Opportunity in an orchard

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ROGERS, Ohio — Dan Simmons Jr. doesn’t get a lot of sleep at night. Just the slightest rumble of thunder sends him dashing for the nearest weather report, no matter what time it is. And sometimes, he sits with the hail cannon at 2 a.m., just in case a bad storm brews up. Like all farmers, he worries about frost and flood and drought.

But Dan doesn’t mind. Taking care of the orchard isn’t just a job to him — it’s what drives him. Dan runs Peace Valley Orchards with the help of his siblings, Paul Simmons and Carol Day. Paul is the company vice president and orchard manager, while Day oversees the farm market. Dan’s job includes taking care of sales, packing and the orchard’s general business.

Although the orchard’s output is seasonal, taking care of the place isn’t. The family tends to 230 acres of apple trees and 20 acres of peach trees. There are also plum, pear and nectarine trees to maintain. A small vegetable garden rounds out the orchard’s produce.

Yearly routine

The season begins in February when employees bundle up and head out with pneumatic and hydraulic pruning shears. The goal is to prune every tree each year. And that’s no small task considering there can be anywhere from 113 to 280 trees per acre.

In April, the leaves start to come out. A season-long integrated pest management plan begins then to help protect the trees from insects and disease. When the trees bloom in May, the Simmonses bring in honeybees to help pollinate the blossoms. About half way through May, the petals start to fall, which means it’s time to thin the apples.

Apple trees naturally produce more fruit than they can fully sustain, so the apples must be thinned to maximize production. Some of the thinning can be done with a spray, but in June, employees do a touch up by hand to ensure there’s one apple every 6-7 inches on a tree. The apples have to be thinned within 30 days of petal fall or the following year’s crop will be compromised.

Early summer apples are ready to harvest around July 4. By August, the peaches and early apples are going at full force. After Labor Day, the fall harvest begins and lasts until the end of October. During the harvest, employees pick thousands of bushels of apples while still maintaining the trees, mowing the orchard, packing the fruit and keeping up with the orchard’s daily chores.

The harvest

Last year, Peace Valley Orchards harvested 92,000 bushels of apples. This year, they expect to harvest 80,000.
The farm has cooler space for only 70,000 bushels, so it’s also important to move as much produce as possible during the harvest.

Once the harvest ends, there’s still packing to be done and the orchard must be cleaned up. Employees pack and clean until it’s time to start pruning again in February.

“We don’t just pick the apples and go to Florida the rest of the year,” Dan said.

The work at Peace Valley Orchards is done by eight full-time employees and about 35 seasonal workers. Plus, various family members pitch in when there’s too much work and not enough hands. About one-third of the produce at Peace Valley Orchards is sold through the retail market at the farm. The other two-thirds is sold wholesale through the Fruit Growers Marketing Association.

History

The orchard’s history began in 1948 when Dan’s grandfather bought the original 117 acres. It was an abandoned orchard at the time, but the family worked to improve it and managed to harvest a crop that fall. Since then, the Simmonses have been able to buy neighboring farms and Peace Valley Orchards now covers 300 acres.

Dan’s grandfather was originally a vegetable farmer in Pittsburgh, but his sons weren’t fond of bending down to harvest all those beans and peppers. They decided they’d rather climb trees to make their living.

Dan was raised at Peace Valley Orchards and as a teenager, he wanted to leave the farm. For one thing, he wasn’t wild about the schedule. It was a big deal to get out of the orchard at 5 p.m. on Saturdays, he said, instead of 5:30 p.m., like the other days of the week.

“This was the last thing I wanted to do, until I went to college,” he said.

Once in college, Dan looked at his job options and decided maybe the farm wasn’t such a bad place after all.

Rethinking

He ended up with a bachelor’s degree in pomology from Ohio State University and went back to the orchard.
He doesn’t regret the choice.

“This isn’t a job,” he said. “This is our family.”

Of course, the position isn’t without drawbacks. It often involves a good deal of stress and it always involves the fear of losing a crop. Dan said just two seconds of hail can ruin a whole year’s crop. And a whole year’s income.

In recent times, Peace Valley Orchards saw two hail storms in three years. Even with hail insurance, Dan said it takes about 10 years to financially recover. Peace Valley still has six to eight years to go. But the setbacks aren’t a reason to quit, according to Dan. There’s nothing else out there that offers the thrill he gets from running the orchard.

“The best part of this is I know what I plan on doing when I come to work and that’s never what I do,” he said. “I’ve never been bored and that’s why I keep doing it.”

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