Article by Jill MH Taber Photography by Erika Spaulding
Originally published in Missoula Valley Lifestyle
It all started with a guy on a bicycle.
Fred Stewart, owner of Green Bench Orchard in Missoula, hadn’t planned to become “Farmer Fred” but one afternoon back in 2004, his neighbor rode by on his bike and announced that he planned to sell his 7-acre farm.
“I knew there’d be six or seven houses right next door to me if I didn’t figure out how to buy it,” Fred explained.
Fred, a retired investment advisor and Forest Service economist, said he didn’t know a whole lot about apple orchards but 17 years after his foray into farming, he’s got quite a bit figured out.
Early on, he researched apple varieties and started with 42 trees, planted in 2011. He added trees every year for a few years, bringing the current total to 185 apple trees, as well as a few plum and pear trees. In 2015, he added a raspberry patch.
Fred developed a U-Pick model to sell his produce and, ever the economist, he gathers data and makes tweaks to his operation as he sees fit.
“I’m not a farmer by background,” he explained. “The experiment is to see if U-Pick is viable in Montana.”
With nearly 200 trees and 150 raspberry plants, there’s a lot of fruit to harvest each year, and Fred—who operates mostly on his own with one or two seasonal employees—doesn’t want to pick the fruit himself. So, he opens the orchard to the public.
Raspberries come ready right around Independence Day, with apples starting in late August through October. Fred supplies baskets for raspberries and bags for apples. He charges, not by weight or volume, but by the container. Pickers pay on their way into the orchard. Signs and flags in the trees alert people to the variety of apples and Fred’s website gives suggestions for best uses for each type of fruit.
Fred took the steps to become a certified organic orchard and while there are strict regulations on what cannot go into an organic apple, it’s not to say they don’t require a lot of work. Fred has spent hundreds—maybe thousands—of hours researching methods and practices to keep his orchard organic.
“With the apple trees, you want to minimize the amount of competition on the ground and around the trees so nutrients from the soil get to the apples,” Fred said. “With non-organic methods, it’s easy to spray Round-Up and kill the grass.”
But in an organic orchard, chemicals are a no-no. For a few years, Fred and his team cultivated the ground around the apple trees by hand—a good workout, sure, but eventually hard on the shoulders. In 2020, he received a grant that enabled him to purchase a thick layer of certified organic compost around the trees, reducing his cultivation costs.
“We needed to be a bit smarter about how to keep the ground clear,” Fred explained.
Additionally, Fred researched ways to fertilize the trees and keep within organic certification guidelines.
“I used to think nitrogen is nitrogen—what difference does it make whether it comes from ammonium nitrate or compost?” Fred said. “But chemical nitrogen is harmful to the soil. Chemicals require more chemicals.”
So, as he is apt to do, Fred looked for alternatives.
“Part of the experiment was to grow alfalfa between the trees, mow the alfalfa and leave the cut alfalfa to provide nitrogen for the trees,” Fred explained.
Based on soil and leaf analysis, he said the experiment has proven fruitful.
“The soil is healthier. The trees are doing well,” Fred said. “Farming can be done in a way that’s reasonably profitable. The environment is important to protect.”
While organic farming comes with its challenges—Fred can’t simply spray pesticides or use chemical fertilizers—he said the effort is worth it on several levels.
“I read something on a cereal box that said only about one percent of farmland is organic. I thought, ‘Well, we need to work on that,’” Fred said. “My goal is to produce really good fruit in a way that’s good for the environment and good for people, too.”
He’s found that his customers appreciate his commitment to being eco-friendly.
“Picking fruit here is a family event. An awful lot of my customers are families with kids. When I tell them we’re certified organic, I’m surprised the number of people who say that’s important,” Fred explained. “People tell me it’s important to know where their food came from.”
The 2020 harvest was one of the most bountiful on record for Green Bench Orchard. Fred donated 5 percent of his gross revenue to the Missoula Food Bank as well as nearly 900 pounds of apples.
“I even had several people throw in ten bucks to add to what we gave to the food bank,” Fred said. “People are sensitive to the fact that there are people who don’t have enough food to eat.”
Fred loves the community aspect of his farming adventure. People come from near and far – Great Falls, Butte, Deer Lodge, and Drummond, to name a few—to spend time at the orchard.
“It’s an opportunity to do something that’s laid-back and relaxed, a place they can enjoy themselves,” Fred explained. “Kids are pretty excited about picking apples. The little kids are good at sampling raspberries along the way. I don’t worry about kids eating as they pick. It’s a family thing. If they enjoy it, they’ll come back.”
Green Bench Orchard is located at 4701 South Avenue West in Missoula. Find Farmer Fred on the web at GreenBenchOrchard.com or via Facebook at “Green Bench Orchard” for information and picking times.