Growing Wicked Good Fruit

North Star Orchard specializes in diversity
By Sally Colby

Ike and Lisa Kerschner could be growing fruit that's predictable and popular. Instead, they've chosen to specialize in cultivating a diverse selection of tree fruits and vegetables to provide fresh market produce for customers in Chester County, Pa., and the surrounding areas.

A worker uses a Brownie orchard lift to safely thin fruit at the top of an Asian pear tree.
Ike grew up growing fruits and vegetables at home and worked at a local orchard as a teen. Although Lisa didn't especially enjoy working in her mom's garden, after a work-study program at Penn State University she switched majors from education to horticulture and hasn't looked back. In 1992, the couple started growing fruit on two leased properties in Chester County. In 2006, they purchased their own farm. They started planting trees in 2008 and devoted several acres to vegetables. Today, North Star Orchard (www.northstarorchard.com) supplies fresh fruit and vegetables to about 600 CSA customers and serves eight area farmers' markets.

"When we first started, it was apples, pears and Asian pears," said Lisa. "At that time, there were no farmers' markets. We had worked at a farm that did green markets in New York City and realized that there would eventually be farmers' markets here. As soon as our first crop was ready, the West Chester Growers' Market got started - the first one in the area. After that, we focused on farmers' markets."

The Kerschners' goal is simple, but not necessarily easy to achieve. "We're going for flavor, quality and varieties that are well-suited for this area," said Lisa. "Out of the 70 varieties of apples we have, there are about 30 to 40 that we grow only a single tree for a couple of years to see how it does. Then I can put those rare varieties in a fruit share and ask for feedback."

That feedback is one of the main tools North Star uses to determine what to include in future plantings. Samples of "limited edition" fruit are included in CSA fruit shares, then Lisa emails customers with information about the variety and asks for responses. Customer feedback and their own observations about how well a variety grows helps determine whether to grow more of a certain variety.

One peach that received excellent customer response is the China Pearl, developed at North Carolina State University. Lisa describes this late-flowering variety as a pale green/white peach with a creamy texture, and says that although it doesn't look like much, people love it. "People are going nuts over them," she said. "It's one that we had just a little of, but we've planted more. Our big apple seller is GoldRush in late October to November. It's the last apple of the season for us, and it's phenomenal. GoldRush is sugary tart, and it's good for eating, pies and sauce. It also keeps well. We also have some antiques like Golden Russet, Adams Pearmain and Esopus Spitzenburg, which was supposed to be Thomas Jefferson's favorite." In addition to the 70 apple varieties North Star currently offers, there are 170 more varieties still maturing.

Plums are another mainstay of North Star fruit shares. Customer favorites include Rosy Gage, which Lisa says has an amazing rich flavor, and Ouillins Golden Gage, which is very soft when ripe. "We try to pick fruit when it's ready," she said. "We could pick the Oullins before they're soft, but then they don't develop that rich flavor. We really want that flavor for our customers."

Lisa and Ike Kerschner grow a diverse variety of fruits and vegetables at their farm, North Star Orchard, in Cochranville, Pa.

North Star is also meeting the growing demand for fresh market pears with seven varieties of Asian pears. "We have a couple varieties that we don't have a lot of, like Shinsui and Ichiban (early August varieties), that go only into the CSA shares," said Lisa. "The main crop is Hosui, Yoinashi and Olympic, and there are enough of those for the farmers' market. We also have Niitaka and Atago (late varieties) for the CSAs." Lisa says the key to a good crop of Asian pears is the thinning process, which is done by hand. "Most of the Asian pears are thinned to 8 inches apart. Some of the early ones can be a little closer because they're smaller, but Niitaka is large, so they're thinned to 12 inches apart. Ideally, each tree is thinned once. It's disheartening to come back in July and have to redo it," she explained.

Managing the CSA shares requires a lot of time and planning. Although some customers pick up shares at the farm, the majority of members pick up from drop-off points at farmers' markets and other locations. Lisa attends four markets, and other employees are assigned to certain markets so that customers see the same faces every week. "That's our contact," said Lisa. "That's our feedback, our payback. We have a core following. Then if we're really busy, our regulars will tell other customers about the different fruits. That helps sell better than us telling them."

Ike Kerschner hand-thins fruit on young trees at North Star Farm in Cochranville, Pa.

In addition to teaching customers about the many options in fresh fruit, the Kerschners spend time answering questions about their growing practices. "When we started, we wanted to be organic, so we chose disease-resistant varieties," said Lisa. "But it was obvious early on that there were things we can't control organically." Instead, North Star refers to their growing practices as "certified sensible." When customers ask about organic, the Kerschners explain that while they aren't strictly organic, they incorporate sustainable practices such as using disease-resistant varieties, providing habitat for birds that eat insects, using planned crop rotations, composting and hand weeding to minimize the use of chemicals.

Because they were losing a significant amount of fruit to deer damage, the Kerschners erected deer fence on their land as well as on leased acreage. "Deer were going through the fence and taking whatever they could reach," said Lisa. "We put extensions on the fence and then added mesh. Now it's 8 feet tall."

Ike spends most of his time in the orchard, planting, pruning and thinning according to the season. His goal is to produce a crop that's light enough to be adequately supported by the tree and ripe at high quality. "My goal is to thin everything so it can reach its genetic potential for where it is on the tree," said Ike. "We want a balanced crop, and we can do that because we don't have size requirements for our market. The goal is flavor and quality. When the trees are properly thinned, the fruit is usually a good size and color."

Young stock is custom grown for North Star by Adams County Nursery (www.acnursery.com) in Pennsylvania. Several seasons ago, Ike sent bud wood from their Golden Russets that had proven to be good producers. "We use M9 on trees that are low on vigor, like GoldRush," he said. "There are lots of good apples that we aren't growing because we wanted a succession from earliest to latest. For example, I really like Splendor, but there are a lot of good apples in the same season as Splendor." New trees are planted by hand and irrigated until they're established.

Vegetable crops include traditional favorites such as fresh herbs, summer squash, tomatoes (including heirloom varieties), onions and greens. Market customers will also find tatsoi, edamame, celeriac and a selection of specialty melons. As they've done with the fruit varieties, the Kerschners select vegetables based on customer feedback and suitability for the area.

Like other progressive growers who have a direct connection with their customers, Ike and Lisa use their website as a resource to educate, answer questions and provide a list of what they're growing. The site also includes video clips of what happens on the farm, such as the tumbler used for washing carrots and other hard produce. The North Star Facebook page keeps customers informed about fruits and vegetables that are available or coming soon. Lisa explains what social media has done for the farm: "We can post and get feedback, and people get excited about things. A customer once told us that our fruit was 'wicked good.'"

Although Ike and Lisa have faced challenges as they've grown their business, they wouldn't trade it for anything. Lisa said, "What's neat about farming is that there's a season, then you move on."

The author is a frequent contributor and freelance writer who farms and raises Great Pyrenees in south-central Pennsylvania.