The owners of a Gorham, Maine farm are hoping to become a hub for good, local food. “The general trend is moving toward becoming a suburb of Portland,” said Steven Bibula. “That’s good for us, because it’s an area that is densely populated by people who are very interested in local and artisan.” Bibula and his wife started Plowshares Farm with the intention of picking up where Bibula left off. His original farm enterprise was raising organic vegetables for a CSA, but it became apparent that their location was far enough inland that local customers weren’t willing to pay for CSA shares. Although Bibula was trained in organic growing, he has since abandoned that model in favor of carefully planned IPM that emphasizes appropriate rootstock, resistant varieties and minimal chemical applications. “I began moving away from the CSA model in 2012 by establishing fruit trees,” said Bibula, adding that he received significant help from state pomologist Renae Moran. “I found that I loved growing apples and the site was good for apples. The first planting was a modified tall spindle — it was modified to fit my equipment, with 15’ spacing between rows and 3’ to 6’ between trees depending on variety.”
From the start, Bibula focused on the best of the disease-resistant varieties available. “We decided to commit to entirely disease-resistance so we can offer low spray and also set ourselves apart from farms that offer the most common varieties,” he said. We started with Golden Sweet, GoldRush, Crimson Crisp, Enterprise and Florina. We’ve been planting additional trees each year since 2012 and will soon have 10 acres of modified tall spindle planting, fully dwarf trees suitable for you-pick.” Bibula has plantings on Bud9, MM111 and M9-M111 interstems and also some on new Geneva rootstock. Biubula noted that Crimson Crisp has proven to be too sensitive to chemical thinning and dropped almost the entire crop at 10mm last year. Despite the setback, the third leaf block yielded about 77 bushels of fruit for a total of more than 230 bushels per acre. “With the interstems, we’ll be putting G-890,”said Bibula. “We’ll have the precocity we need and trees that require very little or no support after the fifth leaf, so we can do it on a much lighter trellis or an individual stake. This will lend itself to the you-pick operation. For efficiency of chemical applications, I prefer to plant trees with consideration of both rootstock and variety so that they’ll eventually fill in the spaces.”
Although Bibula started off with the tall spindle model, he’s modifying that plan because of the cost of the installation and trellising. He says for some of of the most popular apple varieties, especially Honey Crisp, Cornell and other extension agencies are recommending to not crop in second leaf. “If you’re going to hold off until third leaf and since tall spindle gives its best payback by cropping in second leaf, then maybe tall spindle isn’t the way to go for some varieties,” he said. “We’re switching to semi- or full free-standing, precocious and dwarfable systems.” The latest-ripening apple for the area is Gold Rush, which ripens in the beginning of November. “Gold Rush bears on one-year old wood, is a tip bearer and new growth is pulled toward the ground from the weight of fruit,” said Bibula. “That means Gold Rush will never grow very wide, and it also has vigorous leader growth. It can easily be planted too far apart.” Bibula plans to do complete renewal pruning on all trees, even those that are free-standing, after the fifth leaf. That will keep the trees in a nice, young healthy vigorous condition and dwarfed adequately for an entirely U-pick operation. If complete renewal pruning isn’t effective, the trees can be pruned to a scaffold system.
“Once fully planted and producing, we will be able offer continuous you-pick apples from mid-August through early November,” said Bibula. “We’ll have 21 disease resistant varieties ripening progressively over that period, including some extra quantities for storage to supply our retail store for winter sales. We have planted fruit trees, raspberries and high bush blueberries each year since 2012, and we anticipate that about fourteen acres will be fully planted by the end of 2017, completing our you-pick plan.” The orchard also includes you-pick pears, which Bibula established in 2012 as a trial. Pears include about 40 Europe varieties and 20 Asian varieties. “We chose for fire blight resistance,” said Bibula, adding that he hopes to be able to educate people about how to properly ripen fresh pears. “They’re dwarf and cold hardy. I’m growing them as open vase and we’ll have the first fruit in 2015.” Although Bibula originally grew raspberries outdoors, they didn’t thrive. He’s now growing Joan J raspberries in a 30’ x 96’ high tunnel. “I really like this variety,” said Bibula. “They’re completely thornless and produce a deep, red conical berry. Joan J is very you-pick friendly.” Starting this year, Bibula plans to double crop the high tunnel raspberries. He’s keeping some of last year’s canes (after thinning and topping) and they’ bear fruit in late July. The primocanes that come up in spring will bear in fall. Bibula realizes that high-tunnel cane fruit isn’t an option for every grower, but he seen no signs of spotted wing drosophila (SWD) in the high tunnel. “It could be because we had raspberries outside the high tunnel and to spray for SWD there,” he said. “Maybe they were acting as a trap crop.” After adding more Joan J raspberries in spring 2015, the 30 x 96 high tunnel will be devoted fully to raspberries with four rows, planted 18” apart in the row, supported aggressively to prop up to extra long growth that goes along with growing under cover. Drip irrigation is used in the high tunnel with emitters at 12”. The orchard is also irrigated with emitters at 24”.
A greenhouse that had previously been used for growing trellised cucumbers and bedding plants is now being used for growing started pullets that sell well in the area. Another added enterprise is offering apple, peach and blueberry bushes in pots. “It’s a convenient way to bring in extra revenue,” said Bibula. “Since I’m growing the same plants myself, I have more credibility with the customer.” This past fall, Bibula received an LFPP (Local Food Promotion Program) grant under the latest Farm Bill. The LFPP grant supports producers who are promoting both their own products and other producers’ products. Bibula will receive up to $97,000 to cover purchases of equipment and machinery, including a freezer and a walk-in cooler for storing fruit and vegetables. The grant, which is implementable over 24 months, will also cover the cost of hiring a marketing firm that specializes in local food promotion. That firm will develop a promotion campaign that includes new signage, web development and advertising through various media outlets; all under the name of Orchard Ridge. “It will reflect the fact that we’ll be a hub for local food,” said Bibula of the farm’s new name and marketing strategy. “In order to effectively promote the farm as a source for good, local food, rebranding was necessary. We want to give the impression that we are a destination for good, local food.”