APPLES to (organic) APPLES

Lisa Rettinger was living the American dream, or at least some version of it.

She had a home she loved in the St. Paul area, an organic garden, and a well-paying job in a field suited to her degree in agronomy from UW-River Falls—all the things society says are important markers of success.

Yet she couldn’t escape the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. The more she talked with clients in her job helping agricultural chemical companies comply with regulations, the more she came to realize that most people are bored with their jobs. Rettinger, a woman with serious intellectual interests and curiosity, was getting to that point herself. And she no longer believed in the farming practices epitomized by the companies she was advising.

A fervent believer in organic farming practices, Rettinger had a desire that couldn’t be satisfied by a promotion or job change. In her search for a new challenge, she would interview for a new position, only to turn it down when it involved farming practices she didn’t believe in.

Today, instead of going to work for agri-industry clients, Rettinger is in the business of managing her own 34-acre farm. Last November she moved back to her hometown of Antigo to take over an apple orchard that has operated for more than a century. Her first full crop is evident: bright red apples on rows of trees surrounded by forest and meadows, and a large pen that houses two little pigs.

Rettinger bought Grandview Orchard from a couple who were in their 80s and had operated the place for decades. But she had very different plans for how the orchard should work—namely, to convert it to an organic operation.

As someone who knows well the science behind synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, she believes in organic practices that produce healthy food without damaging the soil and environment. Rettinger had done it in her garden for years. That should translate to a 25-acre orchard, right?

The short answer is yes, with much work and patience. But converting an operation that for decades used conventional, chemical-dependent methods presents a myriad of challenges, even more so for an orchard five times the size recommended for organic practices.

The trees are spaced incorrectly. Among other things, that restricts airflow, which is critical to controlling pests. The undergrowth and soil were nuked bare from pesticides. While that matters less when you treat the trees regularly with chemicals, it makes a huge difference when you’re growing apples without them.

Rettinger admits there are times when she’s standing in a mountain of work, things aren’t going right, and she wonders what she got herself into. But she can’t hide her enthusiasm for an orchard business she’s turning around to fit her firmly held philosophy of farming. Residents in Antigo and nearby communities are noticing—though not all for the same reason.

“Some people care, and some people don’t care,” Rettinger says of the organic methods she uses. “Well, I care.”

Great apples to come

Tanya Selden drives her van up the driveway that leads through Grandview Orchard, located on County Highway F a few miles outside of Antigo. The pair of tire tracks travels past a house, a shed for cider and selling apples, another building for apple prep, and a big red barn in the rustic country setting. Beyond is a field of apple trees stretching to the horizon.

Selden pulls up to Rettinger and tells her she wants to buy 70 pounds of apples for her Antigo shop, Sweet Thyme, a coffee shop that specializes in serving organic and healthy food. Rettinger says she’ll happily deliver the order later in the day. “OK, I’m your girl!” Selden says, delighted to have the apples for her cafe.

Rettinger’s products fit with the shop’s philosophy, and Selden was happy to buy her fruit— once the organic practices were in place.

Last fall, Rettinger had to sell an apple surplus of 1,200 bushels (that’s 54,000 pounds) grown by the previous owner with conventional methods. She spent the winter working remotely for her old employer while also selling the apples at farmers markets and to local stores.

Selling apples that weren’t grown the way she believed in was difficult for her. Many customers, such as those at Wausau’s winter farmers market, were excited about the orchard but passed on buying the apples. “I had a lot of people who said ‘I’m looking forward to your apples next year,’” Rettinger says.

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Selden buys about 40-50 pounds of apples per week, which go into a juice she sells with kale, carrots and beets. It delights Selden to get locally-sourced ingredients, and she’s happy to have another like-minded provider in the Antigo area. Antigo also has a Community Supported Agriculture farm, McDougal’s Farm, which isn’t certified organic but employs organic methods. It also has a natural foods store, Natural Living, that’s been promoting Rettinger’s apples. There’s a growing interest in organic and healthy food in Antigo, but not everyone is convinced it’s worth the effort and price.

Clever organic practices

When Rettinger calls, a pair of pigs, Porkie and Petunia, gleefully charge out of a small piggy house into a penned area the size of a large backyard on the orchard. They root through the soil looking for things to eat, turning the grassy ground into churned up soil like a natural rototilling service. That’s exactly the point, Rettinger says. The pigs prepare the soil for future plantings. The pigpen will move to a new section next year.

Going organic isn’t as easy as merely halting the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizer. Growers must manage most all details differently in order to avoid the pitfalls, especially pests, that otherwise would be solved by chemicals.

It’s easy to see why chemicals were alluring to farmers when Rettinger explains all the techniques she needs to use instead: planting thyme and other plants that combat certain diseases; raising turkeys to help control pests; spacing out the trees.

