5-acre Commercial Permaculture Orchard – 22 years of establishment
Stefan Sobkowiak is an educator, biologist and master of landscape architecture. He has taught fruit production, landscape plants and design, and the natural history of vertebrates at Montreal’s McGill University. As an owner/operator of a landscape design office for 20 years, he has served over a hundred clients.
More recently his focus has been on Permaculture Design, devoting his time to teaching, and his farm ‘Miracle Farms’ – the largest commercial permaculture orchard in Eastern North America. Recently with film maker Olivier Asselin, he released a DVD The Permaculture Orchard: Beyond Organic, a feature-length educational film that teaches how to set up your own permaculture orchard on any scale.
Miracle Farms is a 12-acre property located in Quebec’s western Monteregie region, in USDA hardiness zone 4. The farm was originally developed as a commercial monoculture apple orchard, making the transition to organic upon purchase in 1993, and was certified organic in 1996.
Eventually, Stephan understood the limitations of the organic model originating from monoculture. Since 2007, four acres were converted to a permaculture inspired “u-pick” orchard. This orchard now offers over 80 cultivars of apples, in addition to several types of plums, pears, cherries, and countless other fruits and vegetables.
What’s unique about this is that Stefan has planted these orchards using a NAP pattern (NAP stands for nitrogen fixer, apple, and plum/ pear). Mixing in nitrogen fixing trees among fruit trees also helps to create fertility and eliminates the need for external inputs of fertilizers, resulting in a circular ecosystem that virtually takes care of itself.
Everything is organized by following what Stefan calls a ‘grocery aisle’ concept, whereby everything in one row will be ripe and ready to harvest within a 10-day window.
Despite the huge diversity of species, this allows for efficient harvesting, customers can walk down the row and easily gather the majority of the fruits and veggies they require in one go. The grassy lanes are used for pasture (as Mark Shepard does). In these lanes, he raises chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl, ducks and geese.
His business model is a members only U-pick operation – Costco style membership. Over the years, Stefan has built up a customer base willing to come and pick the produce themselves, thus cutting down on labour costs. In doing this, members benefit from getting fresh, beyond organic, food for up to 50% less.
Poultry is only available for his members, though for nonmembers there is a farm stand offering the farm’s produce. The farm is used as a continuing education lab for students in the permaculture courses, offering workshops (grafting, pruning, nursery propagation, raising small fowl, processing fowl) as well as for Interns. Farm tours are also available for groups.
• Sale of Produce and Products – 70%
– Herbs, Flowers, Fruit Trees & Berries, Vegetables, Traps
– Meat birds
– Value add: juices from apples, dried fruit
• Education – 20%
– PDC, Workshops
• Consultancy Service = 2%
• Tours of the farm – 8%
Summary and Stephan’s remarks:
• Grocery store concepts – there are windows for harvesting, same cultivars in the same row, while understory is growing all year
• CSA/U-pick operation – Costco style membership – members harvest so you don’t have that expense – 40% of fruit growing expense is harvesting and containers
• The location is very important – if people invest time coming further to you, you need to offer them something more
• You need to be consistent with production – to do that, diversify – when people come have something else to offer besides primary crops
• Making profit on an acre is stacking functions of apples, pears, vines, herbs, and animals grazing in grassy lanes
• The exact figures of farm income varies from year to year – e.g. last year was dismal with no tree fruit, although the best year for small fruit. So last year was a reversal with education and tours making up 70% and sale of produce and products 20%
• It’s great to have a diversity of yields to balance things out from year to year.