Hard times for a big organic orchard
One New England farmer shares some of the struggles and triumphs of going organic

By Eesha Williams

December 23, 2004:
The Miller Farm is spread over hundreds of acres in southeastern Vermont. The farm has been owned and operated by the same family for more than 200 years. Most years, depending on the size of the apple crop, most of the farm’s income is from apples. The rest is from other fruits, vegetables, maple syrup, hay and timber.

Read Miller, the current owner, switched to all organic production in 1995, making the Miller Farm among the biggest organic orchards in the eastern United States. Read lives on the farm with his wife, Malah, and two of their three teenage children.

The transition to organic has not been easy for the Millers. Read is considering switching at least part of the orchard back to conventional production. The biggest problem he has encountered since switching to organic is apple scab. This has been exacerbated in recent years by record heavy rains in May and June.

“I thought becoming organic would be like adding one more rung to my ladder of skills that I had built by using integrated pest management (IPM) through years of trial and error,” Read said when we spoke in October. “That was a very large mistake. I didn’t realize that becoming organic would be like starting off again on the ground and having to build a whole new ladder.... Right now I’m at the point where if I fail one more time with apples, we will have to either spray synthetic chemicals at the last minute and stop being organic, or we will keep just some of the orchard organic.”

In the 1980s, Vermont’s Department of Agriculture did a survey that found the Miller Farm had the lowest pesticide usage per acre in the state, Read said. The survey also found that the Miller’s per-acre yield of apples over a 10 year period was almost double the state average: they harvested 609 bushels of apples per acre.

The Miller Farm has “well over” 100 acres of apple trees (Read declined to be more specific) and about 70 acres for vegetables. At any given time, half to two-thirds of those 70 acres are under cover crop.

Read owns the business and most of the land; the rest is rented. He took over the business from his father in the late 1990s. “I inherited some of the farm and I bought some. I’ve butted heads with my father almost forever,” he said. When Read bought the business his father “did not step aside gracefully. He still wants to be in control.”

Read has three siblings. “They didn’t have the drive and desire to farm that I have had for as long as I can remember. They didn’t have any interest in taking over the farm from our parents,” he said.

About six months before we spoke, an electrical fire in the Miller’s apple-packing barn caused an estimated $450,000 in losses. Read said he and his father hadn’t spoken since the fire. They live less than a mile from one another.

But there are some bright spots, too. The Miller Farm has raised up to 12 acres of turnips in one year and made $4,500 an acre on that crop alone, Read said. The Miller Farm makes up to $1,000 a week at the seasonal Brattleboro Farmers’ Market, located just off of Interstate 91.

Malah is in charge of making the farm’s value-added products, like pickles, jams, and jellies. Read estimated they make $20,000 a year from these items.

“A few years ago we were probably the biggest organic orchard in the eastern U.S.,” Read said. “I think Ricker Hill Orchard in Turner, Maine now has 100 acres of organic apples. We have more than 100 acres of apples, but Ricker Hill probably grossed more this year.”

Read received a degree in Agriculture from the University of Massachusetts at Stockbridge in the late 1970s. He and Malah met there.

“When I went to college, ‘organic’ was what hippies did,” Read said. “In the circles I was part of, [we thought] anyone who used the word ‘organic’ lived in the city and was not a real farmer. We thought anyone who was making a living from farming was farming conventionally. If anyone had told me then that I would be an organic farmer one day, I would have told them they were full of it.”

Nevertheless, Read said, a lot of what he learned in college has been useful on the farm.

In 1994, the Chinese government hired Read as a consultant to come to China for a month and meet with Chinese apple farmers. “Before I went to China, I firmly believed that you couldn’t grow apples organically in the Northeastern U.S.,” he said. “But when I was in China, I saw they were organic because they couldn’t afford chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The idea of becoming organic took hold in my mind.”

The next year, the Miller Farm went all organic.


The Miller Farm
Dummerston, Vermont

Location: Near Massachusetts and New Hampshire, about 100 miles northwest of Boston.

Operation: Apple orchard, plus other fruits, vegetables, maple syrup, hay, and timber. All certified organic since 1995. (The farm has been continuously operated since the late 1700s.)

