Size matters in this Ontario orchard
By Treena Hein
By Treena Hein
Most orchards in North America have about 1,200 trees per acre. The Ferri’s have 2,500 to 3,000. Photo by Contributed
To go where no orchard has gone before – that could be the motto at T&K Ferri Orchards in Clarksburg, Ont. Owners Tom and Karen Ferri have taken their operation to the cutting edge of apple cultivation, implementing extremely high-density tree planting. The uniform rows allow for quicker harvesting, less environmental impact, and provide a myriad of other benefits as well.
This is the just the latest chapter in the Ferri family’s exciting history in Canada. It began in 1932, when Nazarino and Clelia Ferri purchased a 10-acre orchard in the hamlet of Huttonville, Ont. Their children worked hard to expand the business to 200 acres, spread over four farms. Over the years, Ferri apples were shipped to many markets in the Toronto area and beyond. Eventually, grandson Tom and his wife, Karen, took over the family business, and in the early 2000s, they made the decision to relocate. The couple purchased a property in Clarksburg in 2005 and began working on the orchard there while still operating an orchard in Brampton.
It was in 2009 – the year they had planned to move permanently to Clarksburg – that disaster struck. In August, a sizable tornado hit the new farm and destroyed 85 per cent of the producing trees.
“We were lucky that most of the renovated portion was left undamaged,” Karen explains. “The trellis system we had put in place proved to be an amazing support to the trees.”
The Ferri’s postponed their move to Clarksburg and extended the lease on the Brampton farm. However, in 2010, while they made progress with their new orchard, another major setback came knocking. They had taken precautions for rodents, but the product didn’t do its job, and in the end, rodent damage resulted in more than 3,000 trees having to be replanted.
By the end of 2011, they had moved T&K Ferri Farms permanently to Clarksburg. But their troubles weren’t over. Like everyone else in 2012, the Ferri farm experienced an early spring followed by many freezing nights, and there was very little to harvest.
“We’re thankful that 2013 and 2014 went well,” Karen says.
Tom does the majority of the work and sets the direction for the farm. His brother. Joe, works in the orchard alongside Tom from spring to fall, and also provides IT support and statistical analysis. Karen manages the office, runs the retail market, looks after advertising, local networking, grass cutting and some tractor driving during harvest.
“When the retail market is running, a niece works in the market and drives the tractor for harvest,” she says. “We have two other full-time employees throughout the spring and summer and about four workers are hired for harvest. We are lucky to have two local teenagers who help during busy weekends in the market.”
Varieties include Honey Crisp, Mac, Mutsu, Ambrosia, Gala, Cortland and Golden Delicious.
Where most orchards in North America have about 1,200 trees per acre, the Ferri’s have 2,500 to 3,000 – a density greater than most tall spindle systems which was chosen to accommodate the orchard’s climatic conditions and soil type. The orchard is the first in Ontario to have a super-spindle system, which is the industry term for high-density planting.
“The plunge was taken because it means less limb training, a true fruiting wall is achieved, and the trees fill their space faster, allowing for full production sooner,” Karen explains. “It takes just three to five years to achieve full production.”
The system also reduces labour costs because handpicking can be done from a mechanized platform moving between the uniform tree rows, instead of being done with time-consuming ladders. In addition, the Ferri’s “beyond-super-spindle” system requires lower rates of crop protection products. The tightly packed trees have less foliage than those in a regular orchard and getting the products on the apples is easier.
“Without the use of the platform, we would need two or three more employees for the summer pruning and hand thinning, and four or five more for harvest,” Karen says. “The chemical cost has been reduced considerably. We’ve been able to achieved return on investment in four to five years with Honey Crisp.”
The Ferri’s say their biggest orchard challenge has been the poor quality of trees received from Ontario nurseries. They’ve dealt with this by replanting or adjusting orchard techniques. In terms of current business challenges, the thorniest is being paid in a timely fashion.
“We’ve been paid in-full anywhere up to 10 months after shipping, and we can be charged storage fees by buyers until they sell the apples,” Karen says. “It’s a baffling system.”
The fact apples can be dumped into the Canadian market and permitted onto grocery store shelves without tariff is also a challenge, she notes.
“Canadian farmers don’t have the assurance from our federal government, as farmers in many other countries do, that cost of production will be covered,” she says.
The Ferri’s also note that some of the funding programs available are confusing to comprehend in terms of what they apply to and how funds are distributed, in addition to being time consuming to apply for.
“Other funding opportunities are based on a competitive model and the aforementioned concerns remain the same,” Karen notes. “Food safety certification programs, such as Canada Gap, are applaudable. But we’re unconvinced the same requirements are secured from apples coming from other countries, such as China. This leaves Canadian farmers at a distinct disadvantage because it costs more to produce Canadian food and imported foods are offered into the Canadian market at cheaper prices.”
During 2015 and beyond, the Ferri’s would like to plant an acre of McIntosh in super spindle, and will be expanding their cold storage to support Honey Crisp requirements.
“We participated in a research trip to Italy recently, and we will continue to watch for new varieties suitable for our area,” Karen says. “Currently, Honey Crisp is one of the few apples which returns a reasonable margin to any apple grower.”
The Ferri’s are beginning to establish their own retail market and would like to work more closely with several local entrepreneurs who use their apples in various products. They also want to continue to expand their involvement with the culinary-agritourism within the Georgian Triangle area (Apple Pie Trail, Grey-Bruce Agricultural & Culinary Association), and work to brand the area for its apple production. They have already hosted an international apple growers’ tour and an international tour guide’s visit, which were both positive experiences.
“We also need to continue to add to our weather mitigation, with one or two more wind machines for frost protection, and we need to do some structural improvements to our lane to better accommodate tractor trailers used for shipping,” Karen says. “Applications for funding support for the wind machine have been repeatedly rejected. But we’re not prepared to give up on our quest, and will apply this year again for funding. We have received some funding support towards structural improvements to our lane. We also require another mechanized platform to deal with our increasing harvest volumes.”
Karen says it’s very pleasing that Tom’s efforts have been recognized with the Premier’s Award for AgriFood Innovation Excellence.
“He is a very hard worker and he is very innovative with improving the efficiencies in apple farming,” she says. “Tom also has a natural intuition about what is ailing a particular tree and is able to take action very quickly. It’s amazing.”