Planning New Orchards; Before Planting a Tree

As I’m currently going through the process, I figured I’d share my thoughts so far. Much of my progress is a result of the amazing community here and the mentorship of other generous members.

The individual topics to be discussed have many great threads started (or new ones might be appropriate) but I wanted to put together a general overview of things to consider at the planning stages.

There are many many steps to success for a new orchard. For reference, I am focused on a piece of bare land, mostly cleared which appears to have been used for annual crop production in Z6 western Pennsylvania with no existing infrastructure or zoning restrictions. My list is as follows, not necessarily in order but trying to approximate chronologically:

Budget / finance / inherit/ lease land
Some land conservation groups lease for farming long term; Farm lenders and FSA loan options might be available; Home equity loans; 401k loans to yourself; Permies.com farmer transition; Other local or gvt farmer transition programs; Local gvt leasing programs

Land search within budget (if applicable).
Check Zillow, Trulia, Facebook marketplace, Craigslist, land.com and affiliates, local/county tax sales & repositories, realtors with contacts off market

Land closing
Include a title search and title insurance; I recently learned a lot of valuable information from this article about quit claim deeds.

Determine initial equipment needed for orchard setup and acquire; Learn how to safely operate equipment and seat belts all the time every time. YouTube has good instructional videos

One Call for utility locating/digging (811 in Pennsylvania)

Survey for property borders (unless already completed)

Soil testing for nutrient needs; Penn State and other universities/labs have affordable soil testing

Observe water flow paths, check sun angles and slopes, document existing plants/animal habits, account for existing site conditions in design

Mulch/ fertilize as needed; Horse boarding farms usually have free compost, contact local arborists, chipdrop.com

Irrigation as needed (could be surface storage or well drilling etc)

Fence and/or tree protection (leave border for mowing/maintenence, manage based on critter pressure expectations)

Swales for water management as needed; On contour swales help with water management and tree health long term

Plan orchard layout (row spacing, species based on water availability/nutrients/guild/sunlight availability/crop ripening time/mature sizing)

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I have tracked down an old Ferguson TE20 tractor. This evening I’m looking at a used dump bucket. I still need to track down a PTO auger, mower, and possibly a front loader bucket. I’ll probably need tires and other maintenance items on the tractor at some point; It appears to be working properly right now. All in for a used tractor and used implements, I’m hoping to come in under $3,000. Including the front loader and getting it set up with a power steering kit I might end up over that budget, but Marketplace has decent options.

I still need to do soil tests and am working on fencing.

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This is a great list of items to think about! I’m surprised there wasnt more discussion. I went through something similar last year. I might add:

  • Look at the land’s air drainage and look out for frost pockets.
  • Wind direction and determine if wind breaks needed.

Also very helpful for soil research during the land search are these links. Good info on soil composition, ph, drainage, etc.

USDA web soil survey. A bit awkward to use.

UC davis version of the same info. Easier to use, I think.
https://casoilresource.lawr.ucdavis.edu/gmap/

How big of an orchard are you planning? Tractor will be nice to have!

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The property is 7+ acres and I’m planning to fence about 5…

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You can learn about as much making mistakes on a smaller scale than on a large one, and if push comes to shove it would cost you a lot less to reverse course.

Are you planning on monetizing this effort? Most hobby farms are small farms, meaning the owners have other occupations to sustain themselves with and to sink more money into the farm.

Regardless of what you want to be in 5 to 10 years, the one that matters is next year; if you need to pay the bills you need to figure out a way to generate cash now. A greenhouse may be the fastest way to make plants you can use as well as sell.

Don’t assume anything about the water; even if you are siting in the middle of a large aquifer or next to a large river, the land may not come with the rights to tap them. You may not even have the rights to make a pond to hold rain water.

I own 32.8’ of frontage on the stream at the bottom of the hill and 3 road culverts feed perpetually green swales through the property. I already eased the wettest area into a small pond shape with the excavator I borrowed recently from work. As far as I know there are no regulations limiting water collection in PA and rainwater storage is encouraged to reduce flooding. Those are excellent points which may apply for others.

I’ve researched and made some moves on the greenhouse front; I’ve had double wall poly panels sitting in my basement for about 2 years now. I’ve applied for a high tunnel grant too.

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I wish I had known you were interested in greenhouses. I went to an auction two weeks ago and two very new 20’x60’ went for $1100. Really a steal. Just not everyone can easily drag home a greenhouse.

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That is a fantastic price but I’m trying to go as frugal (but high quality) as possible for now. For some stuff that means smaller to begin with! Assuming I get a high tunnel grant that will be a good step which allows me to put a good sized structure up. My dream is to put up a root cellar underneath a storage container underneath a greenhouse and have it all geothermally regulated with a piping system under the property. We’ll see if I actually get there. Having the ability to grow tropical things, citrus, Etc in Pennsylvania would be really really cool. The root cellar could also be a place to grow mushrooms.

