Molter Family Orchards, Part I

Molter skyline

I leave around 9 a.m. from South Bend, where I’d spent the night, stopping for coffee and a breakfast bagel at the Union Coffee House in Buchanan, then find my way over to M140 which takes me most of the way to my destination: Molter Family Orchards. On the way on this unusually cool August morning I cruise past corn fields, the edges undulating in a shimmery wave from the steady wind that’s coming from the west. After the rains of the night before the air is so clear that you realize most days you only think it is. Clouds slide across an unseen ceiling low enough to make you think twice about driving under them but high enough to make the vastness of the land felt a little, more like what you get out in the far plains and much different than what you get in Kalamazoo, where there are just enough hills to create small, homier spaces. Despite the waving cornfields, this is clearly orchard country. Apples, plums, and cherries all grow in abundance here, roadside stands advertising whatever’s in season, but right now it’s the middle of that short stretch of summer when the peach reigns queen (though as I write this, I digest the sad news that we’ve gotten the last peaches of the summer from our Molter CSA). It’s in the middle of all this that you’ll find Molter’s farm. Their address says Benton Harbor, but they’re right out here under the clouds, surrounded by other farms.

From 2005-10, my wife and I did summer CSAs with both Blue Dog Greens and Bear Foot Farm, but 2011 brought a summer with a lot of travel that made it pointless to sign up. When we were in town, we found that we liked having more control over what we ate each week than we got with the CSAs, and we were able to branch out and shop from more farmers at the market, so we thought we’d stay CSA-free from then on. That fall, though, we went to Molter for u-pick organic apples, and then that winter Aaron and Kari, the young farmers we’d met at the u-pick, advertised a new CSA that was going to have not vegetables but also a variety of fruit from their farm:  apples, of course, but also strawberries, cherries, plums, and pears (the peaches are slightly more recent). As most people reading this know, organic fruit is one of the hardest things to source locally, despite the amount of fruit grown in the area. So to ensure that some of that fruit would make its way to our table and into the belly of our then 4-year-old, we signed up, and we even offered to be the Kalamazoo pick-up location. We’ve never regretted it. It helps that Aaron and Kari are two of the nicest and most generous people we’ve met, even by the standards of friendliness and generosity that we find among the farmers we deal with at the market and through our previous CSAs. They showed this generosity again by being willing to sit down and talk with me during the super-busy peach season.

Before I started the recorded portion of my conversation (email me if you’d like to hear the whole thing) with Aaron and Kari, I chatted with Aaron about a large peach he’d just brought over from a neighbor who breeds and patents new varieties of peach trees. I ignorantly asked where the demand for these new varieties comes from, since existing varieties of peaches seem pretty stable — you can count on finding at least some of the same ones every year — and hardly suffer in the flavor department. If I’d thought for a second before opening my mouth, though, I would have realized it’s the same as with other crops. As Aaron explained, if you can get better disease resistance or more transportable fruit (for growers supplying distant markets), that’s a good thing. But he mentioned three things I wouldn’t have thought of: patents run out, and since trees take some time before they grow big enough to produce, and longer yet to be evaluated for commercial production, a successful one will only have a handful of years to generate royalties for the patent-holder. So if part of your income comes from patents, you need to be more or less constantly developing new varieties that will appeal to orchardists. The second thing is this: different varieties ripen in different ways, and so some require more picking over a longer period of time (and so more labor), or more careful attention to ideal picking time (some can be not quite ripe in the morning and overripe the same afternoon). So if you can create a variety that requires less labor to pick or more predictability in how to pick it optimally, you have something others will want to buy. Related to this is the third thing, the question of how long it takes from flowering to ripening. If you can have a number of different varieties that will predictably ripen in succession, then you can space out labor and have a lot more fruit to sell over a longer stretch. All of which leads some growers to experiment endlessly with coming up with new varieties, and others to buy them.

Aaron’s short lesson in peach growing instantly made me more appreciative of what I so easily take for granted: fresh, tasty produce. Unlike his neighbor, he is certified organic, which means there are a whole lot of constraints on what he can do with his trees that his neighbor doesn’t have. But the same basic problems still confront him. It’s a challenging business, and even the best growers, he said, “don’t really know what they’re doing” — there are just too many factors that you can’t predict or control.

After that I sat down with both Aaron and Kari and recorded an hour of conversation. Below is a write-up of part of this conversation. I’ll have one or two more  posts over the next few days that cover the rest. Enjoy!

