How much fruit land to make a living?

tedgrowsit(6b PA)April 28, 2012

I have an opportunity to bid on a property with 5+ acres of tillable land. I am wondering if this is enough space to make a living. My tentative thoughts are to operate a small fruit pick your own type of business, along with tree fruits, especially apples. Can a profit of $20,000 a year be realized? Perhaps someone here has experience with this sort of thing. Thank you for any insights. Ted

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fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX


There have been nice write ups recently in The Good Fruit Grower about family fruit growing operations in PA. That might be worth looking up. Also your extension service should be a helpful place to check out.

My general thoughts would be that making a living on 5 acres is a thing of the past. And only a very small percentage of tillable land is good fruit land. Most flat bottomland is frost prone. The good orchard sites are concentrated in small areas of PA.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2012 at 10:59PM
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What you're proposing is certainly not conventional/tried and true. If it's feasible at all, which it probably isn't, especially not with tree fruit, you'll only know after years of personal experimentation, because you're not suggesting a standardizable model that anyone else could prove for you. I'd say hold onto the idea as a far out possibility for 10 or 20 years, and you might have an idea whether it's a long-shot possibility then. I will say it's possible for a 140 hr/week working couple (plus working children if there are any) to make $20K/year gross with 5 acres devoted to direct market garden crops, at least so long as the current level of interest in local food and farmers' markets, etc. holds.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 12:02AM
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alan haigh

It could be the hub and as you found your way you could maybe lease more land. It also depends on how you define a "living",- how much money that entails, of course.

Direct marketing through farm markets and restaurants makes things possible that aren't when selling wholesale but you have to be good at working with people. Pick your owns are the same that way. The business can become as much about managing people as plants.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 7:14AM
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This would be like becoming a professional gambler. There have been many profitable small-plot plans that have come in and out of fashion, and all depend on diversity. To make it work, you would need PYO berries and cherries, but larger trees that require ladders to harvest seldom make the PYO list for liability reasons. Other high value crops to consider would be shiitake mushrooms, herbs, and whatever you can find local markets for.

Are you in Eastern or Western PA? There would be a lot of market competition in the east, but it looks to me like western PA is wide open, in dire need of more locally grown food.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 9:12AM
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No. Farmers make way less than that per acre growing standard crops. You don't see many small orchards for a reason! You don't even need land anymore to grow food. Check out (google) podponics and some on this forum just use pots and a greenhouse!

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 9:50AM
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tedgrowsit(6b PA)

Thank you for your interest and response. I am in Eastern PA, close to large population centers, the land is hillside, not bottom land, it is in an area of historical significance and interest, (Historic Oley Valley, PA), local farmer's markets are nearby. Your responses have been very helpful. Ted

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 12:47PM
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olpea(zone 6 KS)


This topic is of particular interest to me. I'm trying to do something similar. I don't know if it will be successful or not.

Because I'm still in the process, I don't have any definitive comments. Nevertheless, I've discovered a few things.

To expand my small part-time 1 acre operation, my wife and I originally thought to purchase just an additional 10 acre tract. We ended up purchasing 17 acres.

With a little time, I've discovered that it would have been very crowded on 10 acres. By the time you figure buffer zones away from adjacent property, turn around lanes for your tractor, parking, places to dump mulch, places to store equipment, it cuts into a significant portion of the land. Think about things like what will happen if the county decides to widen your road in the future. Would it cut significantly in your parking space?

The other thing is that start-up costs are significantly more than I thought they'd be. It's all the little things that add up. As you start doing it, you realize there are more and more things you need. Gates, gravel for parking, bathrooms, signage. It all adds up.

The equipment itself can be expensive. Tractor, sprayer, mower.

If you choose to irrigate, that can be expensive. Purchasing water is very expensive and of course you have to have a delivery system. Even putting in a water meter costs b/t 11 and 14k around here. Although we do have rural water at the farm ground, I've chosen to see if I can make it work without irrigation by mulching like I do with my small orchard at home.

However mulching a large number of trees has been an arduous task, even with mechanical equipment. It's expensive too. It's been unusually dry where I've planted my new orchard this Spring and I've had to water plants to keep them alive because I wasn't able to get them all mulched. It's been extremely difficult to keep up without a good irrigation system like drip irrigation.

Making a living off 5 acres? It depends on what you mean. In my circumstances, I wouldn't consider trying to make a living off of fruit without a steady income from my spouse. One, or two years of crop failure and we would be pretty hungry.

As it is, even though our operation is small, if we have successful years starting out, any money made will be needed to cover the very large start-up equipment costs. Under the best circumstances, because of the expansion start-up costs, I don't expect to pull any money out of the fruit operation for years. So I'm essentially working every day for free for the foreseeable future.

