Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 14 Transcript

Read what David Plotz asked a farmer about his workday.

Eddie Rankin.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by David Plotz.

We’re posting weekly transcripts of David Plotz’s Working podcast for Slate Plus members. This is the transcript for Episode 14, featuring Eddie Rankin, a fruit grower at Twin Springs Fruit Farm in Orrtanna, Pennsylvania. To learn more about Working, click here.

You may note some differences between this transcript and the podcast. Additional edits were made to the podcast after we completed this transcript.

David Plotz: What is your name and what do you do?

Eddie Rankin: Eddie Rankin. I’m a fruit grower in Orrtanna, Pennsylvania.

Plotz: What’s the name of your farm?

Rankin: The farm is Twin Springs Fruit Farm.

Plotz: And how big is the farm and how long have you been a farmer?

Rankin: The farm is approximately 100 acres in size, mostly apples and peaches but a lot of vegetables as well. We’ve been in business since 1980 and we direct retail everything we grow in the Washington, D.C., area.

Plotz: Just briefly, because people will hear this in your voice, you’re not American. How is it that you, an Irishman, are a farmer in rural Pennsylvania?

Rankin: Sheer accident. I’m not from a farming background, but I arrived in Adams County in this area way back in 1974, and fell in love not only with the beauty of it but with the art of growing apples. It just fascinated me from the start, and I have never looked back.

Plotz: Tell us what you farm and then what you do with it, and how you make money from it.

Rankin: OK. We grow apples, peaches, pears, plums, nectarines, cherries, apricots, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries. We have 35,000 square feet of greenhouses that grow tomatoes, cucumbers, arugula, lettuce, basil, eggplant, and peppers at this stage. And then we have approximately 15 acres of vegetables outside. We grow everything from tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, onions, winter squash, Brussels sprouts, peas—oh, I’m missing things.

Plotz: OK, and then how does that become a business?

Rankin: Well, basically we sell everything that we grow at farmers markets. We do farmers markets that are run by extension services, and we sometimes set up farmers markets where we’re the only people there selling our produce. Being the only person there means that it gives you the option to be able to sell other people’s produce. Most extension farmers markets are inclined to be—you can only sell what you grow. It’s really hard to grow everything. It’s actually really hard to grow all the stuff we do right now—it feels like everything, but there are always products that we just aren’t able to grow in this location.

We started doing those markets way back in 1980. One of my partners read an article in the Washington Post that said that they were looking for vendors for a farmers market at RFK Stadium, and we ended up going to that and it was highly successful. It was so much fun to do it. It wasn’t work, and we were there from 7 in the morning until 5 at night.

But that’s what got us started. We kept adding markets—you know, we did three markets I think the second year and probably five different markets the third. Now we’re up to 18 different locations in the greater Washington area.

Plotz: What do you think the key difference between being a small farmer who sells directly to urban consumers is, from being a farmer who’s basic dealings are with ConAgra or who works at a giant farm out in the Midwest somewhere, who isn’t selling to consumers and is basically dealing with a huge agricultural economy.

Rankin: Well, in comparison to, say, corn growers who are growing thousands of acres, you know, we’ve got 100 acres. So we have to be much more intensive to make a living on this farm. The reason that we’re growing a lot of these crops is because customers tell us what they want. And if it works for us, we grow it. If not, someone else does. So, it makes for a—it’s a very different model. This doesn’t really work for very large farms because, you know, their production levels are so high that the amount that we sell is a drop in the bucket. For example, we grow about 10,000 bushels of apples a year, approximately. One of my neighbors around here picks about 10,000 bushels per day during apple season, because they’ve got 500 acres. A different market that they’re selling to, and their idea is to do it in volume. We get a better return per bushel than they do, but they make it up with high volume.

Plotz: Let’s talk about apples, because that is what brought you into this. So, what’s a—walk us through a day—maybe there is no typical day—of dealing with an apple, dealing with your orchard. A typical day.

Rankin: This will probably be a mixture of four of five days, but almost to describe it as a typical week and I’ll make it a little smaller. First thing in the morning when I get up, I’m having my breakfast and I go online and look at emails. I have a weather forecasting service for the farm, which will tell me humidity, temperatures, wind speed, chances of rain—what the percentage chance of rain is. All that sort of information.

Plotz: You have literally a service that you pay just for the farm? How does that work?

