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Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Minor

https://safs.msu.edu/blog/plymouth-orchard-cider-mill-bridging-the-gap-between-people-and-their-food

Plymouth Orchard & Cider Mill: Bridging the Gap Between People and Their Food

Plymouth Orchards is a 100-acre operation that values environmental sustainability through its organic practices, economic sustainability through its direct marketing, and social sustainability by connecting consumers to their food.

Plymouth

Want to experience an educational and rewarding trip this season away from the city? Plymouth Orchards & Cider Mill is the place to go. Upon visiting the farm, your wagon awaits you for a trail that tours you around the 100-acres farm of organic apple, asparagus, raspberry, hay, and small grain production. You can also stop at the farm store to get some delicious non-organic cider and donuts during your visit.

The orchards have a unique history. Plymouth Orchards opened in 1977 as a woman-owned farm by Mary Emmett in the southeast part of Michigan. While everything that the farm produces, except for the cider that comes from conventional apples from other farms, is now organic, the farm did not begin to transition to organic practices until about 2013. It was officially certified organic in 2016. Since then, Plymouth has been constantly shaping its work in organic farming through most of its ingenuity toward sustaining soil and plant health.

Our visit in Plymouth Orchard and Cider Mill gave us an informative exploration around its management and operations. One of the leaders behind this venture is Michael, the farm manager, who oversees the organic operations. Even though he grew up on a conventional farm, he has developed a deep knowledge and appreciation for organic agriculture. Michael explained that part of the farm’s journey into organics comes from their consumers, as he has found that consumers have started to become more aware and demand organic. Switching to organic farming does not only mean to cater the growing needs of the public, but also to reduce environmental impact and to improve soil health. To Michael, organic practices encompasses “regenerative agriculture.”

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One of the challenges that the farm has with balancing both an organic operation and a busy spot for agri-tourism is that farming is not always pretty. Because Plymouth does not use synthetic herbicides, there are a lot of weeds and overall ground cover within the apple orchards. This is not what many consumers are used to seeing when compared to conventional farms, but mowing over the grasses in order to give it a more picturesque look decreases habitat for beneficial insects and decreases the ability to grow soil organic matter. As a compromise, the farm decided to let the grasses grow tall during the summer months, and then to mow them in the fall when visitors come. Michael mentioned that not mowing also helped when they released beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, in order to manage pests biologically.

The farmers use several unique and traditionally organic practices on their fields. On their asparagus fields, they found that flame weeding, in which the weeds are burned before the actual crop grows above the soil, has been particularly successful at controlling the amount of weeds they have to physically or mechanically pull.

Michael spoke extensively about the value of using cover crops such as buckwheat, as he explained that the secret of regenerative agriculture is keeping the root in the ground. Cover crops do this because they “cover” the land area in between growing seasons, and they build soil organic matter while decreasing erosion. We had the chance to explore a mixed cover crop field, and many of us picked our own daikon radishes to take home.

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Plymouth utilized several unique and knowledge-based practices in their raspberry fields. They grow their raspberries on a trellis system that holds the plant up above the ground. The reason this is so beneficial is because being on the ground tends to subject the raspberries to grey mold, however, lifting them off the ground improves air circulation and limits the mold significantly. Additionally, they treat the roots of their raspberries with a fungus that outcompetes root feeding nematodes, which allows them to solve the problem of pests eating at their roots without resorting to killing beneficial bacteria and living organisms in the soil.

Several varying strategies were executed suited for each managed crops. There is no single method that fits all. It was remarkable to know that the farm manager looks into individual needs of each plants, adjust their pre-existing operations and integrate and experiment new practices, all while striving for sustainability. Again, we did see the farm’s ingenuity by “developing their own production model to address tree health, diseases, pests, etc.” This requires a lot of planning and research.

The farm is not just a place to try out new agriculture practices, but also a place to earn money. Their integration of agritourism is central to their farm, and allows them flexibility in their production strategies. Additionally, they have found that entering specific markets has been beneficial for their economic sustainability, such as purchasing their apples for cider off farm, growing grains that local small-scale bakers cannot find anywhere else, and selling their berries to the frozen fruit market. They also have another location where consumers can purchase their goods conveniently without having to drive out to the farm called the Red Shed Market.

Plymouth Orchard amazed me just from the start. How dedicated they are with their organic composts and using large variety of methods to combat pest populations really fascinated me. Indeed, the results from their produce speak for themselves.

Plymouth

In terms of the future, Michael explained that testing and observing of new practices is the center of their goals as a farm. He emphasized this concept by continually repeating “observation, observation, observation;” in other words, organic farming to them is a lot of experimentation. They also are moving toward different approaches of environmental sustainability besides soil health, as just this year, they installed solar panels through a Michigan State University grant on their property. The solar panels should be able to produce 70% of the electricity that is needed to support their operations year round. But, they certainly are not shying away from their delicious apple cider and fun agritourism anytime soon.

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