Long before the recent resurgence of farmers markets, the popularity of Michael Pollan, and the coining of the term “locavore”, passionate folks were meeting in the Lancaster, PA area to discuss backyard fruit growing. In 1990, Eric Habegger and a friend decided they would start meeting to share knowledge and experiences about growing fruit in their yards. An informal group rapidly formed and ever since the Back Yard Fruit Growers (www.byfg.org) have been gathering at least four times a year, producing a quarterly newsletter, hosting speakers and trainings on a wide variety of topics, sharing harvests, and trading propagation materials.
Over 100 people showed up on a cold Saturday for BYFG’s recent winter meeting, filling the basement of Lancaster’s Farm & Home Center. All ages and experience levels were represented, from old-timers with white hair and long beards to a young man I met who was designing his own home-school curriculum around food growing. There were boxes of fruit-growing journals and magazines for exchange, grafting kits and tubes of pollinating bees for sale, and bushels of asian pears and yellow pippen apples that someone had brought to share.
The morning speakers were David Jackson and Holly Laubach of Kiwi Korners (www.kiwiberry.com), the world’s only certified organic kiwiberry farm, located in Danville, PA. For those of you who have not had the pleasure, kiwiberries are the fruit of the hardy kiwi vine. Smaller than the subtropical fuzzy kiwis that you find at the grocery store, you can pop the whole unpeeled fruit in your mouth, where they explode with sweetness and tropical flavor. Having had the good fortune to purchase a bag of David & Holly’s kiwiberries at the Fair Food Stand last fall, I must say their flavor is superior to fuzzy kiwis and honestly I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted a more delicious fruit of any kind. What’s more, hardy kiwis are fairly easy to grow even in the cold of central Pennsylvania (see my accompanying article on growing kiwiberries). The presentation described in detail the strategies and techniques for commercial production developed by David and Holly over the last twenty years. On 40 acres, Kiwi Korners claims to produce some 20% of the world’s marketed kiwiberries, now supplying Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.
The afternoon speaker was Kathy Demchak of PSU’s agricultural extension service, one of the foremost experts on berry and small fruit production for our region. Of particular value were her recommendations on the best varieties of small fruits to grow. She also covered soil and cultural conditions, pest and disease problems, life expectancy, and answered any and all questions.
Needless to say, an edifying and inspiring day. The local food movement should aspire to a chapter of the Backyard Fruit Growers in every county, both urban and rural, in the nation. In fact, the timing is critical as we are rapidly losing the pre-boom generation, the last generation with a real connection to the land and time-honored traditions and techniques of self-sufficiency. Indeed BYFG lost its own co-founder Eric Habegger this fall. I for one plan to take every opportunity to learn from this valuable regional resource and hopefully reseed some of the knowledge in my own community. Upcoming meetings of BYFG include presentations on growing figs and paw paws and hands-on workshops on pruning and grafting (see byfg.org for more information).