Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Petrofka Bridge Orchard

a Saskatchewan apple orchard:
collaborating with family, community and university researchers

Retirement and a new career
Retirement has been the start of a new and demanding adventure for Mike and Anne Noel. “We used to work 8 to 10 hours a days – now it’s 15,” says Mike, owner of Petrofka Bridge Orchard. His wife Anne smiles quietly and says, “Mike does it for love of the trees. I do it for love of Mike.”

Mike was a financial planner for many years. As he and Anne looked ahead to retirement, they purchased 50 acres of riverfront land overlooking Petrofka Bridge for their retirement home.

They had no thoughts of starting a business, but Mike has always loved trees, so he was interested when his neighbour started planting apple trees. “I used to go out on the property and trim the poplar trees. I might as well prune apple trees as old trees in the bush,” he decided. Petrofka Bridge Orchard was on its way.

Grower-managed test orchards
Mike’s neighbour put him in touch with Rick Sawatzky, a plant breeder technician with the University of Saskatchewan fruit program.

The fruit program provides farmers with root stock and basic instructions in pruning, grafting and setting up an orchard or berry farm. Then they turn it over to the farmers to develop their orchards and to assist the university in evaluating the yield and quality of the different varieties.

Mike developed his skills by helping out at the field lab, and the annual taste tests were instrumental in choosing his trees. He started planting 400 to 600 root stock every spring and grafting every fall.

The variety that first impressed Mike was Prairie Sensation. But the apples had only been grown under very controlled conditions. The real test would be in the orchard. “That’s the purpose of the Co-operators program,” explains Mike. “At the start, we really didn’t know how the apples would grow in different locations around Saskatchewan. We work with the university researchers and help them with their research.”

Establishing an orchard
Mike and Anne planted their first orchard of 1800 trees on river bottom land. Unfortunately, seven inches of rain in the fall of 2007 meant that the young trees didn’t have time to harden, and winter kill caused a major setback.

The next orchards were planted on east-facing sloping with the trees running north to south so they would all get the same amount of sun. You can plant up to 900 dwarf apple trees per acre, and despite being small in stature, the trees are good producers. Five-year old trees can produce 10 pounds of fruit, while mature, seven-year old trees produce 20 to 30 pounds. The trees are also very hardy, an important consideration in Saskatchewan.

Variety is the spice of life
The Noels grow a variety of different apples. They weren’t sure at first which ones would be successful on their land and variety improves pollination.

In my opinion, it also improves the product. Open a bag of their dehydrated apple slices, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. First of all, the only preservative used is lemon juice, so there is no nasty chemical taste or smell. Secondly, the slices are from a mix of different apples. So the first slice may be tart, while the next is sweet.

Similarly, each jug of soft apple cider is unique. The flavour depends on the mix of apple varieties and on the timing. Cider that is made in October will be sweeter than the initial batches as the fruit will have had more time to ripen.

The Noels have recently started producing apple cider vinegar. Anne drinks some every day for its health benefits, but it’s also wonderful on vegetables and salads.

Bags of apples are available at the Orchard from mid- to late September. The concession is open from the second week of June to the end of October and sells neighbourhood produce, greenhouse tomatoes and cucumbers, and Anne’s apple pies and jam.

A family business
Starting a new business requires a huge investment of time and money. The Noels developed the process by preparing their first batch of cider at the Food Centre on campus. They then built and equipped their own facility. At the beginning, they used a small handmade family press. They are now harvesting 20-24,000 pounds of apples a year (including apples from their neighbour’s orchard) and have invested in a 20-ton press.

Mike and Anne have 4 children and 14 grandchildren, who lend a hand on the farm.

Mike has been encouraged to expand the business outside of Saskatchewan, but the couple have already dug into their retirement money and have yet to see a profit. “The step up to a commercial unit is a dangerous one,” says Mike. “We could start producing hard cider, but it would need a further financial investment, equipment, a tasting room, sales and marketing. We’re not going that route. We’re retired. We like having a small family business.”

Generosity and rural development
Mike has driven from one end of the province to the other to show people how to graft and is organizing an association of apple growers. The Noels are also strong supporters of Saskatchewan’s francophone community.

Mike delights in telling people that he is the “second little guy from Shawinigan.” He moved to Saskatchewan with the RCMP when he was 19, and he’s never left. Anne is from the francophone community of Ponteix, Saskatchewan.

Mike and Anne are participating in the Projet du Terroir sponsored by l’Institut francais, University of Regina, and l’Assemblee communautaire fransaskoise. Projet du Terroir is a rural development project that is designed to revitalize the agricultural sector, enhance community pride and slow or halt outward migration by creating jobs for young people and retirees. It is being tested in the region encompassing St. Isidore-de-Bellevue, St. Louis, Domremy, Hoey and Duck Lake.

The project is twinned with the district of Charlevoix, Quebec, which has successfully integrated tourism, agriculture and local cuisine. Business owners and community members from the two provinces have visited each other in order to share ideas. Mike visited an orchard and cider facility on l’Isle aux Coudres a few years ago, and this was the start of his apple cider vinegar. The Quebec group will be visiting Saskatchewan at the end of March, and Mike is looking forward to working with his Quebec colleague to develop cider vinegar blends. (interview on Radio Canada)

Anne and Mike don’t live in a francophone district, but they strongly believe that the development project could work well in any rural area in Saskatchewan.

Some or all of Petrofka Bridge Orchard’s products can be found in Saskatoon at Bulk Cheese Warehouse, Dad’s Nutrition Centre, Little Market Store at the Farmers’ Market, and Souleio. In Lloydminster, they’re available at From Harvest to Home Market.

1 comment:

Jen said...

I'm from Ponteix! The craziness continues!

What a beautiful place they have! Mmmmm apples!