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Planning for Disaster

Posted by Prairie Sundance 
Planning for Disaster
September 21, 2022 08:21AM
As someone who’s getting closer to having to take this endeavor “seriously”, (not sure why I feel that way still, after already investing thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in our orchard-maybe because it’s not yet tens of thousands of either yet, or that we still haven’t sold our first apple,) I find myself worrying about worst case scenarios and how to plan for them. Maybe it’s because I’ve always had a doomsday tilt, (our working name was, in jest, “End Times Fruit Farm” before my kids and mother voted to change it.) One memoir I read at the beginning of our adventure told the story of a woman who took over an orchard just before the devastating ice storms that annihilated the Baldwins planted on the eastern seaboard in the 30s. This story reinforced our desire to plant a diverse orchard, and with the uncertainties of climate change, I believe planning for weather events is a necessity. But how?

Have any of you experienced anything like “total crop failure” and how did you survive? Do any of you have anything like a contingency plan for that really really REALLY bad year? Do you rely on income separate from your orchard anyways? Any other calming wisdom to offer would be appreciated.


SW Wisconsin zone 5a/4b
Homestead/community orchard
2ish acres with half planted in 2018-2019 with heritage apples, alternating b118, antonovka, and seedling roots
Second half planted 2021-22 with plums, cherries, apricot, peach, pears, etc...
SE slope, trees are planted in contoured berms
Native prairie species for all ground cover

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 09/27/2022 02:51PM by Prairie Sundance.
Re: Planning for Disaster
September 21, 2022 06:01PM
I have, several times. A few years ago, actually 3 years in a row, I lost entire apple crops. Twice to hail and once to spring frost. I didn't lose "everything" but it was enough that I had to look off farm to other sources of income. The last time time (#4) was a large orchard I was managing in upstate NY that lost almost all of their apples and stone fruit. Stone fruit, not really having good crop insurance was what it was, the apple crop insurance paid back handsomely but still only covered operating costs and only with a lot of headaches dealing with insurance. There have been other less severe issues, but not enough to trigger massive losses. More recently and in a holistic world, we have fireblight, borers, codling moth, plum curculio, and more to contend with. This all left me thinking that we always need to play to the downside - to some degree - without overcompensating and undermanaging the orchards or fruit. How much can you afford to lose and for how long? Don't invest more than you can lose or at least have some risk management instrument available to mitigate the potential losses. For this reason and more, risk management is paramount in my mind every year and goes way beyond crop insurance (which simply isn't appropriate for some, and not applicable to a lot of crops). There have been tree replacement programs (TAP) over the years help with replacing trees that are lost to widespread losses. The latest was a grower that lost 400 trees to fireblight. But not all state's have TAP, it is usually a state legislative item (not federal and certainly not part of RMA crop insurance), and its not always available. When it is there has to widespread losses or a line item in the budget, but usually always takes the entire industry to "encourage" the state to appropriate funds. Some of the best risk management things a grower can do (outside of insurance or TAP) is some sort of frost prevention, irrigation, good pest management, proper site selection, picking the right crops and varieties, staying away from problem varieties or crops, etc. In essence, control the things you can control and the rest is in Gaia's hands. I'm happy to chime in on specific issues or questions you may have, but this is a very general way how I approach risk management.

Mike Biltonen, Know Your Roots
Zone 5b in New York
Re: Planning for Disaster
September 23, 2022 03:18PM
Simply stated, have no debt.


Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 09/30/2022 05:31PM by Chris Vlitas.
Re: Planning for Disaster
September 28, 2022 02:18PM
I've been hearing the advice to be vigilantly "mortgage-free" and debt-free for years, and stressed myself about how I could maintain such status. But now having lived longer, I disagree.

The key for us was having a commitment to maintain an income that covers our monthly debt payments, whether we lost our farm proceeds or not. It's meant having a reliable off-farm income, which has also meant we can't commit our total work effort to growing fruit. But it allowed us to leverage the bank's money to buy land and build a farm much earlier than we could have if we'd saved every penny until we had enough to do it debt-free. Now the land we bought 15 years ago has risen in value three-fold!

So my advice is, don't wait. If you have to borrow to build, do so. Just be clear that the borrowed funds must be invested in the infrastructure necessary to eventually realize your farm-life dream. And be realistic about needing a steady, reliable income to cover those loan payments.
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