Rankin: The company that we use is called SkyBit, and they’re out of State College. That’s the town where Penn State is, which is a famous meteorological school. They also provide us with another service, which is to do with the major pests that can affect my crop, such as oriental fruit moth, coddling moth, tufted apple bud worm, and of course right now the dreadful brown marmorated stink bug. Penn State Fruit Research Lab is very close to where I farm here—it’s about ten miles away. The entomologists there have worked out—this has been developed all over the United States—the ability to monitor when the hatch occurs of different bugs, and therefore be able to specifically say when they’re hatching and when they need to be taken care of. And that’s a very useful tool, and from SkyBit they also send out information on insects. That’s the one I use mostly. They also send out information on fungus diseases, because here on the East Coast of the United States we are basically growing crops in a temperate rainforest area, so we have a lot of fungus diseases and things that have to be taken care of.

Plotz: I interrupted you. You were just doing the first thing of your day. So let’s go back. So you’ve checked your email.

Rankin: Yeah, OK. Now it’s 5:31 in the morning. I live 10 miles off the farm in Gettysburg, so I just run up here. No traffic jams, it’s very nice. I used to make these gigantic lists of all the things we would do so I could go and talk to my farm manager and see how we were going to do things. I arrive in here at 6:30, 7 in the morning and already something’s happened and everything’s changed. And, you know, “Oh no, we have to go and pick blueberries because the birds are getting at them.” Or, no, we need to pick some peaches. So, I’ve sort of given up on trying to micromanage. You basically know a lot of the different things you’re going to have to do, but you never know quite which day it’s going to be.

I mentioned earlier, about, say, when coddling moth is about to hatch. You then can plan at a certain number of the percentage of the hatch, when is the best time to go out and use an insecticide to deal with that. You know, in old-fashioned times back—by “old-fashioned,” I mean 20 years ago—you were basically spraying by the week trying to cover it, because you never quite knew when that bug was there. You knew it was there between, for a period of three weeks and so you’d put on three sprays. By using the forecasting systems we can tell exactly when we can spray, and do it with maybe two sprays, or if we’re lucky even one, for different types of pests.

Our farm is a farm that uses integrated pest management. Virtually every farm in the fruit industry is heavily involved in IPM, and I can really only speak to that—that’s an area that I know something about—but it’s so totally different than people’s image of spraying trees. “It’s Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring.” That just doesn’t occur anymore. And the materials are becoming what are known in the business as “softer.” In other words, they’re specifically targeted to a specific bug. You know, the plant—the things like DDT were long-gone before I even got into the business.

Plotz: Back to your day.

Rankin: Back to my day. Well, after having talked to Arturo about what we’re going to do, it could involve going out and picking fruit—whether it’s strawberries at the start of the season—right now we’re starting to pick blueberries, and we look to have a very good crop. We’re very excited about that. Those are things that can take up most of the morning. And while that’s going on, I’m not necessarily with the guys all the time. I used to be when this was a much smaller farm, but it’s got so intensive that we divide the crews up and people are doing different tasks.

On a Monday morning is my day for going around and checking all the traps that I have hanging out in the trees, which help to tell me what the populations of different bugs are. That’s another of the ways we can see a build-up and there are—for example, these are traps that have a pheromone lure that will draw the bugs in. And there’s a sticky sheet there that they stick to, so I can take that out, look and count the number of bugs that are the ones that are a potential threat, and there are thresholds set for the number that you would count in a trap. As long as we don’t exceed that threshold, we don’t need to spray. There’s a certain amount of economic damage we accept, but if it gets over the threshold then I need to do something about it. And that’s when we—those are the occasions when we have to go out and spray.

Plotz: So, you spend most of your time worrying about bugs, apparently?

Rankin: I spend a lot of time worry about bugs, making sure that with all the money that we put into growing the crop, that we don’t end up with something full of worms, which customers would probably not like. Actually, right now—just going off the subject of the apples which I was on before—but we’re into raspberries. And raspberries are very nerve-wracking—raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries are all very nerve-wracking right now because of a new invasive pest called spotted wing drosophila. It’s a tiny little fruit fly that lays its eggs in ripening fruit, and you don’t see it when you pick it, but if a customer takes it home and it sits on the kitchen counter for a couple of days before they have finished eating them, they might find out that there’s little worms coming out of it. And that’s not really good for business.

Plotz: So you’re 65 years old, and you have a farm where you have lots of employees. Do you still do hard farm labor?

Rankin: Unfortunately, yes. It is physically very demanding and I really feel it. I mean, hope there are no doctors listening. I’ve been using Aleve every day for about three years, and I need to take it in the morning when I go to work. I’m trying not to do that all the time. I know that’s not good for me. But it’s still physical, I mean, it just is. Farming is physical.