All that said, I do think small operations can be profitable long term. I know a guy who started out with a very small operation. He used to be a teacher and wanted to start farming. He started part-time and eventually planted 300 peach trees. It was profitable for him and he has continued to expand through the years. He now has about 5 high tunnels and grows sweet corn and has a lot more peach trees. He sells a couple thousand dollars worth of produce when he goes to farmer's market. Last year, my best day at farmer's market was $400.

He has indicated he sells about $25K/acre of peaches. This sounds about right to me. At a peach yield of 300bu/acre, or 15,000/acre (100 trees/acre X 3 bu/tree) that would be pretty close 2 bucks/lb., which is about what he sells his for. Again he has a lot of equipment (tractors, trailers, a nice fruit stand at his property). He has labor costs, costs of packaging, etc. It can all get pretty expensive, but he's clearly doing well at it.

I know another guy who has 1 acre of U-pick blackberries behind his house. He takes it very seriously and has gotten the word out of his operation, so people go there for blackberries. He sells about 10K worth of berries off his one acre. He doesn't have that much invested in equipment, but he does have drip irrigation and his berries are trellised.

The bottom line is there are people out there making this model work, but I don't think any of them depend on it for their sole source of income.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 2:57PM
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tedgrowsit(6b PA)

olpea, I would like to send you and e-mail of appreciation, but that link is not in your page. Thank you for your very thoughtful and objective response. Your insights are very helpful. Definitely there are many considerations in launching into such an endeavor. It is not something to just plunge into without counting the cost. Thank you for taking the time to answer this question. Ted

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 3:20PM
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olpea(zone 6 KS)

Thank you Ted.

If you would ever like to correspond via email, you can get the email off my Website below. I check it every day during harvest season, but it may take a couple days to get back otherwise, as I'm sometimes lax in checking the email during the off-season.

I see I left out a word on my above post, which makes a sentence confusing.

I wrote: "At a peach yield of 300bu/acre, or 15,000/acre (100 trees/acre X 3 bu/tree) that would be pretty close 2 bucks/lb."

That should read: "At a peach yield of 300bu/acre, or 15,000lbs./acre (100 trees/acre X 3 bu/tree) that would be pretty close 2 bucks/lb."

Here is a link that might be useful: Tubby Fruits

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 5:06PM
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franktank232(z5 WI)

Around here land is crazy expensive. My brother and a buddy are closing on a chunk of land next week (little over 30 acres+small cabin) for $85,000 ... Smaller chunks of 10 acres or less sell for even more per acre. Fields are worth a ton because grain prices are high and forecast to go higher (growing population) That is a HUGE amount to pay back. The amount of time you'd have to spend, the disease, pests, and rodents you would have to fight off. The endless threats of frost/freezes in this area (most of the midwest/lakes) would leave you up on some nights worrying or protecting trees/etc.... I say if you inherit some land, or win the lottery...go at it... For the us working stiffs...its just too much money to go at it and make a living. Easier ways to make money.

Just my take it with a grain of salt.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 6:06PM
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olpea(zone 6 KS)

I think you're right Frank. Some very good points. I think as far as income, someone could easily make more money in other ways.

I do think it's possible to get started in farming w/o winning the lottery or inheriting land, but one has to be able to live on the income of his/her spouse and save the other income. Obviously circumstances prevent this for a lot of couples. Even then, I think there are considerable sacrifices.

This is the second farm my wife and I have owned (although the 17 acres is hardly big enough to call a farm). We've never won the lottery or inherited land. We've made a lot of sacrifices along the way and worked tons of hours. It's been a hard life. I'm only 46 and I feel like I've lived twice that long.

If this farm doesn't work, we'll just sell the land and any equipment associated with it and I'll live out the rest of my life in a less ambitious (and easier) fashion.

The school teacher I mentioned above had his summer's free. He kept his teaching job while working on his small farm during the summer. I think that was instrumental in making that work for him.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 8:31PM
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franktank232(z5 WI)

I guess I should have mentioned that I speak for this area, I have no idea what property sells for further south. The one nice thing is that property taxes are almost nothing (with the cabin/30+ acres, my brother/buddy will be paying $200 a year here in Wisconsin due to a forest management program) and the push for "local food" is huge...if you can get your product to the market, you will have buyers. I had a local Hmong lady tell me she would have bought all the peaches off my tree if she would have known I was growing them.

Olpea-I've driven my wife crazy over the years with ideas of moving to the country and starting orchard/etc, but we bought a house in the city and have 3 the idea went out the window :(

My brothers and I purchased 60 acres (mostly woods/with a 10 acre field) for $18,000 back in the early 1990s... I made the horrible mistake of selling out right before the market for land took off (it was all for a girl!!!)... There are still some deals (northern WI/swamp land/etc), but in the upper midwest is out of reach for a lot of us. I know in Iowa, farm land is selling for insane amts of money ($5000+ an acre). Its too bad, because I'd love to own a small chunk, but the cost is just too much. Its funny, because a neighbor guy and I were just talking about this very thing yesterday (we both bow hunt).