An organic orchardist must be especially careful about when to prune. Pruning trees only in winter, though perhaps inconvenient, drastically reduces the risk of disease. That’s less of a concern when the trees are sprayed with chemicals, but absolutely critical for organic growing.

Just because an organic farmer isn’t spraying a tree with some chemical, doesn’t mean they don’t spray at all. Organic growers commonly use neem oil, extracted from the seeds of a neem plant, which provides a natural pesticide. Fertilizer from ground-up fish provides a natural, nutrient-dense plant food.

“It stinks, by the way,” Rettinger jokes. “But it’s not harming me, not harming the environment. When I spray it, I still hear the birds chirping. I know I didn’t hurt anything.”

The difference between an organic orchard and a chemical one, as Rettinger says they should be called, was pretty obvious to her from the get-go.

In the orchard where pesticides had been sprayed regularly for decades, she found only about four worms after digging 300 holes for new trees. In a spot without trees or spraying, she found loads of worms with every hole she dug. “That other area was nuked by Roundup. This area,” she says pointing to the new trees, “is how it should be.”

How should it be? Rettinger says it’s basically about transforming a monoculture devoid of other vegetation into a vibrant ecosystem with a multitude of plant life, animal life and microbes that protect and help each other: supportive plants that control pests and diseases then decompose and provide nutrients to the soil; animals that root through the soil and fertilize it along the way.

Is it a challenge? You bet, says Andy Lonsdorf of Silver Creek Orchards, located between Wausau and Merrill. Lonsdorf was once in a similar position but on a smaller scale. Lonsdorf turned his family’s orchard, started in 1978, into an organic one in 2012.

Lonsdorf, who sells apples at the Wausau Farmers Market, says the certified organic process can be challenging. On top of substituting synthetic chemicals for all those organic practices, the certification requires constant learning and documenting every single thing you do.

“You have to be a chemist almost,” Lonsdorf says. “You have to know well how your trees are reacting to the fertilizers and other things you’re putting in the ground.”

That being the case, Rettinger is well set for success, says orchard expert Michael Phillips. Based in New Hampshire, Phillips has written a series of books on organic orchard management and provides mentoring to those starting up. Lonsdorf also mentioned Phillips, saying one of his books was a big help when he went organic.

With remote advice from New Hampshire, Phillips is mentoring Rettinger as she converts her orchard.

“Lisa’s science background is useful because she’s able to break beyond ‘chemical speak’ and think biologically,” says Phillips. “The people getting involved with trees range from young permaculturists to those ready for a fun second career.”

Restoring the soil fungi, which has a symbiotic relationship with plants, is the most important thing to focus on in the conversion process, Phillips says. At Grandview, the ground around the trees is no longer barren dirt. There’s grass underfoot.

Restoring the soil seems like a natural thing to do in a place where wildlife is abundant. During the interview with Rettinger, a large grey fox crosses the dirt road that leads through the orchard. Rettinger says a trail cam regularly turns up foxes, coyotes, bears and other critters as they wander the grounds.

Earning a living on the land

Selling apples in all their many varieties is far from the only products an orchard can offer. Last spring, Rettinger sold more than 2,000 fruit tree saplings, including apple trees, cherry trees, pear trees and so forth.

There’s cider, of course. The owners of a nearby farm, who operated the cider portion of Grandview Orchard’s business for its elderly owners, showed Rettinger how to do it. Since then she’s become a cider perfectionist, blending sweet or sour varieties until she achieves the right flavor.

Last winter, Antigo Bike and Ski Club members made an event of coming to the orchard to help make cider. Rettinger’s organic approach fits with what’s generally important to them: staying active and eating healthy, says Brady Koss, club president. “I’m so glad that Lisa is back home and operating the orchard,” Koss says. “The improvement can already be seen and tasted.”

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Rettinger plans to offer all sorts of apple-based concoctions: cider boiled down to a syrup that rivals maple syrup, apple chips and canned apple products.

She also hopes to include an educational component of the orchard with workshops to teach people how to grow their own fruit or make products from the apples they buy from her. She gets a lot of inquiries about the natural products she uses—neem oil and fish fertilizer—and while she buys them in 55-gallon drums, they could be a product she offers at the orchard.

Grandview Orchard is open Thursday through Saturday, but people drive through all the time, Rettinger says. The orchard has become almost a mini tourist attraction for those curious to see so much activity on the farm again.

Curiosity is where it starts. Rettinger knows that not everyone is on board with organic. Some people still ask for just the cheapest product or if she has “regular” apples.

But many are embracing Rettinger’s apples, and organic food is becoming a growing niche even in a small city like Antigo. In her business, Rettinger wants to show what she believes is a better way to farm for the environment, and that it can be done with just a few acres. “I feel I have a tremendous opportunity here to set an example… whether it’s showing people how they can get into farming without buying 1,000 acres, or maybe showing people some things they can do sustainably in their own backyards.”

Source: Wausau City Pages