or an uncle to start them off (with land). They can start from scratch.”
The timing is right, as he notes, for farming to become more personal and for growers build a bond with their consumers.
“It’s not just something you’re putting on the table, it has a personal meaning,” he says. “(Organic growing) takes a lot of skill, a lot of knowledge but it has a lot of potential.”
Advice To Someone Looking To Try Organic Production
For apple growers seeking to embark on organic apple growing, Koan has a few pieces of advice from what he’s learned during his time as an organic apple grower.
- HAVE A CUSHION — Although there is much potential in the organic market, Koan is quick to point out that mistakes are a little more unforgiving. He says it is important to have a financial cushion if the seas get rough. “There’s more mistakes to be made that are more costly than if you’re doing it conventionally. For a conventional grower, when you make a mistake you can go out there and quickly put a Band-Aid over it after the fact and fix it,” he says. “But, with organic, you’ve got to be proactive. Once you’ve got a problem that is recognizable, it’s too late to reverse it quickly.”
- CONSIDER A SPLIT OPERATION — Aside from having some capital to actually afford any issues that may come up, Koan suggests that growers transition gradually, and should consider doing a split operation, with a small block in organics. An organic license for a split operation is more difficult to obtain, however.
- PLANT SCAB-RESISTANT VARIETIES — “All the varieties that I plant now are all more scab resistant varieties because 90% of my time and money is spent battling apple scab,” he says. Varieties like Liberty, Gold Rush, NovaSpy, NovaMac, Ruby Nova, Crimson Crisp, and to some degree Honeycrisp, he says, are all worth considering.