La Crescent, Minn.
Growing up, Jackie Hoch never imagined the life of a farmer for herself. From a small town, her dreams were of high-rising glowing skylines, not the intermittent flicker of firefly backsides. She went to school to study biology and chemistry, became a medical technician, and worked her way up to a managing position at a hospital near La Crosse, Wisc. Then she met Harry, and everything changed.
He tricked me,” she says, laughing and brushing away a gnat from her chin. “He’s an apple person. That’s who he is. And the farm was part of the package. When we got married, I knew it wasn’t just a marriage between Harry and me, but also a marriage to the farm.” That was 27 years ago. Jackie kept her job for a number of years but eventually quit to farm full-time with her husband on their 45-acre orchard in La Crescent, Minn. “I just had to ask myself, ‘is this the life we decided to have or not?'” Jackie says. “And I knew it was and that I wanted to be here to build this together.”
Hoch Orchards is situated atop a wind-blown ridge at the edge of the Driftless Zone-sometimes known as the Banana Belt of Minnesota. The flat parcel at the top grows beds of vegetables; houses weatherproof tunnels of raspberries, cherry trees and rhubarb; and supports a “pollinator block,” where native prairie plantings feed hundreds of different species of pollinators. From the top, you can look out across the sloping property, past descending rows of apple trees, bordered by high windbreaks of spruce and poplar to neighboring ridges of blueberry patches, fields cover-cropped with sorghum, climbing vines hanging heavy with sun-ripened grapes, stands of plum and apricot trees and fenced-off pastures for a roaming band of sheep and their guardian, Myrl the llama.
Beyond that to the south and west, a forested hunting preserve butts up to the Hoch property. To the north and east, rows of corn eight-feet tall stretch the length of the horizon.
The sheer diversity of life on the Hoch’s farm sticks out at every turn. Chickens peck at beetles in the potato patch. Workwood and camphor intertwine with
young apple stock. But it wasn’t always this way. When Jackie and Harry took over the apple operation from Harry’s father, it was a conventional farm and they sold produce to a packing house. Harry, who worked at the University of Minnesota’s Horticulture Research Center before earning degrees in integrated pest management and sustainable agriculture, started to make changes immediately. Converting half the farm to low-input he was able to sell directly to a number of local co-ops and maintain a split operation. But eventually, those co-ops started asking them if they could go 100% organic. It took some innovating, and a willingness to accept the risks, but the Hochs decided to go for it. “To be sustainable, you have to have a black number at the end of the year,” says Jackie. “But you can’t just care about the number.”
Innovation and creativity is a way of life at Hoch Orchards.
Today they’re a 100% organic farm with their own processing facility and a biodynamic certification in the works. Jackie manages the farm operations and the crew during harvest time. Harry is the horticulturist who innovates and maintains their farming system. He rigorously monitors pest population levels with traps and uses computer modeling to track and predict infestations. He has separated their 50+ varieties of apple trees into 19 separate blocks, which allows him to intervene in a targeted way when fungal infections or pests move in. Jackie says this allows them to “influence and balance their environment rather than forcing our way in.”
And they’re not done yet. Innovation and creativity is a way of life at Hoch Orchards. Becoming certified biodynamic means harmonizing the roles of animals, plants and soils on the farm, creating an integrated, holistic management approach that relies heavily on the use of manures and composts. “Our goal is to be as much of a closed loop as possible,” explains Jackie. “Everything has a purpose.”
In addition to the biodynamics, and a new animal shelter they’re building, complete with a living roof, and a vegetable community-supported agriculture (CSA) program they hope to start next year, this fall they’re launching a new business venture with Wyndfall Artisan Cyder to produce small-batch organic cider (of the alcoholic variety) from their yearly apple harvest. But with only 24 hours in a day, Jackie knows that there will always be more ideas than there will be time for everything. And that’s OK because she fully expects the work they’ve put into making the farm a sustainable, biologically diverse operation will long outlast their own tenure here. “Nature doesn’t need Harry and Jackie,” she says, smiling as she surveys the land spreading out beneath her, the buzz of insects momentarily quelled by a gust of cool air rising up from the valley floor.
Find Hoch Organic Apples and Organic Apple Cider seasonally in our produce department.