Starting an Orchard for Profit at Skipley Farm
Tips on How to Start a Home Orchard Business
Reading Time: 6 minutes
About 10 years ago, Gil Schieber decided that starting an orchard for profit was something he wanted to try. He started his home orchard on seven and a half acres near Snohomish, Washington, 30 miles north of Seattle. He chose the name of his farm from the adjacent road. “The old Skipley farm across that road doesn’t exist anymore so I thought I’d name my land after that road, and create an orchard. I’ve been in the nursery business all my life, collecting a wide variety of drought-resistant plants,” he says.
He is originally from Pennsylvania, where he obtained a horticulture degree, then bicycled to Washington State in 1980. He was lead gardener at the historic Good Shepherd Center, built in 1906 as a Catholic school for wayward girls. The old building is now run by Historic Seattle, and the surrounding acreage, including the original garden and orchard is jointly run with Seattle Parks and Recreation.
“I worked there for 25 years; it was 12 acres surrounded by old orchard trees. They still have about 30 heirloom varieties of apples and that got me started. I also worked at the 110-year-old Piper Orchard at Carkeek Park and I’m involved in other pioneer orchards in the area,” he says. He collected older varieties of trees for his own orchard.
He now has more than 250 varieties of apple trees. “My main interest is to inspire more people to grow things. I’ve been doing that all my life — installing gardens and edible landscapes,” says Schieber.
In 2008, he bought an acreage and moved out of Seattle. “I selected the land by looking at the soil around the molehills. This is a heavy clay loam. In 2011, I collected varieties from all over — and grafted 3,500 trees the first year,” he says.
He continued to graft more each year. He sells young trees through eBay and to other farmers in the area, growing many varieties of rootstocks to see what grows well in this area — grafting all of these apples on as many different rootstocks as possible, to see how they perform.
He opened a pick-your-own program seven years ago, starting with strawberries then added unusual fruits like elderberries, Aronia, persimmon, fig, kiwi, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries. People come early in the season to pick raspberries in the greenhouse, blackberries, and jostaberries (a black currant-gooseberry cross). Last year he sent 80 pounds of jostaberries to a company in the Midwest that ships them to customers frozen.
Schieber also has 20 varieties of grapes — mostly seedless table grapes. He has 1/3 acre in grapes, and one acre of apples. The pick-your-own block of apples has about 80 varieties. Weekends are busy; he does about 200 transactions on any given weekend day during the fruit season.
During that time of year he has one person helping. “With just seven acres, it’s relatively easy to take care of, just shooing the deer away or keeping rabbits at bay; this farm provides habitat for many species of wildlife. The deer sleep under the kiwi vines, the rabbits use the brush piles, and the voles use the mole runs,” he says.
He went back to Pennsylvania for a while to help at his cousin’s orchard. “It’s a larger pick-your-own operation where he sells about $50,000 worth of fruit on a weekend day, and about 20,000 pounds of apples that same day. I’ve helped him during the past couple of years in September-October. His farm is 16 acres of pick-your-own, while I have one acre of apples and five acres of other crops. My apples provide 70% of my income, the grapes about 20 to 30% with a little from growing blackberries, blueberries, pears, plums, and other fruit,” Schieber says.
Starting an orchard for profit had now started to pay its way and pay for the land. Most of the trees have matured enough to reach their peak for fruit-bearing.
He is active on the board of the Tilth Alliance, a non-profit group that works with Washington farmers, gardener, and consumers to build a sustainable, healthy, equitable food future. “I think land use policy is important, and creating ways for people to take on or pass the torch to someone else. I would like to do another one of these small orchards. It only took me about three or four years to design and plant this one,” he says.
“More of these are needed. It would be great to have a small orchard every two miles in urban settings. Right now I have to turn people away because I only have parking for 60 cars. Pick-your-own farms have become popular, and they are needed. School groups come, and I like the educational component. I’ve been doing 30 years with Seattle Tilth (now Tilth Alliance) to keep education as a part of it, and to inspire people. We need more farmers to get more food growing,” says Schieber.
The other possibility he’s considered for his farm is to turn it into a non-profit entity. “It is truly one-of-a-kind. I set out in the beginning as a one-man operation, with help from friends to plant it. I was okay at first with using chemicals like Roundup, because otherwise I would have needed 20 people to properly sheet mulch and get the ground ready for planting. I discontinued using herbicides about eight years ago and I do have a lot of weeds — intentionally. My orchard/farm is unconventional; I need the weeds to provide habitat for garter snakes — for vole and rabbit control. The weeds also provide aeration to the clay loam, helping the plants, especially biennials. I have alder trees (nitrogen-fixing) here and there; it’s sort of a hybrid permaculture farm,” he explains.