I started by asking Aaron and Kari some basics about their farm and how they got into farming. Kari went first, recounting how they were living in Chicago a few years ago and Aaron “started doing a lot of research on organic farming … He would talk to me and say ‘I read this and this sounds exciting and I think I could do this with my family farm,’ and I would listen, and I’d say, ‘oh, I’m sure you can do whatever you set your mind to and it would be awesome.'” This generated a laugh from Aaron, but Kari continued, “it got to a point where he was like, ‘you know, I’m ready to go back and try this.’ And that was, I think … summer of 07. So Aaron came back and got right to work … He handled the crops for that year” which initially “was just apples.” Aaron immediately started with the organic certification process, and since most of the land he wanted to grow vegetables on had been fallow for some years, it was approved as organic the following year, 2008. (Transition to organic of land under cultivation takes three years.)

I asked Aaron about it being a family farm, and he told me, “yeah, it’s fifth generation, almost a hundred years here. The Molters go back to one of the original settlers in the area. There’s probably six or eight original families that settled this area.” But Aaron, who has two sisters, is the only one of his generation farming. His parents still live up the road, and some of the orchards are on their property, but they’re not actively farming any more. This all might sound like it would make for an easy start: free land with orchards already planted, right? Later when we were talking about the challenges new farmers face, I brought this up again, and Aaron made it pretty clear: “nothing was given to us. [The land] was rented, or this or that, and we had to fight for every single acre. Still today, I mean, every time we go out, we have to fight for something to get control of it. It’s hard…it’s very hard.” As Kari noted with a laugh: “farm families can be complicated.”

But things have worked out so far for Aaron and Kari, and they are now growing not only tree fruit but also vegetables. Many of the fruit trees are ones they’ve planted since they started, not all of which have started to produce yet (this week’s share had the first plums from trees planted five years ago at Aaron’s parents place, then uprooted and replanted at theirs). Most of their business comes through a CSA with several dozen members and pick-up sites in Benton Harbor, South Bend, and Kalamazoo and direct sales  to a variety of retailers in the region, including Whole Foods, Earth Fare, and the People’s Food Co-op in Kalamazoo.  They also, Aaron tells me, “sel[l] through other salespeople throughout the United States, East Coast,” though “in very small numbers.” He’s told me a bit about this before. You know those individually wrapped cucumbers at Meijer or other large grocery stores, for instance? When you see one, it could be from Molter. (I used to think this was a really wasteful way to sell vegetables, with that extra plastic packaging, but Aaron explained that it extends the shelf-life considerably. Not ideal, perhaps, but it creates a market for people like Aaron and Kari and makes good produce more widely accessible.) So Molter is a good bit bigger than some of the vendors you’ll find at the farmers’ markets, but in the context of regional agriculture, Aaron and Kari still see themselves as a small farm: “compared to what happens around here on a daily basis, it’s so tiny,” Aaron says. “I mean, the amount of produce that goes out of here every day, it’s…millions of pounds every day that gets shipped out of this little area.” We were talking about this in the context of how much growth there has been and how much more there might be in local, sustainable agriculture — the next post will have a lot more about that.

One place you won’t see Molter this year is at the local farmers’ markets. Last summer you might have seen them behind a large stand filled with fruit and vegetables at the Bank St. Farmers’ Market, but they opted not to go this year. It’s a huge amount of work getting everything prepared for the market, getting it there, and getting back (about 50 minutes each way, by my count). That makes for a whole day not spent either in the fields or with family. They have enough other ways to sell that they don’t have to do this, and they have two little girls, not yet in school, so time is precious.

The girls weren’t there when we talked, but Kari keeps us posted on their antics in the weekly CSA email. I asked them if they’re happy that their girls get to grow up on the family farm, and Kari made it clear: “At this point, with how excited Helen [the older one] is for everything, I can’t imagine having her anywhere else…If Aaron has to go work, [she asks] ‘are you going to be out on the tractor? can I go get my headphones? I want to…’ And she’ll watch him and be like ‘is he going to take that out without me?’” And the food they’re growing is important too, Kari says: “You know, whatever is picked that day, you know, she demands that she gets one… and I love it!” Not that there weren’t some concerns about having kids where they live, in part because she grew up near Chicago with a lot of other people around: “There’s some things where initially I was kind of resistant, like we don’t have this little people community for our kids as far as like a neighborhood, but we have so many other things to offer. And there are, we’re finding such a great community…off the farm… [so] I’m starting to get so much more reassured that it all balances out.” Overall? “It’s just great. And they can eat it [the food we grow], and I don’t have to freak out, and I know where it’s coming from! ‘Cause it’s coming from our yard.”

And that’s one of the great things about getting food from people like Aaron and Kari: their yard becomes your yard.

In the rest of the conversation we ranged widely over questions of the business of farming: distribution, marketing, growth, what has happened and what might happen in the region as far as local and sustainable agriculture. I’ll write up that stuff in the days to come. A teaser though: playing a starring role, according to Aaron and Kari, is the People’s Food Co-op in Kalamazoo: “The Co-op really, I mean it changed how we do everything,” says Aaron – and in a good way!

Stay tuned…


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