Fruit adds profit, pleasure to family farm
by Rachel Coleman
At the Roger and Wendy Holmes farm southeast of Plains, corn stalks crackle like brown paper bags as summer's last blast of heat readies the plants for harvest. Although the family home stands amid a patchwork of corn, wheat, milo and soybeans, one shouldn't mistake Holmes for a standard, row-crop farmer: he's also a second-generation fruit grower, tending to a harvest filled with trees and vines his father, Howard, planted decades ago.
At Nutricultured Orchard, known informally as The Apple Hutch, visitors can pick and eat peaches, apples, pears and grapes. Beginning in mid-summer, as various strains ripen, the orchard welcomes a steady stream of area residents to its carefully marked quadrants. In the fall, school buses bring children to the orchard. By November, the growing season wraps up with late apples and pears.
Though he'd grown up on the family farm, Holmes said the addition of the orchard coincided with his return to Plains after attending college at Taylor University, a small liberal arts Christian college in Indiana. A biology systems major, Holmes agreed with his father that Southwest Kansas might be a good place to raise fruit. He lists the reasons without missing a beat:
"The ground is very productive here. We've had a tremendous source of water from the Ogallala Aquifer. The heat is great for fruit trees," he said. "Our problem now, though, is water, especially in these drought conditions. We've had to redesign the orchard to water more efficiently."
Holmes said his father's desire to raise fruit had another motive as well:
"He thought it would be nice to raise something that could be eaten directly — help people understand the connection between food and farming."
The Apple Hutch continues to honor the elder Holmes' vision, in cultivation and education.
"My dad passed away in 2003, but we've continued the orchard," Holmes said. Besides the fact that the family had already made a considerable investment, it went against their family culture to see anything — especially carefully cultivated trees — go to waste.
"We'd spent a lot of time and energy together to develop it," Holmes said. "But besides the economic factors, we enjoy it. We enjoy the fruit, and we enjoy the people."
Wendy Holmes especially enjoys coordinating and conducting school tours, Holmes said.
"We have a lot of them, during apple season and when we're ready to sell pumpkins in the fall," he said. "The kids enjoy it. I think it's important for people who live in the city to see that food doesn't just come from the discount store or the supermarket. It's amazing how many kids have never been out on a farm."
Through the years, the farm has experimented with a variety of ancillary ventures. For a while, the Holmes' sons raised chickens and sold eggs. The family operated an informal petting zoo for a time, with llama, a donkey and a corn pit in which visiting children could play. Now that they are high school students, "we ask them to help out in the summertime," Holmes said.
A farm boy himself, he's mindful of the need to allow his children the freedom to explore their options.
"I don't want to turn them against coming back to the farm," he said. "It's more a matter of presenting them with the opportunity once they've had a chance to go to college." Such possibilities are one of the reasons the family has maintained the orchard, he noted.
"In farming, it's important to make money," he said. "Farming is my family's only source of income. With corn at $8 a bushel, we ought to be able to be profitable, but even so, with a farm this size, you have to think about how many families it can support. The orchard changes the balance enough to make it possible."
Most summers, the family also sells sweet corn, and, in the fall, pumpkins. The weather sometimes knocks out a crop or two, interrupting the farm's rhythm. In 2011, a late storm froze the blossoms on the peach trees and eliminated the harvest. This year, high summer temperatures and disease ruined the three acres of pumpkins the family planted.
However, the fruit has fared well, Holmes said, particularly the pears.
"We're going to have a tremendous crop," he noted. The orchard has entered a planning phase, with old trees slated for removal, and new acres of peaches still maturing. A high-density planting system for new varieties of apples should boost production, Holmes said, "and we're excited to offer more popular varieties — Pink Lady, Honeycrisp, Cameo."
Optimism is key for any Kansas farmer, Holmes said, whether the yield is Fiji apples or winter wheat.
"I don't know how you could possibly farm if you didn't have a positive attitude," Holmes said. "You have to deal with so many things. Every year, something happens that you can't control. Most farmers are optimistic by nature. If you're not, you've long since given up the ghost."
Although Southwest Kansas has weathered drought conditions for two years now, Holmes said the climate is not the most pressing concern. The regulatory environment is his biggest worry.
"The U.S. Department of Labor proposed a rule that would basically keep my kids from being able to operate farm machines, and my sons have helped me since they were 10," he said. "The new regulations would prevent farmers from allowing their kids to help in any significant way until they are 16." More than the logistical problems this would pose, Holmes said he's troubled by the way such laws damage the very fabric of life for farm families.
"It takes away the opportunity to help your children develop a work ethic, to understand they need to get out there and help," he said. "It's not just an economic issue, it's about quality of life."
By contrast, Holmes would like to see more thoughtfully crafted water policy that addresses regional problems.
"Here in Kansas, we're not drilling more water wells, but across the state line in Oklahoma, they're drilling wherever they want to — and we're all pumping out of the same pool, the Ogallala Aquifer. It's crucial that we have water policy because it affects the longevity of farming in the region, the land values, everything."
Despite such pressing issues, Holmes said he finds satisfaction and great enjoyment in life on the family farm. Though agricultural life will always demand a tremendous amount of work, he's learned to ease off a bit and savor the down time.
"I've lived and worked here all my life," he said. "As time goes on, I have learned to take time to enjoy my family and relax in the winter, and that's a good thing."