Antigo Native Moves Back Home to Become an Organic Apple Grower
There is a growing market for locally grown food produced without the use of synthetic chemicals.
In Antigo, the 100-year-old Grandview Orchard in Antigo is slowly being transformed to organic production.
Jim Skibo continues our We Live Up Here series with the story.
Have you ever dreamed of quitting your job and buying a farm? Lisa Rettinger has done just that. Four years ago, she quit her job in the Twin Cities and purchased a 110-year-old apple orchard just a few miles east of Antigo.
Lisa worked for about 20 years in St Paul, Minnesota as a soil scientist after graduation from UW-River Falls with a degree in agronomy. Working in the GMO industry and in chemical regulation, she dreamed of farming without synthetic chemicals. With the encouragement of her family from Antigo, she decided to, in her words, “take the leap because what I was doing was really not that fulfilling.” She followed her passion and purchased orchard.
She found that transforming an orchard completely away from synthetic chemicals was not easy. Ironically, 110 years ago when a Swedish immigrant planted the first apple tree on the site, he was using methods not that different from what Lisa is doing today. What she calls the “holistic approach” to the orchard.
The key to the holistic approach, according to Rettinger, is to stop using herbicides, which create a plant monoculture. When she first came to the orchard there was nothing growing around the apple trees. As Lisa notes, “if you are an apple pest or apple disease it is a pretty good place to be.” Monocultures, she goes on to say, “are not a thing in nature,” which consists of a “diversity of plants, insects, animals, soil microbes, and mycorrhizal fingi underground.” The use of chemicals destroys this important diversity.
Besides introducing a lot of plants that grow beneath the trees, the holistic approach also involves introducing pigs and chickens to the orchard.
The chickens are brought to the orchard in the spring when there are a lot of pests emerging from the soil. The chickens help control these unwanted visitors, and the chickens also scratch the ground, which interrupts the cycle of many pests that winter in the leaves. Lisa also notes that “the chickens are helping to add some fertility to the soil,” as her goal is to completely fertilize the orchard without bringing in any outside nutrients.
One of her most successful offshoots of the holistic approach is the sale of the free-range chickens and pigs. There is a growing market for livestock grown nitrate free. Lisa gets rave reviews from her customers who enjoy the apple fed pork.
Although, she employs one part-time employee and an apple picking crew, Lisa does most of the work herself. She notes that the “workload is pretty tremendous.” The year round work includes, “pruning in winter, spring planting, training branches, thinning fruit,” not to mention picking the apples and making cider.
Her mom and dad pitch in when they can. Her dad often works the booth at the Antigo Famers Market and her mother bakes the apple pies sold at the Antigo and Wausau Famers Market.
Like many in the organic food field, Lisa approaches this work with a missionary zeal. She offers clinics on pruning trees, natural fruit tree care, tours, and pick-it-yourself options after Labor Day. Here, visitors can see firsthand how the holistic approach works. Much to the surprise of Lisa, the pigs are a big hit. They run free in the orchard and people pet and play with them. One thing that she likes to show people is that pastured pigs do not have the noxious odor we associate with confined pigs.
She also started two events that will go on again this coming summer that she hopes will be become a tradition. On August 3rd there is the second annual sustainable farm tour in Antigo, and the Grandview Orchard is one of five organic farms participating. The Grandview Orchard will also be hosting a farm-to-table dinner on August 17th.
Despite all the hard work, Lisa finds this lifestyle very gratifying. The best part, she notes, is not sitting at a desk 10 hours a day. She also meets many interesting people involved in organic farming. The work is constant but what gets her up in the morning is not just the fresh air but also her sincere interest in learning how to grow apples organically.
This past year she has noticed a considerable improvement in the orchard’s health. Her hard work has been paying off. She gets together often with other organic fruit growers where they share stories of the successes and failures. Her advice to someone thinking about starting an organic farm would be to “work on someone else’s farm for a while and get to know the ropes because there is a lot to growing and marketing your product.”
In addition to selling apples, cider, a cider syrup used as a salad dressing or a meat glaze, she sells nursery stock. Beginning on April 20th, she will have fruit trees for sale. Each one is sold with advice on how to grow it successfully without chemicals.
Jim Skibo and his wife, Becky, are junior high basketball coaches, he is also a writer and retired archaeology professor and they live in White Lake, Wisconsin with their dog, Lucky.
This story was written by Jim Skibo and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Music for this story came from Blue Dot Sessions: Closer by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue).
This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.