Additionally as part of the storage container strategy I might take advantage of the renewable energy grants potentially available and get moving on a Bitcoin/cryptocurrency farm like @clarkinks. One step at a time. I have a general timeline as I said above but if an opportunity presents itself out of order I will jump on it. Funding is a huge hurdle currently but I can get creative and have some options available. I just can’t go crazy with things with my wife also transitioning her career.

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@disc4tw

The key to having lots of money as you know is not spending it. A friend called me about a property she has. They want $10,000 for the water meter, and thousands to run electric. I said why not spend $5000 sink a well and use the electric company bills to instead install solar. She looked like the light bulbs came on as soon as i said it. She said Clark i dont have the $10,000 which is normal. I told her short term to collect rainwater. Just use the water off the barns roof for showering , flushing toilets , washing dishes etc. . You can filter it and drink it or buy jugs of water to drink. I have a friend who is constantly broke who makes lots of money. His problem is he got rid of his wood stove, spent thousands to get on city water, got married etc…in this world there are limited resources therefore we must make choices on how we wish to .allocate our assets. I know for $10,000 that is 7 cows which is at the end of the year 10 freezers that are 23 cubic feet of freezer space of steak. That is 10 years worth of food!

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Disk4tw,

How much for the 7 ac? I read it’s difficult to make the numbers work at todays land prices. I would think the land needs to be very remote to take home site use out of the play. Hilly or odd shape to reduce agriculture interest. It takes a good business plan.

There is a lot of upfront cost with payback down the road. It’s take a lot of labor beyond your own to farm a 5 ac orchard.

Olpea has a focus on Peaches and they grow fast and produce quickly. But very labor intensive with pruning, thinning, spraying, and picking in a short window.

How big is your current orchard?
Maybe find a smallish house for sale with 2-3 ac as a start. Learn the ins and out’s of have even a 2 ac. orchard. I have 3 peach trees and it took a few years to get the process down.

Our family has (2) 100 ac farms, we lease them out for about $325/ac. That might be an option if you could find a long term lease.

Best of luck and good planning.

Can you elaborate on the root cellar/ storage container situation you’re envisioning? We’re putting in a poly greenhouse with climate battery type system and I’m always trying to think of ways to maximize energy efficient storage.

Hi Paddy,

Thanks for the input. I appreciate your insight and caution towards my new endeavor. We paid about $4,000/acre for what is listed on the web soil survey as prime farm land. From what I gather it has been farmed for many decades.

A perc test was performed (and failed) by another interested buyer before me, so the price I paid was significantly less than the previous asking price. I think we got a very good deal. The township told the hopeful home builders they were not allowed to do it. I am blessed with an abundance of water. The field portion is not square but I’m making it work. Rows will probably be north to south.

I have probably 9,000 (hard) hours of experience between excavator, skid steer, dozer, back hoe, and a little on tractor. That skill set should be helpful in getting set up, and definitely makes things cheaper to establish. I can’t pick 5 acres of fruit myself; I plan on a U-pick and having my family and possibly employees help when the time comes. I’m not afraid of hard work and long hours. Working with trees will most definitely be less messy than what I currently do most days. Most of what I plan to grow should be lower maintenance than peaches, although I’m not opposed to trialing a few trees.

My current “orchard” is a very full food forest surrounding our home on 1/8th acre. My wife wants the gooseberries gone from the front bed for something more visually appealing… I like having a snack when I walk outside most of the spring/summer :sweat_smile:

The business plan is very much something I need to sit down and work on along with a tentative layout. I have so very many ideas (brewery, restaurant, distillery, winery, venue space, storage units, solar farming, etc) and I need to be realistic about a time line and game plan. There is no zoning and I think the township is agreeable to creative solutions. I have the skills to affordably install a sand mound to solve the perc test challenge.

Time and funding are my limitations currently. The passion project breeding persimmons is going to take up a good amount of my space, so I don’t intend to have the entire area as a ‘production farm’. Importantly to that point- We only own part of the field and the neighbors only want to hunt. So I might be able to work out adding their 15 acres in the future with some kind of easement for their access. We’ll see how things play out.

It sounds like you have a great setup with that much land available to lease! I hope it continues to be a good fit. I have a friend with a similar situation (on the other side) where they are leasing many acres primarily for meat production. I’ve been helping them establish ‘windbreaks’ by teaching them how to graft persimmons, pears, and apples the past couple of years.

Here is my most current enthusiastic list of possibilities… I’m sure I need to update it.

Hi Alexis! I shared the general idea here, which also links a helpful thread on vertical growing tips

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Ah, very nice idea! We are working on a lot of permaculture based principles here although some of the more intensive ideas are taking time to unfold. I’ve thought about incorporating our existing solar panels, which are not in a great location (great for sun, as much as we get here in Ohio, but stuck right in the middle of what has potential for other things). I have seen some interesting greenhouse designs for colder climates. I do regret our choice of design to some degree, but the die is cast. There are a lot of great ideas all over the web, but a lack of implementation in many cases that makes it hard to know what will work. At least you can be confident geothermal will work well versus trying out something untested. Looking forward to reading more about your project.