Another problem is you need to live on or near your property or risk theft, vandalism and gasoline prices. We have had issues with all 3 of those over the years (my brothers still own the 60 acres). It got so bad the one year that some local punks robbed their camper and hooked their truck up to the deck and ripped it apart. The police were worthless in that case (we knew who did it).

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 9:22PM
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blazeaglory(10 SZ22/24 OC Ca)

I would think in PA you would need to be very close to a small population or have some very good contacts in the grocery/food business who will buy all your hard worked crop. You need alot of product to make a good dollar and lots of product takes lots of work.

Now, a "pick your own orchard" on a small chunk of land might work if you marketed it right and charged enough money. Fruit fads come and go and if you can feel the pulse in whatever area your close to for a pick it yourself. Maybe you can sell plants also. Right now I would say blueberries.

I seen a guy who bought a small 6 acre farm with blueberries already planted for 20 years for cheap. He never feeds them and almost never waters them. He got lucky and got really good high bush plants that basically take care of themselves. I think its in Georgia somewhere. He has a nice little business.

For a larger scale 20k plus per year you might be looking at a little bit of work/experience.

What about a seasonal re sale nursery? Buy pants and trees from the best growers and re sell them? Online, farmers markets, advertising and a small shop with an orchard. But still it will take lots of work or money.

If you want to GROW your own profit. I would say a pick yourself orchard with re sale products. Every season you can rely on the "pick yourself" and through out the rest of the year you can rely on the re sale of plants and trees/bushes that you either grow yourself or purchase wholesale. You can even have pick yourself blueberries and if possible pick yourself strawberries and market it as a family fun low cost experience for organic health or something..hehehe

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 9:49PM
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bob_z6(6b/7a SW CT)

It really depends on where you live Frank. $5,000/acre would be insanely low around here. Empty lots of 1/8 to 1/4 of an acre are selling for 300-500K. Outside the good school districts, you can find the same for 100-150K. I didn't realize that land was so cheap in other area. I knew it was less than here, but wow...I'd start making retirement plans, but I think my wife would view too much space as a negative. Also, I think I'd want something a bit warmer like CA.

    Bookmark   April 29, 2012 at 11:52PM
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blazeaglory(10 SZ22/24 OC Ca)

I was thinking the same thing. I was looking at 5 acres in AZ at 125k

    Bookmark   April 30, 2012 at 12:22AM
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Hi Ted,
As was mentioned earlier,a lot can depend on what is grown and your contacts.In the 90's,I rented a room from a guy I went to school with.The place had a one car carport and he decided to make a greenhouse out of it and grow wheat grass.He teamed up with a lady who put together individual lunch salads topped off with edible flowers.They found a niche market and did business with a wholesaler.I remember hearing him complaining about driving through traffic to bring his stuff the distributor,but he told me he made $50,000 the first year.Not bad for a little operation. Brady

    Bookmark   April 30, 2012 at 12:55AM
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My first thought was that it would be difficult to survive with an orchard alone. I know of plenty of folks in my area surviving well off 5 or fewer acres of good farmland with water rights here in NM, but they make their money from greens and other veggies at the local farmer's markets and selling directly to the many excellent restaurants in the area.

I see even people with established large orchards in the area struggling some years due to late frosts, marketing issues, etc...

See if there is a successful operation in a similar area that like and could model your business after.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2012 at 10:06AM
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Randy31513(Georgia 8b)

Agritourism, is what they call it down here. In north GA there are orchard that have like a very large country store that sell their apples, tourist stuff, then a casual sit down or stand up place to eat things like fritters or fried apple pies or apple cake and cider. I saw a commercial like kitchen through the door.All of them have big bus parking for church groups and the like. Just watching, I am wild guessing the number one seller was pies and that kind of thing, second apples, third t-shirts, candy and knick-knacks. Three-four cashiers going at the peak.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2012 at 5:06PM
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I would suggest reading Permaculture: one by bill mollisen, and gaias garden - By toby hemenway. There is more things you can do then a large feild you have to till.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2012 at 5:47PM
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franktank232(z5 WI)

If land is cheap here in Wisconsin, come buy as much as you want. Enjoy the job opportunities (what jobs) and the winters (hope you like it cold)...! Its not cheap to me, but I don't make big money like those in the northeast. Large chunks of land max out around $3000/acre and small chunks go for more...

If you own a house on land, you pay big money in property taxes even out in the middle of nowhere. Property owners are hit hard in this state on taxes. Its the source of money for roads, schools, police, etc... Cities now (like mine) are now charging fees for almost everything to try to stop the endless property tax increases.

    Bookmark   April 30, 2012 at 6:47PM
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