Plotz: What are the kinds of physical labor that you do on a daily basis?

Rankin: Well, you’re constantly lifting crates, loading onto trucks, picking up, attaching mower onto the back of a tractor is physical. You’re jumping on and off. I walk a lot on the farm. I mean, I used to figure I walked about three miles around the farm every day. I probably only do about a mile now. I’m getting lazier and I jump in the truck. But, you know, there’s a lot of bending over, and lifting, and twisting, and at the end of the day you feel it, you really do.

Plus, of course, you know, we’re out in the sun all the time and it’s very draining. I drink quarts and quarts of water a day when we’re up in the 80s. As soon as it gets to 80, it gets really tough. But like I said, it’s great, and as you can see from here the view—you know, that penthouse office with the view, I’ve got it here in spades. It is just gorgeous up here.

Plotz: Talk about the employer aspect of this. You have, as you said, 45 people maybe who earn their living from the farm, including migrant labor or laborers who I assume are not native Americans. What’s that process? How do find them? How do you speak to them? What’s your lingua franca?

Rankin: Well, actually I’m very, very fortunate in that our foreman is Arturo Diaz, who’s been in this country for twentysomething years. He speaks English. He knows as much as I do on the farm, in fact, probably more now in terms of the ripening of the fruit and the timing of when we do it. I mean, I’m saying, well, I guess it’s about time we should do this, and he says, “Yeah, Thursday afternoon we’ll be picking this.” Or, “We can wait until Friday morning because I’ve got to get such-and-such done.” He is in charge of all the hiring. What we find is, Arturo gets good guys in here and people like working with him. He’s a really nice guy and he’s good to all the guys that work for us. And as a result of that we get a lot of guys returning to us every year. We can’t keep everybody going all year long, obviously, but I would say that 60 percent of our labor force every year are returnees who have worked for—some have worked for us for eight or 10 years.

Plotz: Tell me about a particular disaster you’ve had as a farmer.

Rankin: I’ll give you one disaster, because it turned out to work out well for us in the end. But I’m always good at ideas. I have crazy ideas at times, and one of them was that I thought—we had just started growing vegetables in the greenhouse, and I thought, what about fruit in greenhouses? I think that I would like to grow raspberries in a greenhouse. I can grow the plants in pots and bring the pots in, in January, to a heated greenhouse where they will put on leave, flower, and produce fruit. And we can sell red raspberries in February, March, and April. Because you could just do crop after crop of these in the greenhouse. And we already had a retail base that we could sell a lot of this stuff, and you can get really good money for raspberries.

And we did this for—we had plants specially grown for us. I chose the variety very carefully. It was the best-tasting variety that I could get. It was a toss-up between a New York variety and a California variety, and I chose the California one. This was a mistake. The California variety did not like temperatures under 32. We knew that from the start, and so we were supposed to keep them at a temperature above 32. And I had rented storage space to be able to keep them—keep the plants. And then we brought them out—brought them to our greenhouse, planted them, and then had a great crop the first year.

The second year that storage wasn’t available to me, and so we tried keeping them in a barn. And I thought everything was well, and we brought the pots out of the barn and put them in the greenhouse, laid them out, made the little—ran strings to hold the plants upright—because we’re talking about growth that’s three or feet in the air here and rather flimsy. It wants to be on a trellis at all times. We did all this work and waited for them to show some buds, and they seemed to be very slow in producing buds. And we figured, oh, it’s the weather, wait another week and they’ll pop. We went on with everything else we were doing, and all of a sudden I noticed that the weeds were growing really nicely in the pots. And there were little green leaves coming just out of the ground, but the entire cane had frozen out.

And so, this was a big investment. We had spent about $25,000 on a greenhouse and set the whole system up for this, and my partners were looking at me like I was a complete idiot—which was a fair assessment.

The good news was, we had some old plastic lying around from having put a new cover on the greenhouses, and we pulled all of those plants out and I put—we had some fencepost lying around that I just laid out in two lines, put the plastic over the top, threw soil in it, and we thought we’ll grow some lettuce greens. And one of the things we planted was arugula in there, and it actually worked very well and became extremely popular. And that greenhouse now grows lettuce, arugula, basil, sometimes bok choy, and sometimes Swiss chard. So, we salvaged my disaster.

Plotz: Do you get mad at the plants? Do you give them actual volition and character? Or is the rage always at yourself or at the weather?

