I never did get around to writing much about my work at the orchard. It’s been a hectic fall season for me; working 5 days a week at the orchard made farming very difficult, especially once I found myself living here alone. It was incredibly challenging to me to find time for everything─for Runamuk or the farmers’ market, for the BeeLine and the Somerset Beekeepers, let alone my own writing and this blog. But I treasure the time I spent working with the Dimock family at North Star Orchards; it was a wonderful experience and I learned a lot during the 4 months I worked in the packing room there.
It’s incredibly fascinating to me to see how other farms work─what their operation consists of, the methods they use, the principles and values that the farmers hold and how that propels them. I like learning about how and why someone became a farmer and the story of how their farm came to be, how they built or created their farm, their successes and their failures─it’s all very interesting to me and I am able to sift through their stories to find very valuable information that I can use here at Runamuk. Farms with a long-standing history are even more fascinating!
North Star Orchards is a family-owned and operated farm located just outside of Madison, Maine, sitting high above the Kennebec River. From the vista in the orchard you can look out across Maine’s western mountains splayed out across the horizon. The orchard consists of 35 acres of apple trees, a cold storage and packing facility, pick-your-own apples, a cidermill and a farm store. The farm itself dates back to the mid-1800s, but Judy and Everett Dimock purchased the orchard in 1976 and established North Star Orchards. The farm is picturesque, and the Dimocks are good people.
Everett Dimock attended Cornell University for pomology (the study of fruit trees) and he has spent a lifetime propagating apple trees and producing beautiful fruit. His wife Judy manages the packing room and the business side of their farm. They’ve learned to work together so that their business can support not only themselves, but also their two children, Jennifer and Robert, who are now grown and working alongside their parents on the farm. Robert’s two teenaged children also work on the farm, after school and on weekends.
North Star Orchards produces about 20,000 bushels of apples a year and they sell a third of those direct to customers, either through their farm store or via pick-your-own; the other two-thirds are sold wholesale to local Hannaford stores. The cold storage and packing rooms are located in the barn, and I worked there grading and packing apples along with 2 other ladies employed by the Dimocks.
During my time at North Star Orchards I learned about much more than just apples. Sure, I picked up some knowledge about growing fruit trees (I’ve been invited back in the spring to learn more about the fruit trees too!), and some information about apple diseases and pests that will prove useful. However, for this beginning farmer─it was seeing how the Dimocks manage their business that was most valuable.
What I learned:
I already knew that record-keeping was an important part of managing a business, but I’ve struggled with it here at Runamuk. Seeing the charts and the data collection that the Dimocks employ gave me a better understanding of the kind of data I should be collecting in my own operation, how to organize it─and how to track and apply the figures to better manage my enterprize. Record-keeping is going to be a big focus for me in 2016.
Obviously not all aspects of the Dimock’s business at North Star Orchards is going to be applicable to Runamuk, as our farms focus on different crops. But learning about the packaging and marketing of apples offered me some insight and has inspired some new ideas that I can translate for use at Runamuk.
Let me take a moment to say one more time how wonderful it was to work with the team at North Star Orchards. At 35 I was the baby of the group, working alongside a silver-haired older generation, and I’m not sure that the folks at the orchard were fully prepared for me and my youthful intensity. I relished the chance to learn from these people, they were graceful and poised and wise and had a lifetime of stories and experiences to draw from, and I picked their brains, listened attentively to their stories, and absorbed everything I possibly could while I was with them.
I think that the single-most important piece of information I took away from North Star Orchards was a bit of advice I garnered from Judy. While Everett has real skill for growing superior apples and I admire him greatly as an exemplary farmer─behind every great man is an even greater woman…Judy Dimock is a truly great woman. She was a physical therapist before she and Everett bought the orchard, and then she dedicated her life to building up their farm-business and supporting their family. She is a hellova business woman, the matriarch of the group and I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for her. You know I had to pick her brain while I stood there packing apples!
One of the struggles the Dimocks have faced with their orchard is the need for hired help─apples are a crop that are highly dependent upon hired labor. Like many orchards in the state, the Dimocks participate in a work-program that brings migrant workers to the farm every fall for the apple harvest. And then the Dimocks are dependent upon hired labor (like yours truly) to get the apples graded and packaged so they can be sold at market.
Because of this, and probably partly because I’ve been worried about the feasibility of a single woman’s ability to farm on her own, Judy urged me to build my farm business up so that I can run, operate, and manage all aspects of the enterprise on my own and without being dependent upon hired help─or a man, for that matter.
It seems so obvious now, but apparently I’d needed it pointed out to me.
Being forced to start over again, having to move Runamuk to this new location at Jim Murphy’s farm in Starks, means I can build my business to meet MY needs, and to suit this particular piece of property. Judy also pointed out that I’m in a great position, since I have no overhead right now. The possibilities are endless.
I’ve been asked by a few people if I’ll go back next fall, and in all honesty I admit that I hope I don’t need to. After all, ultimately I want to work full-time on my own farm and make my own farming dream a reality, and as I mentioned earlier in this post, it was really difficult to manage all that I have going on while working at the orchard. But if my situation come next August requires me to go back to the orchard I’d be happy to be able to work again with the Dimocks and the other orchard employees─providing they’ll have me after all my youthful exuberance, antics and mischief, lol. I’ll always be grateful for the season I spent working at North Star Orchards, for the opportunity to work and learn, the chance to grow, and most especially for new friends made.