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Growing Specialty Apples for Cider

We recently interviewed Joel Kuhns. Joel and his wife Emily are in the process of launching Odyssey Orchard in Central Pennsylvania. The orchard will focus on producing high quality sharp and bitter sharp apples for the fine and craft cider markets. Joel is also a 2021 recipient of the AgChoice Farm Credit Jumpstart Grant, which awarded 15 startup farmers with a $10,000 grant this fall. For the full podcast, click here: 


Joel, I know there's a lot more to your story than what I shared in the introduction, could you tell our listeners a bit more about yourself and your quest to be an apple grower?

I grew up in the State College area and both my parents worked at Penn State. My dad also ran a Christmas tree farm on the side. I graduated from Penn State in 2005 with a bachelor's in animal science. Then I ended up in the Marine Corps as a tank officer and foreign security force advisor for about 10 years. When I got out, I started working in the corporate sector. I worked for a small manufacturer in supply chain with a large consumer goods manufacturer. Then I got to the point where my wife and I wanted to get back to the central Pennsylvania area. We started looking for ways to get back, but we also really wanted the chance to start our own business. I don't know that we were ever solely focused on an agricultural business, but it kind of hit all of those wickets.

Some people might find it strange. Why would you go into a niche farming business if you don't have any prior experience or you don't feel that specific calling? For us, we knew where we wanted to be. It was less about what the specific business was and more about whether or not we would enjoy the general work and if that business could be successful.

When you look at the various agricultural businesses you can get to in central Pennsylvania apples is one of them. We noticed this niche market opening that seemed like the perfect opportunity for us. We could be in the State College area because it's a good apple growing area and there's increasing demand for a more refined cider product. Right now, nobody's really in that area. It’s also something you can do on smaller acreage. It isn't the kind of thing where you're need a thousand acres to pasture large animals or produce a forage crop. Overall apples just kind of met all of those specific wickets.

Let’s talk more about these specialty apples that you'll be growing. What makes them unique? You shared a little bit about why you decided to go that route, but can you give us more information about why you're deciding to do these sharp and bitter sharp apples for the cider market?

When we look at American consumer preferences for adult beverages, you can see that preferences change every so often. Way back in the day California started growing wine grapes. I don't think anybody ever thought that California wine would match the European varieties. 50 years ago, people would have laughed at the thought of California wines being sold along French wines. We know today that California, Oregon, and Washington wines are right up there with the best wines in the world. It just took the American consumer's palettes evolving for them to demand a better product that those California growers found ways to produce it. Moving into our generation, we've seen the same thing with the craft beer market. People think of Sam Adams now as being a big-name brand beer distributed. When they started out, they were just a little guy trying to produce something better than Bud Light and Coors Light. As the American consumer's pallet has evolved, we demand more better products from our micro brewers.

In that same vein, we're seeing the micro distilleries increase, but we're also seeing a rise in craft ciders. Overall, we're seeing a demand for a more refined cider product. Much like wine, because cider's made from fruit, there's a whole bunch of things you have to balance. You can't just grab any old apple cider, toss some yeast in, ferment it, and call it good. There's a lot of science and art to be combined to give you a really good product.

To get that with apples, you need to do a blend of various varieties that have different levels of sugars, acids, and tannins. It's not to say that there aren't some single source variety apples that have everything you need to make a single source cider. That can be done, but those don't necessarily have a very broad appeal. If you want a true craft cider with a very broad appeal, you have to blend different varieties. About 10 to 20% of what you blend should be a sharp or bitter sharp. That will give the best range of flavors, aromas, and body. Right now, there's not a whole lot of people producing those sharp and bitter sharp apples. Beyond the craft cider market there's not necessarily a very deep demand for these. They have a high acid content, a high tannin content, and this makes for something you're necessarily going to want to eat fresh off the tree or turn into a sweet dessert. They're really only intended for that craft cider market.

You grew up on a Christmas tree farm, but Odyssey Orchard is an entirely new farming endeavor for you. What have you found the most challenging about starting an ag business? What resources have helped you along the way as a beginning farmer?

In the beginning it was great reaching out to various university extension groups. They have a lot of good publications that serve as initial reading, but that tends to peter out very quickly. What you find is that an agricultural business is not an agricultural experiment or endeavor, it's a business. Unlike the academic world, there's no grant fairy that just brings you money every time you write a proposal. Trying to balance financial reality with the actual costs of starting that business means that you have to depart from that extension world of theoretically possible and what is possible. When you figure out that your first big payoff is going to be several years down the road, you have to balance how much money you spend now to get yourself set up for the best return down the road. Sometimes you do in fact have to spend money to make money, but conversely you can't just go out and buy all brand-new equipment.

