Tell us about your growing philosophy.
There was a time, having struggled to produce viable apple crops, we seriously considered going the conventional route. Virtually all of our apple-growing peers in the Southeast relied on heavy-hitting chemicals that were cheaper and more practically deployed than the softer organic formulations we favored; they were producing good-looking fruit with comparatively little labor and cost, while we were breaking our backs and applying an OMRI-approved fortune to our orchard with little to show for it. When we visited our conventional orchardist friends, they invariably joked that the girls at Kordick Family Farm “work harder, not smarter.”
We found ourselves at a crossroads moment, and felt we had two choices: go conventional or double-down on our organic approach. We have come to embrace as our motto, “We work harder, not smarter,” and as a point of pride, even had it stamped on our farm t-shirts. Ironically, where we ended up, orcharding holistically, requires us to be smarter than ever. Our hot, humid Southeastern climate will never be an apple-grower’s friend, and there will always be pests and diseases we struggle to control. The key is knowing what constitutes a true crisis or imbalance that merits heavier intervention beyond promoting the most ideal environment for our trees.
Tell us about your place on Earth.
We are located in the foothills of northwest Stokes County, NC, just a mile from the border with southwest VA, in growing zone 7a. We’ve got a postcard view of Pilot Mountain and there isn’t much between us and the Blue Ridge Mountains but a barbed wire fence, yet our actual altitude is only about 1,200 feet. Growing in a warm climate means our trees experience tremendous vigor, a boon for tree maturation, but means more pruning work, and can be a real drawback, given the opportunity for fireblight. We also struggle perennially with fungal fruit rots, which thrive in this climate.
We planted our first 10 acres of apple (and some pear) trees in 2009, then followed up in 2020 with another 8 acres of apple trees. We grafted each of our 1,800 trees onto MM111 rootstock, hand-dug each planting hole, and gave them a bucket of water to either sink or swim with. Our tough love approach resulted in remarkably hardy, deep-rooted trees. Now, over a decade on, we are entering the sweet-spot of mature production.
What draws you to growing fruit?
The love of eating fresh fruit! And as the challenges faced by fruit growers get harder in general, the rush of being able to pull it off at all. We are not strangers to commercial vegetable production, but fruit growing in the Southeast, and apple growing more specifically, really separates the wheat from the chaff . . . or the fruits from the suckers. Trying to do it any kind of organically on top of that means people really think you’re nuts.
As farmers specializing in fruit, we dabble in strawberries, blueberries, etc., too. Yet there is something about tree fruit that resonates on a different level. There is a sense of permanence and an intimacy you get from relating to your trees over the years; you get to know them in ways that just don’t crop up in a relationship with the common strawberry.
What holistic innovation keeps your trees rarin' to grow?
The holistic nature of the approach, period. In a conventional orchard, trees are directly dependent on spray materials to withstand an adverse event. If the farmer misses a spray, they’re in trouble, as there’s not much for the trees to fall back on if the input isn’t applied. A holistic orchardist’s work is never done; comprehensive health never gets checked off your to-do list. But the orchard’s health accrues with your diversified efforts, and we don’t often find ourselves in do or die situations linked to specific actions or non-actions.
How has an ecosystem approach changed your tree reality for the better?
Our trees have repeatedly astonished us by bouncing back from hailstorms, fireblight outbreaks, and periodical cicada infestation. This lets us know that the comprehensive health of our orchard is excellent. Growing fruit trees holistically is a ton of physical and intellectual work, but when we witness such consequential effects as a result of our efforts, we really feel good about what we are doing.
Share an “aha! moment” that made you a better grower.
We have discovered a new biocontrol that threatens to turn the fireblight tide in our favor: Agriphage™ Fireblight. This product consists of bacteriophages that exclusively target Erwinia amylovora, the bacterium that causes fireblight. We now use Agriphage extensively in our orchard, and it has helped us take control of our fireblight situation, which feels very much like a “Yeeeeessss!!!” moment. But when we reflect upon the fact that this big win still comes down to addressing the orchard on a microorganism level, we think, aha . . .
What might you change if you could do one thing over again in your orchard?
Over the years we have come to view all our endeavors as comprising one giant test orchard. We’ve even discussed the virtues of “flipping” orchards: establishing an orchard, learning from it, selling it, then using the knowledge and money to seed another new and improved orchard. Unfortunately, we get too attached to anything we graft to move forward in this fashion, but if we could start over again, we would plant our trees farther apart than the conventional spacing of 16 feet in-row, with 16-foot drive aisles, plus an extra-wide 24-foot one every third row.
Beyond that, we’ve often thought it would be intelligent to select the handful of varieties that naturally grow well in this climate, cut down all other varieties, and replant with those easy keepers. We haven’t done that, so you may draw your own conclusions.
How do you go about marketing the good fruit?
At planting, our orchard was originally intended for a hard cidery. This is reflected in many of the 175 apple varieties we grow. While our interests have shifted, we find that the complex flavors characteristic of our hard cider varieties are a huge asset in producing sweet cider, apple cider syrup, and value-added canned goods that are uniquely flavorful. Increasingly, for economic reasons, we are forced to diversify beyond the orchard itself, such as the fruit tree nursery side of our business and fall pumpkins. But our foremost purpose and goal remains the production of quality dessert apples.
Currently, most of our fruit, trees, produce, and other farm goods are sold from our rustic orchard store, the farm’s old tobacco packhouse. Since our farm is located far off the beaten path in an already rural area, we have also marketed our products off-site at festivals, farmers markets, and stores, to try and spread the good word that we exist and entice customers to the farm. We put out a fairly extensive monthly newsletter, as well. This is a gradual process, but more and more, people are finding their way to our farm.