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.
AT A GLANCE
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’
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
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
- 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
- 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.)
Asked if he communicates with other organic apple growers about
techniques, Read said he has met Peter Ricker from Ricker Hill Orchard
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
Read uses vinegar as an herbicide to control weeds under his apple
“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
“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
“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
“I’ve had over 20 acres of green beans – all
“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
“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
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,”
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
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
“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,”
“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.