The Young Grower Alliance is growing. It’s still shy of its official fourth birthday, but the YGA has expanded beyond its southeastern Pennsylvania roots to the broader Mid-Atlantic and New England fruit regions. And five YGA members established a Midwest beachhead in a panel presentation at the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in December.

Their vision is geographically even wider. Why not go national?

The common factor in the current roster of about 125 members is that they belong to the “next generation,” the successors to management and ownership of family specialty-crop operations. Fruit dominates the production, but farm marketers also grow vegetables and other commodities.

These young people have had the vertical business perspective growing up in their family enterprises. But they see the need for horizontal exposure as well, for learning about developments and innovations elsewhere in their regions and across the United States and even around the world. They want to gain and share ideas, compare experiences, network with each other, and provide mutual support as they move into greater responsibilities in their careers.

As the YGA states its mission, it’s to “encourage, develop, support, and equip the next generation of fruit growers.”

So, what is “young?” The notion is nebulous. The moderator of the YGA panel at the Great Lakes EXPO, Nathan Milburn of Milburn Orchards, Elkton, Maryland, said he’s been growing fruit 20 years but still considers himself young enough to benefit from membership. Eligibility is largely self-determinedif you’re second-generation or more in family fruit production and in a personal-growth mode and still feel young, you’re welcome to join.

Diversity

Despite the common membership bond, there’s also plenty of diversity, as the EXPO panel illustrated. Ben Wenk of Three Springs Fruit Farm, Gardners, Pennsylvania, is the seventh generation of his family in the orchard business. Maggie Reid said that Reid’s Orchard, Orrtanna, Pennsylvania, began in 1976 producing processing apples but gradually evolved into a farm market and may even build a restaurant. Kuhn Orchards, Cashtown, Pennsylvania, has added a winery to its farm market, said production manager Rusty Lamb, the pinch-hitter on the panel for Sidney Kuhn, who is planning on eventually assuming ownership from her parents. Jen Baugher Snavely is in production not for consumers but for the fruit industry as a member of Adams County Nursery, Aspers, Pennsylvania, founded in 1905 by H.G. Baugher.

The four Pennsylvania panelists are all from fruit-intensive Adams County, home of Gettysburg, the site of the famed Civil War battle and also the headquarters of Katie Ellis of Penn State University Cooperative Extension in Adams County. She helped get YGA going and still serves as its coordinator and contact person.

As the extension educator for ag innovations in specialty crops, she organized a trip by young area growers in 2005 to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, West Virginia, at the tip of that state’s eastern arm, a part of the elevated Fruit Belt that runs from Pennsylvania well into western Virginia.

The enthusiastic response to the Kearneysville visit led to the formal organization of YGA in mid-2006. A big part of its history since has been more tours, domestic and international. They are intensely educational because the growers can tie what they see to their own futures.

Some destinations have been in the Northeast, including the Geneva, New York, area. The Darwin string thinner, used on open-center peach trees, is making an entry in his region, Lamb said, and he likes what he’s seen. “It takes about one-third the time of hand-thinning. That’s an incredible saving in labor. It’s looking very promising, especially for when you can’t get anyone to work for you,” he said. He was also impressed with the high-density orchards around Geneva. Wenk appreciates the labor-saving potential of the orchard platforms he’s observed.

Last winter, YGA members visited orchards in Ontario, Canada. They have also made a cross-country trip to inspect the practices in Washington State. For an East Coast grower, it was “an eye-opening experience,” Wenk said, adding that this exposure forces a reevaluation of what he’s doing in his own operation.

The longest YGA journey was to New Zealand. “That was incredible,” Reid said. “We visited 23 businesses in 12 days.” Snavely added, “They’re such progressive growers there. They have the kiwi ingenuity factor, a willingness to change. They do whatever it takes.” When markets deteriorate, they readily do a “180″ to move into an alternative, she said.

Wenk noted that 85 to 95 percent of New Zealand’s fruit production is exported, so “there’s no wiggle room in terms of quality.” He saw platforms used to perfection at one orchard: “They performed all functions from platforms. They’ve taken ladders out of the operation.”

All were impressed with the New Zealand hail nets. Some orchards are entirely covered with them. “These are incredibly expensive investments,” Reid said. “But growers have no crop insurance.” As Wenk stressed, it’s all about quality fruit for tough international markets.

Not all the YGA-associated learning breakthroughs come from formal tours. Networking with colleagues can help uncover idea lodes nearby. Wenk said he’s putting in high tunnels for his sweet cherries and got the inspiration from making connections through the YGA with another young grower farther east in Pennsylvania.

The networking is enhanced by YGA sponsorship of a luncheon meeting with guest speakers at the annual Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The convention this February also slated a workshop on business succession–as vital as it gets for “the next generation” that is grooming itself for ownership.

Such a career was not Reid’s original intention, but the YGA changed her life: “I didn’t expect to go into the family business. But as I got into the YGA, I saw more and more of my identity with the business.” The networking with her peers, the visits to other regional operations, the incredible journey to New Zealandall helped convince her that her future was at Reid’s Orchard.

Other “young growers” with visions of broadening their own horizons can learn more about the Young Grower Alliance at its Web site, www.younggrowers.org. Membership consists simply of signing up to receive notifications of group trips and other events. Participation in these is then open to each person.

Dan Hager is a writer and consultant in Lansing, Michigan, with extensive experience in agricultural issues.