Determination and Smarts Equal a Profitable Farm Operation

Written By: Linda Peterson
Published: May 1, 2012



An orchardist and farmer, Torrey Olson comes from rural roots. Born and raised in Laughten, Oklahoma, his parents and relatives were either teachers or farmers. Eventually, he too became a math instructor for several years in Cleveland before moving to Sonoma County where he taught at Piner High School. There he met Lucy McBride, a UCSC Ecological Horticulture graduate and successful farmer. In 1998, they pooled their savings to buy Gabriel Farm, a 14-acre property in Sebastopol, from a divorcing couple. Timing is everything.

Olson’s work history helped prepare him for his current occupation as a farmer. One of his jobs was with a parks department where he mowed grass, prepped baseball fields, maintained equipment – similar tasks he does now as a farmer. Olson said, “I’m trying to maintain the land so the plants can grow.”

Gabriel Farm has been a fruit orchard since the 1970s. The Gabriel family planted most of the 4,000 trees on the property. Asian pears, apples, and persimmons, right now in their spring glory, cover the gently sloping hillside.

Lucy farmed the land (including obtaining organic certification) for the first five years while Olson taught at Piner High. When she became pregnant with their son Henry in 2004, Olson took over managing the farm.

Olson has done his homework on spacing and sizing their trees. He can get more yield, easier, using closer spacing and semi-dwarf trees (forming a sort of elevated hedge), that begin bearing fruit in half the time larger trees require.

The Olson’s have increased the number of apple varieties grown on the farm from five to 35. They fill gaps as needed in the Asian pear orchards, purchasing new trees from Fowler Nurseries, which is where the original trees were purchased. They’ve planted or re-planted 1,000 trees since they bought the property.

What to do with all that fresh fruit?
It’s not possible to sell all the fresh fruit. Olson said, “If you’re a really good orchardist, you can get it down to maybe 20% that’s not saleable as fresh. The easiest way to grow apples is for processing, because it requires less care of the trees/fruit.” But the price for processed fruit is low, and that means there’s not much money to maintain the health of the trees and keep them free of pests and disease. Olson sees the Dutton family as an example of growers with a good reputation for their fruit, taking the care needed to produce high quality crops.

From the beginning, the Olson’s made juice. They worked with Apple a Day Ratzlaff Ranch, pressing their fruit and putting the juice in plastic jugs, which meant the jugs had to be stored in refrigerated containers. They quickly discovered that system was too costly and have since switched to glass jars.

Over the years, they’ve learned plenty, sometimes the hard way, once purchasing the wrong kind of label and having to hand sticker 3,000 juice containers; and jars of jam packed upside down in boxes which had to be checked individually to ensure a tight seal, then turned right-side up.

Marketing savvy
The Olson’s have worked hard to make Gabriel Farm a diverse operation, which means having a strong value-added program. They sell to local and bay area grocery stores, bakeries, local distributors, farmers markets, as well as their on-farm store and u-pick. They make juice, jams, conserves, and pear brandy. For the Olson’s, their value added products are “long-term investments”.

Whole Foods buys their fresh Asian pears, and Oliver’s Market sells their juice. Olson said, “There’s a difference in dealing with grocery buyers versus produce buyers. The produce buyers seem to be more accommodating to local farmers.”

Olson said his diverse operation provides twice as much income as he could get from a vineyard on that acreage, though what they do with their orchards is three times the effort.

Using the land year round
Not satisfied with the status quo, the Olsons grow cut flowers, lavender, berries, and are setting aside more land for flowers. They’ve built a greenhouse and are growing vegetable starts that they’ll plant between the orchard rows. Olson says he can make $20,000 on ½ acre of cut flowers and pumpkins.

Fruit tree conundrum
Walking through their flowering orchard, Olson explained that backyard gardeners who have fruit trees can sometimes cause problems for their neighboring orchardists. They may not know how to care for fruit trees in a way that manages pests and diseases. Unfortunately, those pests and diseases can, and do migrate to nearby commercial orchards. More public education, possibly through programs such as “igrow” and the Master Gardeners, could help reduce the pests and diseases that can threaten commercial operations nearby.

Sharing lessons learned
Olson is an avid supporter of the new Sonoma County Beginning farmer & Rancher Development Program. He especially appreciates the business component. With his teaching background and dry sense of humor, he is a natural for mentoring beginning agriculturalists.

He believes there’s always something to learn and relishes the opportunity to educate. Olson said, “I like the cognitive dissonance of learning, it keeps you on your toes.” He feels he can help bridge the gap between the “romance of farming” and what it takes to run a good business. He’s proud of what he and Lucy have accomplished and wants to share his knowledge so these new farmers can avoid some pitfalls early on.

Sitting with Olson at his kitchen table, sharing a pot of tea, he talked about how his booth at Berkeley Farm Market compares with well-known and much larger farms’ booths. He said with pride that their booth is bountiful, tastefully displayed with its lavender, juice, jams, numerous fruit varieties, flowers, and more, looking as good, if not better than others.

What’s next?
Olson signed up to be a mentor the Sonoma County beginning farmers for the next three years. He is already a favorite with the 27 students after just one class.

He’s got about half an acre at the bottom of the property where he hopes to have a beginning farmer grow vegetables for local schools.

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