You can look at an academic paper that says that not properly irrigating within the first few years could cause a reduction in return of up to 60%. This seems shocking, because you could lose half of your lifetime profits or more if you don't irrigate properly. If you go out and you talk to people who have actually done it, they might tell you that actually setting up those kinds of irrigation systems on a large scale would financially cripple you before you even got a product back. Quite honestly if your soil's good and you're in the right area you don't have to worry.

It's walking the line between lifelong producers and they're actual experience versus what you'll find in manuals and research papers. These people are in fact doing this research, so you can't discount their information completely. Ultimately, from front to back and left to right it's just trying to balance your initial investment to get you the best return down the road while trying to navigate the academic information with what other people are actually doing on their own farms.

Joel you don't even have trees in the ground yet, but hopefully by the time the podcast airs they will be. Can you tell us a little bit about what you envision for the future of Odyssey Orchards?

Our planting date has been at the mercy of the weather. It looks like central PA is going to have another one of these non-spring springs where it's 40 degrees and raining every day, and then we'll hit middle of May and it will jump to 85 degrees and sunny. It is definitely a challenge to try to get the weather and conditions just right to get trees in the ground.

Past that immediate challenge, we did do a lot of work in developing a business plan and trying to lay out a realistic timeline for the business's progression. It wasn't just something that we thought would look good to lending institutions, investors, or potential customers to make it look like we actually knew what we were doing. We did develop that with the explicit notion that this is what will guide us through the next 15 years. Those kinds of things are pretty dry and it's painful to read our own business plan let alone for somebody else to.

We joke that the goal for the first five years is to just not mess it up. Don't kill the trees, don't burn the barn down, don't blow off the tractor, and don't mess up.

At the five-year mark we should start seeing significant financial returns. Then we shift into years five to 10. Here we have to make the money back, get all the loans paid off, pay off the equipment, and become financially stable. Don't discharge as much debt as you can.

From years 10 to 15, which seems like a long way down the road but tends to come up on you quicker than you might think, that's when we look at the expansion phase. That one is intentionally left open because expansion could mean a lot of things. We could look at planting a different variety. Maybe we found out that the market is really only interested in certain types of sharp and bitter sharp. Maybe there's something really odd that we never would have guessed people wanted, but now that people know they can get sharp and bitter sharp there’s a variety they really want. If there's a demand for it, we'll try to grow it.

As craft cider takes off it may create a demand for perry pears. Perry is the cider version of pears. We may find that we want to start dipping our toes into producing our own hard cider. Then that is its own whole separate beast to enter because you have specialty production facilities, food production, and you need to get all the appropriate licenses. The future is wide open, and expansion could mean one of many different things.

In the next five years: don't mess it up, in five to 10: just make your money back, and then from 10 on: we'll see what happens.

As we wrap up, could you share one piece of advice you have for someone interested in starting an agricultural business?

I would say do your homework. Understand that if what you want is an agricultural business, then it must be a business. If this is something that you want to do, probably more like my dad did with his Christmas trees, which was a hobby that made him money when his main job at the university was done for the day, that's something different. As a business, you must do your homework. You must look at developing a business plan, do your market research, find out who your potential customers would be, and then go talk to them. Make sure that you understand that there is in fact a real demand, not a hypothetical demand.

Figure out if you are going to sell local. If you're not, you must figure out how you're going to move your product to the market you intend to sell to. Even though you may think that you're interested in heirloom varieties of livestock, if your market is in Philly but you're in north central PA, you better figure out how you're going to navigate four hours of state roads with livestock to get them to your market in Philadelphia.

The more you plan on the front end, the better position you will be in to deal with an inevitable setback. For example, we did as much as we could to try to figure out how we were going to get these trees in the ground, but the best laid plans were that we were supposed to plant on Saturday. That didn't happen because of the weather. The gentleman who is going to help us with his shade and flowering tree planter is doing his stuff right now. As soon as we're done with the podcast, I'll be back on the phone with him to try to figure out his next available day. That was something that we've been talking about for the last six months, but here we are day to day just trying to find that perfect gap in the weather and equipment scheduling to get things in. You’ve got to do as much work as you can before you ever actually get started.

Finally, could you share with our listeners how they can find you online to learn more about you and to connect?

Right now we have our website up, That's still under construction and we still haven't quite got all the photos and such uploaded. You can go there to find a little bit about us and the varieties that we're planting. At the moment we're not too worried about social media. That will be something that comes down the road. Since we are focusing more on business-to-business sales we're trying to put the trees first. For right now it's just

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