“Kids like it, the animals like it (owls, deer, coyotes, voles, rabbits, etc.). The farm earns about $60,000 per year and the nursery about $5000. Eventually, I anticipate the nursery to earn about $20,000 and the farm one day to bring in about $100,000 to $150,000. It is certainly self-supporting, and just about balancing the mortgage now.”
Starting an orchard for profit initially cost him about $150,000 for equipment and set-up costs, and the land itself was expensive — purchased at the top of the market in 2008. “At that time, I cashed out all I had in stocks. I’m still running on credit cards, but it’s moving the right direction.”
He started using insect netting to protect the fruit. The rolls of netting are 17 by 300 feet, and it takes about $5000 worth of netting to cover an acre. “I have also been using clay as my main insect deterrent. The grapes don’t have as many insect problems except for bees. Completely cutting out the insects (with the netting) is not a good idea, so the clay is better. Everyone who goes out to pick gets a five minute education about the clay residue; it is completely edible, though it turns the trees white,” Schieber says.
Customers are sent out to the orchard with a very detailed map of the rows so they know where everything is, and what is ripe and what’s almost ripe, and what kind of apples they are — whether baking apples or eating apples. The trees are only six feet high, so fruit is within reach and easy to pick, and there’s no need for ladders.
Originally he grafted all of his trees on Budagovsky 9 rootstock, which is a full dwarf. Eventually, these trees can grow 10 feet tall, but bearing fruit (and tying down the branches) keeps them small. “I have one row that is only three feet high and the trees are 10 years old. These are festooned and tied down, just two feet apart. Most importantly, the festooned row is curved and the trees don’t fall over, so there is no trellis expense! I have designed my next orchard like this,” he says.
He is working with a five acre piece and self-supporting trellis system. Rather than spend $5000 to $10,000 on trellising and steel, he came up with this way of festooning the trees — planting them not in rows but in spirals, curves, or serpentines, tying them to each other for support. Those little trees will stand on their own without artificial support.
“I am going to create eight to 100-foot diameter spirals and some serpentines. We have crowds of people in the season of pumpkins and corn mazes, so this will be an apple maze, concentrating on October fruit. I’m trying to figure out a 250-tree spiral that will be arranged so people can spread out and pick fruit in that spiral. It’s a challenge; it’s certainly easier to manage apples that are all just one variety, with the potential to use thinning agents. Most operations use hand thinning,” he says.
“My orchard is definitely not efficient. I see all the woes and problems, but it can still be profitable. I’m mainly doing this to inspire people but it needs to be sustainable.”
He enjoys experimenting with various types of fruit. “Almost no one is growing fruit on this side of the mountains, and it’s hard to find advice. The extension service is helpful but not as much as they used to be. I am 61 and grew up in Pennsylvania at a time when an extension agent would come out to the family garden and answer questions or help solve whatever issues you had. There’s a real need for more of this today; we need something like ‘walk-to-farm.org’ and small farms/orchards within a mile of 150 homes. We need small urban farms and land policies that help preserve small pieces of land for farming. Here where I am, this upland soil will grow good crops, and there is plenty of opportunity to have small farms within reach of the village,” he explains.
He wants to find ways to encourage more people to do this. Starting an orchard for profit is a way to make a living on a very small acreage. “One acre can make a person $50,000 per year. You can service a mortgage and make a living on an acre or half an acre growing fruit or vegetables. It can grow 25,000 to 30,000 pounds of vegetables that you can sell for $1.00 to $2.00 per pound. One person can easily do one acre without equipment, and this can also be a nice family business,” says Schieber.
“A hundred years ago we had millions of small and medium-sized farms; we need more of those again. There’s a lot of interest among people with money who want to put in a permaculture facility, etc.” But there are also ways for the average person — without much money — to creatively use a small acreage to feed a lot of people by starting an orchard for profit.
In Pennsylvania, he went to a land grant college. Everything at that time was focused on technology and growing more and more, and this was not what he was interested in. So he headed west and worked on farms along the way, and eventually landed south of Seattle on a 40-acre farm. “I spent three months there, on a third-generation Japanese truck farm. Then I did landscaping for 30 years and learned how to grow 5,000 different drought-tolerant plants. My other forte, besides fruit trees, is growing ornamental plants without water. Even where I live, it’s dry in the summer. It’s cool but dry, so we can’t grow melons, and it’s a struggle with tomatoes. We don’t grow Granny Smith or Gold Rush apples; there are limitations to what we can grow,” he says. He enjoys the challenge of experimenting with many varieties to see which ones do well in his region and climate.
Are you thinking of starting an orchard for profit? What will you have available on your orchard? We would love to hear from you in the comments below.
Originally published in Countryside in September/October 2020 and regularly vetted for accuracy.