Marketing: Wholesale to supermarket chains and local stores, retail at farm stand, pick-your-own, mail order, and the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market.

Employees: Up to 50 seasonally. Four or five year-round.

Member of: Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA).

I asked Read what advice he would give to a conventional apple farmer who is thinking of becoming organic. “The biggest piece of advice I could give is, first, talk to everyone you can who has done it,” he replied. “The Extension office isn’t necessarily the place that has the answers. Then, leave everything that you know to be true, and all the tools and experience you have -- leave them behind emotionally and physically. Have your mind take on complete openness. No one told me that. It took three years for me to do it.”

Read was ambivalent about whether an orchard should be partly organic or all organic. Early in our hour-long conversation, he said a conventional apple farmer who wants to become organic should start with just part of their acreage. But later he said: “Our orchard was half organic and half conventional for a year before we went all-organic,” he said. “It took me a long time to have my mind swept of old habits. I would say to myself, ‘If only I could use some insecticides to solve this problem...’ It took me three years to get my head organic. When your farm is half organic and half conventional, it’s a little like being married and screwing around at the same time: you can’t get your mind clean.”

We spoke over tea at the worn wooden kitchen table in his modest house on Miller Road, near the center of town. Like many New England farmers, Read was occasionally less than direct when asked about trade secrets. When asked, “How many tractors do you have?” He answered, “Not enough to get everything done; too many to fix.”

Read attends church and has a reputation among his neighbors for generosity. When a nearby vegetable farmer’s tractor broke down at a crucial time of year, Read loaned the farmer a replacement tractor for two weeks.

Read is tall and built like a football linebacker. His wife Malah is blonde and petite. They are an attractive, youthful couple. But Read declined repeated requests to be photographed. “I have to comb my hair – call next week,” he joked at the end of our interview. He did not return several phone messages over the next week.

Random facts about the Miller farm

According to Read Miller, the Miller Farm:

  • Has grown about 70 varieties of apples for the past 50 years.
  • Is hilly. The farm’s lowest point is 400 feet above sea level; the highest is 2,000 feet.
  • Is spread out. One end of the farm is 50 miles from the other end.
  • Produces about 30,000 gallons of apple juice annually for sale to wine makers and for hard cider.
  • Is one of the biggest rhubarb growers in the Northeast, with about 8,000 plants. The majority is sold to wine makers. The rhubarb was certified organic in the early 1990s.
  • Produces maple syrup, timber, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, grapes, rutabagas, turnips, pears, peaches, hay, salad greens, spinach, tomatoes and other minor crops.
  • Operates several greenhouses.
  • Usually sells mostly wholesale—sometimes 90-percent wholesale. This year, due to the poor apple harvest, most sales were retail.
  • Is heavily influenced by weather. Since 1998, the farm’s highest gross income for one year was $900,000; the lowest was $300,000.
  • Is the oldest continuously operating maple syrup farm in Vermont.
  • Was home to the oldest continuously operated Holstein cow herd in the nation. Read’s second cousin, Peter Miller, now keeps the herd in nearby Vernon, Vermont. The Miller Farm no longer raises livestock, except for a few pet horses, goats and sheep.
  • Has enough cool and controlled atmosphere (adjusted oxygen, nitrogen and Co2) storage space for 50,000 boxes of apples. (One apple box weighs 42 pounds.)

Growing techniques

Asked if he communicates with other organic apple growers about techniques, Read said he has met Peter Ricker from Ricker Hill Orchard once.

The University of Vermont (UVM) Extension has been supportive, he said. “But we have given them more ideas than they have given us. As opposed to me going to them for answers, they usually come to see me, and they go away with ideas they want to try out.” Read said he has spoken many times UVM vegetable and berry expert Vern Grubinger.

Read uses vinegar as an herbicide to control weeds under his apple trees.

“I love our soil type,” Read said. “I’ve been all around the world and I wouldn’t go anywhere else to grow what we grow.” The farm has bottomland and upland soils.

“We don’t have a problem with soil erosion. On our sloped fields, we grow perennials like grapes, raspberries and blueberries. We have enough bottom land with reasonably level ground to grow [vegetable] crops.”

