Mo Tougas asks a question of Oregon State University sweet cherry expert Lynn Long on an IFTA tour of his farm. The pruning demonstration was held in a persistent snow event that occasionally approached blizzard conditions.

Mo Tougas asks a question of Oregon State University sweet cherry expert Lynn Long on an IFTA tour of his farm. The pruning demonstration was held in a persistent snow event that occasionally approached blizzard conditions.

Richard Lehnert

“Let’s all go to my place.” That was one of the things on Maurice “Mo” Tougas’s agenda as he ended his two-year term as president of the ­International Fruit Tree Association.

The association’s annual conference was held i­n ­February in Boston, just 45 freeway minutes from the Tougas Family Farm at Northborough, Massachusetts. Historically, a winter conference has been held close to the president’s farming operation, and a visit to the president’s farm is often part of the program.

“Orchards here aren’t large, and there aren’t too many,” Tougas said of the area west of Boston. “But we’re located close to lots of people, and they want to buy our products and come see our farms.”

Much of the IFTA agenda has to do with rootstocks, varieties, and orchard designs. About a hundred IFTA members went to his farm on a snowy Sunday during a preconference pruning demonstration to look at his apples, sweet cherries, and peaches and offer ­observations and advice on pruning.

But on the following Tuesday, all 353 of those registered for the conference went back to the farm to see more of the other side of the business—the direct ­marketing side.

The Tougases sell about 90 percent of their fruit using the pick-your-own method. On a sunny fall weekend, as many as 12,000 people come to pick apples.

“We try to avoid a mob mentality,” Tougas said in an interview with Good Fruit Grower. “If we see that developing, we use Facebook to slow things up a bit. We tell people not to come that day.”

Mob signs can be obvious. Cars overflow the parking lot and are backed up two miles along the road to the freeway exit ramps. As many as 16 cash registers check out customers.

A staff of 15 are in the orchard, running eight wagons and placing signs to direct people to roped-off areas where apples are ripe for picking. Son Andre works with you-pick manager Terry Ward, while Tougas’s wife Phyllis and their daughter April run the farm market and checkout area.

“We encourage everybody to ride on a wagon to and from the orchard,” Tougas said. “It makes it easier to keep track of everybody.”

Checkout is easy. Customers must buy at least one bag per person to enter the orchard. Bags cost $20 per peck or $30 per half bushel for apples. As customers leave the orchard, they take their bag and it gets a mark so it can’t be used again.

During peach season, they buy a cardboard box for $32. But it’s all prepaid.

Mo figures he gets $57.50 a bushel for apples sold that way. But it can take 12 customers to buy a bushel of apples. On a big day, they sell 1,500 bushels of apples to all those people.

The big weekend for you-pick is around Columbus Day, October 12. “A lot of the people around here are of Italian descent, and Columbus Day is a major holiday,” Mo said.

You-pick can be wasteful. “We figure people knock off 30 percent of the apples,” he said. That drops his percentage of retail sales from 90 percent to about 60 percent. The dropped apples are picked up and sold in bulk to a nearby cider mill. He figures he gets $44 per bushel for his apples overall, if he includes the reduced price of drops in the figure.

In some states, like New York and Michigan, efforts are directed toward encouraging growers to leave dropped apples on the ground—for reasons of food safety and public image. But the Tougases pick up the best drops—not rotten or crushed ones—for the cider mill.

“It’s a matter of cleanliness as well as cost,” Mo said. “We don’t want apples on the ground because they draw yellow jackets, flies, and mice. They make a smelly, miserable environment for customers. I also think that when customers see waste, they don’t mind adding to it.”

It takes a small crew four days after a big weekend to pick up drops, but there are probably 900 bushels of them on the ground.

Despite the problems of dealing with people, Tougas figures his picking cost for labor is only $1 a bushel. Exact records of production aren’t kept, but Tougas figures his apple yields at about 850 bushels per acre.

“I figure we sell 60 percent of our fruit you-pick, but we get 90 percent of our dollars there,” he said. “The apple drops are a big part of what we sell wholesale. We also pick some apples for sale at the farm market, and sell maybe 3 percent wholesale.”

The farm market was only added two years ago, as an addition to a kitchen in which they make fruit desserts, light lunches, and ice cream.

Other fruit

Tougas was not raised on a farm, but got interested in agriculture while in college. He took a master’s degree in extension education and worked three years in extension horticulture before buying a farm in 1981. It had been you-pick apples and peaches for 12 years.

Apples are the big part of the operation, covering about 25 acres. Tougas Farm also includes six acres of strawberries, nine of blueberries, six of cherries, ten of peaches and nectarines, and 12 of pumpkins—all sold you-pick.

“We still haven’t figured out how to make money with cherries,” Mo said during the pruning tour. His plantings are fairly young and he’s working to find a good training system, perhaps Spanish bush or Kym Green bush, to keep trees short for you-pickers and to fit under the netting he installed to ward off birds and, to some extent, rain.

He also has 1.5 acres under high tunnels. In the eastern United States, cherries crack in the humid weather. His trees are planted on berms to improve drainage and reduce cracking from excessive water uptake, but other growers are also looking  hard at growing cherries under plastic, which sheds water and wards off birds as well.

Of his peaches, he says, “You-pick is the worst way in the world to sell peaches,” and he is looking to sell more of them ready-picked.

Some of his peaches are open-vase, shorter trees, but his newer plantings are Quad V. He has used a Darwin string thinner for five years and thinks it will work better on the more upright trees. He also uses a platform for pruning and to pick fruit  that can’t be picked from the ground.

Protected farmland

In the late 1970s, Massachusetts became one of the first states to start a farmland preservation program, and in 1986 the Tougas family decided that was the way to go.

They enrolled their then-53-acre farm, selling to the state their right to develop the land for nonagricultural uses. They were paid partially for the development value—the ­difference between its value for farming and its value for development.

“There was a big gap between the two, and the state couldn’t pay full value,” Tougas said. “For the rest, we got a tax credit for a charitable contribution that reduced the taxes on what they did pay.”

The deed restriction reduces their land’s value to farmland levels, and dictates that the land won’t be used any other way. Son Andre recently bought half the farm from his parents, and daughter April works on the farm, so the Tougas Family Farm is on track to stay a family farm.

Sale of development rights also helped them afford adjoining land when they bought additional farms in 2001 and 2012, so they have a land base now of 125 acres.

“We used the development rights money to pay off debt and to build and replant,” Tougas said. “We also began some retirement planning and set some money aside.”

Mo has a keen interest in the horticultural side of the fruit business, and routinely tries new things, many of them learned on IFTA tours.

When he bought the farm, it contained seedling McIntosh and Cortland apples and Golden Jubilee and Elberta peaches. He began his transition to modern varieties and dwarfing rootstocks in 1987. In 1991, he began using Y systems, which have since been retrained to spindle systems with six permanent leaders on each tree.

Since 2000, new apple plantings have been in tall spindle and super spindle systems, with row spacings as close as 3 by 10 feet; peach plantings have been Quad V; and sweet cherry plantings have been on Gisela 5 rootstocks.

“After visiting Belgium with IFTA in 2011, we started trials with hedging to create ­fruiting walls,” he said.

Hedging has now been done on peaches and apples, including those planted in the older Y on 6- by 12-foot spacing that were put in place between 1991 and 2000.