family background/Ben grew up outside Lincoln, Nebraska, and is a first-generation grower with a natural resources degree from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He is the son of Mary and Bryan Heusinkvelt.
hometown/Columbus, Nebraska
crops/apples, grapes
business/Arbor Day Farm

Ben Heusinkvelt, a young grower from Nebraska City, Nebraska, on July 20, 2022. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

How did you get your start?
I didn’t grow up on the farm, but my extended family is big into agriculture in the state. I would spend weekends working on the farm and the pasture. It really inspired my love for nature and blossomed into what I’m doing now. After college, I took a job with a local U-pick orchard in kind of a trainee position. I worked there for just over three years and fell in love with growing tree fruit.

My first summer there, I went to a few conferences, including IFTA (the International Fruit Tree Association) and learned even more and ended up at a job in the Finger Lakes in New York. I worked up there for just over two years, learning about growing all kinds of apples, cherries, plums and peaches.

It seemed like I was drinking through a fire hose, and it opened my eyes to the whole tree fruit industry. Then, I moved back to Nebraska t0 manage the Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City.

What did you learn in those early experiences?
The most important thing that I learned was about labor challenges. Obviously, someone needs to do all the work and pick the fruit and take care of the trees, but I severely underestimated how much labor goes into a commercial orchard.

This was a big hurdle for me to learn how to manage crews, how to manage piece rates and how to manage fruit quality.

What are you trying to improve at the orchard?
The Arbor Day Farm didn’t really have a great fruit tree management plan in place. There was no tree training, which was fine because it was used as a U-pick orchard. But I aspired to revitalize it and plant higher-density trees, plant newer varieties, plant varieties that will give me good hard cider fruit. Just trying to improve the overall quality of the orchard fruit and the orchard trees and ground itself.

One of the coolest parts of the farm is one of the oldest yet most annoying parts of the farm. We have the original orchard manifest from J. Sterling Morton (who founded Arbor Day in 1872) on site, and it has over 300 different cider or heirloom apple varieties listed that he shipped over from Europe.

In the current orchard, what we call the preservation orchard, we have 35 different, unique varieties that were on that list. Of the 300, some of them are very common now, like the Golden Russet. And then there are others like the Scarlet Surprise, which is a little red-flesh crab apple, and another apple, Kandil Sinap, that’s shaped like a banana.

This orchard has some very unique, forgotten-about apples that you would never find in a grocery store. Those varieties provide a lot of cool experiences for guests. My goal is to help revitalize the orchard, sort of bring it into the next generation, so to speak, and modernize the farm in a way that works with our customer base and our production.

What have you been learning recently?
Unlike a commercial orchard, I do not have an IPM specialist. I am the IPM specialist. I am also the crop scout, the labor manager and basically everything that you can think of that goes into a commercial orchard.

All of that work is funneled through me, whether that’s going out and scouting for apple scab, or coddling moth damage or trapping insects for mating disruption, or calculating growing degree-days. I’ve been learning how to manage and take on all those jobs.

What are your top challenges?
The top three problems I face in southeast Nebraska would be the weather, which is a very common problem to everybody. We can get as low as minus 40 in the winter, and then as high as 110 in the summer, with 90 percent humidity. It’s very challenging to try to mitigate both extremes. A second challenge would be managing what fruit is available to guests.

A lot of what we grow goes directly to our fresh farm market and our U-pick operations. So, providing varieties that people want to pick is very different than having them go to the store. I have maybe 10 or 15 varieties at a time that are ripe, which is much less than they would expect at the grocery store. And No. 3 would be managing a U-pick.

Managing the crowds while simultaneously managing tree health throughout the harvest period is challenging. We need to educate people on how to pick an apple without knocking 15 more off the tree, how to protect the branches and the fruiting spurs for next year — no shaking and no climbing. And then they’ll see any old apple and they’ll pick it, whether it’s ripe or not. Educating and trying to get better signage is important.

Everything in the store is ripe to guests, but not everything in the orchard is ripe.

What are you looking forward to in the future?
One thing I’m very excited about at Arbor Day Farm is our cider — both sweet and hard. Leaning into the hard cider aspect, we’re using all the great heirloom varieties from the preservation orchard that have high tannins and low sugar.

I was able to work with a local cidermaker and create a single-varietal Russet cider, which turned out very well. That success has sparked the interest of doing more types of hard cider.

Through that process, we’re learning more about the apples in the preservation orchard, which apples are good for cider and which ones aren’t really that great for cider.

And then we’re continuing to plant more of those better varieties. As of right now, I have about 5 acres of heirloom cider varieties, and some of them were originally planted in the original preservation orchard.