Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

Grant gives orchard incentive to grow

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 07/15/2013 9:56 AM

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MONTGOMERY, Minn. — Scott Wardell knew he needed to expand into apple processing; the question was how to proceed.

If he expanded as cash flow allowed, it would mean a piece of equipment here and another piece there. That's when he learned of the value-added grants available through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

He applied and received grant money from the state. The money put him over the hump and allowed him to do the project in one piece, rather than piecemeal.

"We wouldn't have done it without the grant," Wardell said.

It's perfect timing given the size of the crop and the amount dinged by hail already this year, said Wardell, owner of Montgomery Orchard.

He will put up a building that contains additional cooler space and equipment to turn apples that don't meet grade A standards into cider. It will offer additional display space as well. Construction will begin July 17 on the 40-foot by 60-foot building.

On June 24 and 25, assistant agriculture commissioner Charlie Poster and Mary Hanks, director of the MDA Agricultural Marketing and Development Division, toured several sites where farmers and small businesspeople have put state dollars to work to expand their business.

"These grants are helping businesses add value to their operations through expansions or upgrades," said Poster in a press release.

In Wardell's case, he will employ two additional people during the height of the apple season. The building construction itself will also create jobs. The earthwork, concrete, plumbing and electrical work are all being done by local contractors.

Poster, Hanks and Wardell walked through the orchard early on June 24, water sloshing as they walked past trees laden with little green apples. Wardell talked about thinning the apples and showed the amazing amount of new growth this year.

Frost damaged blooms on most of the trees in 2012, leading to an involuntary year of rest for the trees.

This year, the trees were set to produce a bumper crop, Wardell said, but early challenges emerged. Both his primary and secondary bee providers lost 100 percent of their bees. He called around and found another beekeeper to bring bees to the orchard.

The normal bloom is 10 to 12 days. This year, it was compressed to seven days and it was rainy and windy for five and half of those days, leaving the bees only a day and a half to do their work. Judging by the trees brimming with apples, the bees worked hard.

Hail is another enemy. Montgomery Orchard has been hit by hail twice this year, damaging about a third of the crop, Wardell said. Those apples will go through the cider press because they are dinged.

Twelve of his 13 tree varieties are University of Minnesota developed. The entire property is 124 acres. Wardell has 22 acres inside a fence to keep out deer. The fenced area includes trees and a 6-acre corn maze. The property also includes a mile and a half nature hike through land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.

Montgomery Orchard hosts school tours, weddings, corporate events and church services. Their goal is to offer a great outdoor experience for families, he said. They also want to provide food for the food shelf.

Wardell said 80 percent of his apples are sold from the store, though some people opt to pick their own. The orchard also has an adopt-a-tree program, with its roots in Wardell's youth. He comes from a family of six children and the family had six apple trees, one for each child who was responsible to help care for the pick the tree.

This year, Wardell hopes to begin working with area school districts to provide fresh apples for school lunches.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture wants to help schools use more locally grown food, Poster said. Grant dollars are available to school districts beginning this fall.

All the grant dollars are coming through the Agricultural Growth, Research and Innovation Program. The program is funded at $10 million each year for the next two years, with a million each year earmarked for cultural programming at county fairs.

"This will lead to an increase in rural economic activities, generate jobs and create new businesses," Poster said in the press release.

Nearly 50 value-added grants were awarded in fiscal year 2013. Grants can be for up to 25 percent of a project's cost, Hanks said. In fiscal year 2013, $850,000 was awarded through this grant program. In fiscal year 2014, $2 million will be allocated.

The Value Added Grant Program aims to increases sales of Minnesota agricultural products by helping farmers, producers and processors add value to their operations and by assisting entrepreneurs investigating new opportunities or new enterprises.