Rankin: It’s always at me or the weather. It’s never at the plants. It’s often at the bugs. Yeah, oh, no, it’s never the plants. Actually, I think they’re pretty remarkable. Well, everything that grows is actually rather remarkable.

One of the things about growing stuff and being out in the open all the time is, you actually—why do you get sections of one specific plant in a specific spot? Most people don’t think about that, but actually it’s all to do really with what environment can that plant survive in? They’re struggling against everything else. Grasses are struggling against broad leaves, broad leaves against grasses, trees against each other for light. And it’s just so interesting to watch this sort of battle that goes on. We try and get rid of broad leaves and just grow grass up the center of our rows because broad leaves are hosts to various bugs which can be a problem—aphids, for example.

Plotz: The last question, I asked you about terrible things that happen. So what’s a farming triumph where you’re, like, I nailed this, this is an amazing thing that we did?

Rankin: Goldrush apples. I was given ten trees of goldrush apples by a fruit grower from Ohio who drove all the way out here to get samples of—he wanted to get bud wood from stamen trees that we had that didn’t crack. The fruit sometimes on stamen, if we get a lot of rain, they will actually crack and become worthless. And we had trees that didn’t seem to crack very much, so he came out to get bud wood. And in return, well, he asked me how much I wanted for it. I said, “No, you can just have it.” I mean, we’d be pruning that stuff off anyway.

And he gave me two varieties of apples that he thought were extremely good. And one of them was gold rush, and we really liked goldrush and committed to growing a lot more of them. And everyone had told us that gold rush is an apple that you pick, put in storage, and then sell in the spring. Well, we liked the flavor of it coming right off the trees. It’s an incredibly crisp, solid apple with a tart, sweet flavor to it. And we started selling them in Washington, and I’ve never seen a reaction to an apple that’s been better than the reaction to gold rush. It was phenomenal. And now lots of other people who do farmers markets are planting gold rush and selling them.

The only other one that’s interesting, which is something of course that I didn’t do, but find here—we find a variety of apple on our farm, a Fuji in fact. There was a tree called a Yataka tree, and we had a number of them in and they grew particularly ugly fruit. It didn’t look very good. And I was talking to one of the owners of Adams County Nursery, and I was talking about the trees and complaining about them. And he came out to see them, and we were walking up the road, he was saying, “Yeah, this is one dreadful tree.” We noticed a branch on the very bottom of one of these trees that had apples that had really good color. And I looked at it, and he looked at it, and I said, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And he said, “That’s more than interesting.” Because being a nursery man, he understood that is what was called a limb sport. It was something that grew differently on the tree due to some strange genetic effect. So he cut a branch off of that tree and there were seven buds on it, and those buds were put on M26 rootstocks. And we planted three in our farm and he planted three in one of his test blocks. And the object was to grow a tree, and get some fruit on it, and see if it remained highly colored, if it remained “true to type” is the description in the business. And it did. And as soon as we realized this, we knew we had a new early variety of Fuji. This is an apple that can be picked in the second week of September in our area. And Fuji, the standard Fuji which originated in Japan, is picked in late October. It’s very late. So growers in upper New York can’t grow that because they just don’t have enough days to grow it and harvest it. So, the apple was patented—and it’s known as daybreak Fuji—and now it’s sold all over the East Coast.

Anyway, fruit-growing right now is getting very strange. It used to be that everyone knew what the varieties were. They were red delicious, golden delicious, Rome beauty, and the East Coast apples. Now there’s dozens of apples and they come from everywhere. And you grow a variety, and in ten years time nobody wants it anymore. We used to sell a lot of Mutsu apples, but now they’re one of the hardest sells we have. We still have a few left, but people have just moved on to other apples. It happens, everyone wants the newest, latest thing. And sometimes they’re better, sometimes they’re not. You find out as you go.

Plotz: Stupid honeycrisp.

Rankin: Yeah, honeycrisp is a grower’s nightmare. The tree is dreadful to grow. It’s slow, it can runt out. If it sets fruit too early it’ll just stop growing. It’s got problems with a disease called bitter pit, which involves its ability to absorb calcium into the fruit. There are certain rootstocks that they’re going to know that are better. I spray calcium on those trees and lots of it, and it seems to work. It’s biannual. If you don’t thin it right you won’t get a crop the next year, and then it’ll get into the habit of just producing every other year. But it tastes good, I guess. I’m not a fan! It’s funny, I like tart apples, so the—that apple is not my favorite.