family background/ Joseph, left, and David are first-generation apple farmers who are attending University of Wisconsin. They are the sons of Laura and Brad Tisch and have three siblings.
age/ Joseph, 22, and David, 19
grower/ Mount Horeb, Wisconsin
business/ Munchkey Apples
How did you get your start?
When we were growing up on the farm, we didn’t have apples until 2011, when I was about 10 years old. It was an interesting experience because, all of a sudden, we went from pasture farmland to putting in apple trees and trellises. At the start, I wasn’t sure it was going to work out at all. It was like, this is a crazy idea just starting an apple orchard.
The first apple trees we put in, it took us three to four days to put in 1,000 trees. We had all our cousins and family out there helping dig holes and setting up the trellis by hand. Now we have a tree planter and we can plant about 2,000 in less than a day. We learned a lot, considering we’ve seen every part of building a farm from the beginning.
At first our blocks were little, and our first trees were short, and the trellis system didn’t really support the trees. However, with our last blocks we’ve put in, all our trees are 10 to 12 feet tall with a larger support system. They can support hail nets and they almost look perfect. We’re still working on getting the apples perfect.
What things did you learn from that process?
Well, there’s a lot to learn with just putting in new trees, like getting the right spacing for the trellis. As we went along, we learned new methods and changed things.
Our first trellis posts were not tall enough to support where the trees were growing, which led to us doing a lot of things twice in the end. I’d tell new growers who have no experience with it that you’re going to do things wrong the first couple times, and you’ve got to be able to change things up on the fly. You need to come into it with a plan and a list of what you need to do.
We’ve really progressed, such as the trellis design, how we’re putting the trees in the ground and spacings. Our first rows were 14 to 15 feet apart, and now when we go through those particular rows with our equipment it’s kind of tough, especially with our picking platform that we bought a couple of years ago.
About 30 to 40 percent of our apples are sold at the orchard during the 10 weeks of pick-your-own farm and in our farm store. The other 60 percent go to grocery stores in the area, with a locally grown label on them.
How have you handled labor challenges on your small farm?
I’ve learned that the bigger orchards with all the platforms and machinery are very efficient at getting lots of workers out to work when it’s needed. Since we’re a smaller orchard, it’s harder for us to do that because there are a lot of times where you don’t need a lot of people.
Then there are times, especially during picking season, where you need that large crew. For us, using an apple-picking platform is a lot more efficient, especially when we only have to train a couple of people for how to use them. Using the platform has also helped a lot with our bruising.
Big orchards can hire like 250 or more H-2A workers, and we just can’t do that. I think the only time we hire people is during the fall, summer and spring. Our family does all the manual labor — we do everything. Where we mostly employ is for packing. At our size, we’ll hire a few people to do the packing and some baking in the store.
Then we have high schoolers do the picking on the picking machine that we bought. It’s the type that has conveyors on it and all you have to do is set the apple on the conveyor and it puts it into the bin for you. So, it’s pretty easy.
What did you learn about opening a new farm store?
We’re about 30 minutes outside of Madison, Wisconsin, and we get plenty of customers from up there to buy our apples at the farm store. The store also sells a lot of other goods.
Customers are only going to buy so many apples, but we’ve found over the years that they want a lot of other non-apple stuff, too. When we started out, people would ask for other farm store products, which led to us adding other things — like using our fruit in fresh-made pies.
Why do you want to be a farmer?
Working at the orchard is fun, because you’re working for yourself and building up your own thing, as opposed to doing work for somebody else.
Working at the farm has been the best experience for us. We’ve basically been raised having learned how to work hard and knowing what our work is worth. It’s been really helpful. That practical education prepares us for what’s to come in our future.
– TJ Mullinax