Growing More Than Fruit at Jackson Family's Apple Tree Farms
Aug 25, 2015 10:39PM ● Published by Brandi Barnett
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A Healing ApproachSeptember 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Tamara Orth
Eric Brendle opens the gate to the orchard, and we individually slide between the post and fence. He kindly asks my 6-year-old son, “Now Cassian, do you know the rule about gates on farms? If the gate’s closed, you want to keep it closed, but if it’s open, you want to leave it open.” Once through, Brendle continues, “Now this is the fun part – like a treasure hunt.”
“What color are they supposed to be?” Cassian asks.
We walk down an aisle between trees, shaded from the afternoon sun. Cassian kneels by a trunk, parting the long grass, and shouts, “I found three whites and five browns!
Behind us, about 100 annoyed or curious hens follow us, clucking as we steal their eggs. Well, it’s their own fault for not roosting in their rotational coops, which is why we’re pulling at the grass in 100-degree weather.
“We are averaging 800 to 900 eggs a day,” explains Brendle, “but it should be more. So I’m thinking there are quite a few in the trees.”
He’s right. We gather about 150 eggs in a single aisle of the orchard, but with nearly 3,000 chickens ranging free, mislaid eggs come with the territory. Still, Brendle wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This method of rotational grazing heals the land,” he explains. The chickens trim the grass, fertilize the soil, eat pests, and “it’s the best environment for the chickens to stay healthy,” Brendle adds.
Brendle, a former chaplain, is relatively new to farming. In early 2015, he moved from Alaska to Kingsburg to raise hens and sell eggs as Apple Tree Farms. In a kind of parallel to the symbiotic relationship between chickens and orchards, Brendle partnered with Kingsburg native Rob Jackson, whose 160-acre farm, DayBreak Organics, provides the pasture for Brendle’s chickens.
Their partnership, however, isn’t just about business. Like Brendle says: rotational grazing heals the land, and these two farmers are hoping to do the same.
Before him, Jackson’s father farmed this land, which runs along the banks of the Kings River. Now Jackson farms with his youngest son beside him, harvesting such fruit as apples, plums, pears and nectarines. For Jackson, farming provides a unique opportunity for mentorship.
When he first bought the farm, Jackson explains, “In my mind’s eye, I saw a transition from just growing fruit to growing people. So bringing people to the ranch is why I really wanted to run the farm. It was about more than being a farmer.”
Removed from cities and sometimes hidden by cornfields, farms can be isolated, but Jackson wants his ranch to be accessible. “I’ve had four Uzbek Muslims live with me for four years; I’ve had a young French student the last two summers,” he says. Now Jackson is opening his farm to woofers – a name given to volunteers who farm through the organization World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).
“I’m setting up for a constant supply of 14 woofers,” explains Jackson, who is constructing a boardwalk along the river, under a lush canopy of trees, where he will erect tents. “It’s like you could be in Costa Rica.”
Woofers will work 6am to noon, harvesting fruit and packing eggs, and given free room and board as well as classes in the evening. Through WWOOF, anybody can apply to participate in what Jackson calls the Dothan Farm Experience.
The name Dothan, explains Jackson, comes from a small town on the bank of the Jordan River, whose “roots go back to where Joseph was betrayed by his brothers and which really began the economic salvation of the Middle East.”
Through WWOOF, Jackson hopes to “raise up entrepreneurs, or maybe just hard workers, and people that have a mission to bless the world.” The classes will “focus on life goals, and coming out with a life mission statement.”
“I enjoy being with young people, and I want to influence their lives in a positive way,” says Jackson.
As such, Dothan has become a vision for Jackson, a means to raising up people alongside produce, through the creation of an LLC to help empower other entrepreneurs. Eric Brendle, for example was able to begin Apple Tree Farms under Dothan Enterprises, LLC. Again, this isn’t just a business for Jackson, but about personal investment. How else do you explain Jackson flying to Alaska to personally help Brendle and his family move to Kingsburg?
Whether it’s woofers or the Brendles, Jackson is creating opportunities through relationships by inviting guests onto his farm in different ways. If woofing isn’t your thing, you can visit the ranch through the Jackson Family Farm Stay by renting a single or double bedroom.
Somewhat like a bed and breakfast , this farm stay offers guests access to amenities like a hot tub, tennis court, kayaks for the river and the Jacksons’ personal pool. The kitchenette is stocked with organic granolas, jams, coffee and tea, and (of course) fresh fruit from the farm.
“People don’t know what an organic farm is,” suggests Jackson. “So every farm stay guest has the opportunity for a tour… a half hour, though a lot of times I’ll spend an hour with them.”
During our tour, Jackson guides us through his orchards, explaining how to recognize a perfectly ripe apple. “Color is key for a Gala. You want a Gala that is 75% red,” he says. “Brake light red.”
As we pick apples, Jackson receives a phone call. He looks at the phone then apologizes, “I better catch this.” After he hangs up, Jackson explains the call was from a former employee. “This young man, he was just off of Teen Challenge for six months,” a drug rehab program. “He was awesome, great attitude, cheerful, worked as hard as my best guys, and I just loved him.”
After the young man relapsed, he moved out-of-state where he began another rehab program, which he recently completed. He calls asking for a job reference, which Jackson gladly gives.
This isn’t a staged moment, and it seems to get at the heart of Dothan Enterprise – or call it an experiment. Whatever it is, it places people before business, but why? Why take the time to train volunteers, why invite strangers to swim in your pool, why invest in others without guarantee of financial return?
“I want people to understand that they’re worth investing in,” explains Jackson, “and to become the best you. And what happens when you become the best you? Then you have the best potential to bring blessing to this earth, you have the potential to be a giver.”
Jackson does admit: “I want to use what I have to show people the love of God,” but he’s not worried about proselytizing. “If I can communicate that God loves them, if I can get across the value people have, then I have succeeded” – even if they only leave with a handful of apples.
Join the harvest or vacation by the river; pick an apple or search for hidden eggs. Whatever brings you to this contemporary Dothan by the river, there you’ll find a farm organically healing the land, by placing people before product, and by growing people just as much as its growing fruit.
Apple Tree Farms • 40200 Rd. 28, Kingsburg • (559) 387-4122
www.appletreefarms.net • www.organic-farmstay.com
www.wwoofusa.org • Find Jackson Family Farm Stay on Facebook