“We have several acres of grapes on our very weak, well-drained steep soils with very little loam that you couldn’t do anything else with except pasture.”

To build organic matter on vegetable fields and in greenhouses, “We make a lot of apple cider, up to 100,000-plus gallons a year, which gives us a mountain of pumice. We use pumice and mulch hay. We used to get leaf matter from the [county government]. We don’t buy manure.”

Read especially likes plow-down clover as a cover crop.

“I don’t do any soil testing anymore. I used to, but by now I have a really good idea of what my soils are like.”

The Miller Farm avoids transplanting vegetables, preferring to direct seed.

“I’ve had over 20 acres of green beans – all hand harvested.”

“Me and my family have been growing peaches here for 150 years. We plant new peach trees every four years. Our peach trees last 12 to 15 years, tops. We plant them closer together than we used to. We prune them hard to keep the strength and vigor up.”

“With apples, we can graft trees. Planting is needed mostly to adjust your varieties for what the market wants. Our orchard is so big, we plant and cut down some apple trees every two or three years.” Pears are slightly easier to grow than apples, Read said.

“I have found that there are certain apple varieties that are easier to grow organically around here: Red Delicious, Gala, Ida Red, Paula Red.”

“Now I have a few Gala, a lot of Red Delicious. Nearly half of our apples trees are Macintosh – that’s our biggest variety. It’s very hard to grow organically. Now people want Gala and other varieties. Macintosh isn’t necessarily first on their list.”

“We have no problem with irrigation. We have two year-round streams and six or seven ponds. We know how to pump water.”

“There are three things between me and great financial success as an organic apple grower: apple scab, coddling moth, and apple maggot. Scab is the primary problem, and it’s been much worse since we’ve been organic. If we can get through scab season with some normal weather, then everything else is OK. There are ways to deal with coddling moths and apple maggots. My biggest nightmare is to have three or four days of continuous wet weather in May or June.”

Read is proud of his innovations: “In 1978, we were the first farm in Vermont to use row cover on strawberries. Now everyone does that... I had the idea for the Health Spout maple sugaring spout. It allows you to get the same yield by drilling a smaller hole in the maple tree. The idea is ‘smaller holes in smaller trees.’ [Westminster, Vermont farmer] Dan Crocker took the idea to Canada and had them made, but the idea was entirely mine. Now the entire North American maple syrup industry uses them. That was probably my biggest achievement. But nothing would have come of my idea if Dan hadn’t gotten the taps made.”

Read’s latest innovation could be even more significant: “I’m working on year-round maple sugar tapping,” he said.

The future

Read and Malah have three children: Will is 14, Ruth is 16, and Martha is 19.

“I want my kids to enjoy their lives and be happy. I will not apply pressure on them to try to get them to work on the farm or to take it over one day,” he said. “Lately, my son has been showing a genuine interest in the farm. I have no idea what Ruth’s plans are. Martha despised me and what I did for a long time. Now that she’s older and she is living her own life, she actually comes home and is interested in doing what I’m doing. ”

Asked if he wants to continue growing organically, Read said, “I don’t have a choice. I have to do what needs to be done to make a living. I may no longer have the pleasure of being an organic farmer. At this point, if I have to put something in the [sprayer] tank to get a crop through I will. But I haven’t done that yet.”

“Becoming organic hasn’t worked out well as a business decision for apples. It has for other crops. Part of that is because we have had bad weather a lot since we became organic. In 2000, we had what I think was the wettest spring and summer on record. In 2001, we probably had the highest value crop of any farm in Vermont; we grossed almost $900,000.”

In 2002, there was a late freeze that caused a small apple harvest. In 2003, a very rainy spring had the same effect. This summer was the third rainiest on record in Vermont.

Read says growing vegetables organically is easy compared to growing apples organically. “When I want a vacation, I grow vegetables,” he joked.

“I have two very simple goals. One, that my wife and I continue to be happy. The other is to be financially successful – to be able to pay my bills.”

Eesha Williams is a reporter for NPR-affiliate WAMC and author of Grassroots Journalism (Apex Press, 2000). He lives in Vermont.