The term “vertical integration” takes on a higher level of meaning at Fowler Farms, a tree fruit grower and shipper in north central New York that does nearly everything involved with growing, packing, marketing, and shipping on its own.
The self-sufficient farming family does most things in-house, from growing their own trees for their high-density orchards to growing trees for orchard trellis posts. The locust trees are grown in small plots of land unsuitable for apples and cut down after five years and processed in their sawmill for trellis posts and supports.
They fabricate custom-designed equipment for orchard planting, trellising, over-the-row spraying, and hedging in their well-stocked shop. They build their own roads in the orchards and packing facility. They even had a hand in the design and layout of their new state-of-the-art packing and storage facility, doing much of the building and finish work.
With deep roots in farming that date back to 1858, the Fowler family operation is run by brothers John and Bob, who are joined by their sons J.D. and Austin. Duties are split between the packing house, production, and postharvest/information technology responsibilities. Lee Peters heads up marketing and sales.
Austin and J.D., sixth-generation farmers, joined the family operation that is headquartered in Wolcott after graduating from college. J.D. graduated in 1999 from Trinity University in Texas, where he was on the college skeet-shooting team. Austin graduated from Washington State University in 2001.
With more than 2,200 acres of primarily apples, the Fowlers are one of the largest super spindle growers in the world. They switched to the high-density system in 1992 after Bob and John saw super spindle orchards in northern Italy during a fruit tour sponsored by the International Fruit Tree Association the previous year.
They plant between 2,000 and 2,200 trees per acre in a single row under the super spindle system. “Before 1992, we had 14 different systems in the ground,” said Peters. “We invested in this one because it works. The whole concept is to grow the apple, not the tree.”
The Fowlers were also among the first to switch to dwarfing trees, and have used Malling 9 rootstock for the last 30 years. They grow and pack 23 apple varieties, ranging from the mainstay New York varieties of Empire, McIntosh, and Macoun, to newer varieties of Gala, Crispin, Ginger Gold, and Honeycrisp.
Orchards are kept to heights of eight to nine feet through hand pruning; however, J.D. has a two-row hedger under manufacture at their fabrication shop. Although tree height doesn’t eliminate the use of ladders during harvest, only stepladders are needed to reach the very tops of trees.
When orchards are replaced, they allow a neighbor to grow corn on the fallow land for a few years before it is replanted.
Austin notes that with two decades of experience in planting orchards as a hedge, they have developed an efficient planting system, complete with a big dozer that plants four rows at a time and equipment that strings trellis wires two rows at a time.
Planting high-density orchards takes sizable capital investment. It is not for everyone. “A lot of growers can’t justify the up-front costs,” he said. “You have to have a system to make it efficient.”
The Fowlers hire about 120 Latino pickers for harvest, though some crew members stay year round for pruning and thinning work. Austin recently partnered in buying a labor camp that can accommodate 80 people. He plans to use it for their crew and rent out extra space to other growers needing housing for their workers.
In most parts of New York, housing is considered essential if growers want to attract workers.
Some 20 years ago, the Fowlers began tagging every orchard row with the name of the variety and numbers of trees in the row and block. That was the beginning of their trace-back program, which now can track every packed box of fruit back to the orchard block.
At the time, computer programs weren’t available for such detailed tracking, so they designed their own software program to follow lots of fruit from the field to the box.
A code stamped on the packed box can be read backwards, Austin explains, and will tell everything about the fruit-when it was picked, presized, and packed.
A brand new, 105,000-square-foot packing and storage facility was built in 2003 to replace an older line built in the early 1970s. The new facility has all the bells and whistles that come with state-of-the-art grading and packing technology-robotic bin dumpers and robotic stackers that sort bins, optical defect and color sorters, and vacuum method to fill bins-and is extremely efficient. They now pack twice the amount of fruit as the old line, with only an additional six more workers needed.
About 70 percent of the fruit they pack comes from their orchards; the other 30 percent comes from outside growers. The building is one of the few packing houses built today from the ground up, and not remodeled or added onto from an existing building, according to Peters.
The new presizing and packing lines help them remain competitive without losing focus on quality. They have developed a reputation as a producer and packer of premium fruit. “Nothing leaves the door that is substandard quality,” Austin said.
They frequently use their own refrigerated trucks to deliver product to major markets like New York City, located several hours away. They have found transportation to be cost effective for short runs.
“The new packing house was on the drawing board for many years before it was built,” Austin adds. Not only does it represent a significant financial investment by the Fowler family, but also it represents the family’s investment in the future of the tree fruit industry.
With Austin and J.D. carrying on work of the next generation, Fowler Farms looks forward to a profitable and sustainable future in the tree fruit industry.