SMALL FRUIT FARMING AND ITS PROFITS
A farm without a fruit garden may justly be regarded as proof of a low state of civilization in the farmer. No country home should be without such simple means of health and happiness. For obvious reasons, however, there is not, and never can be, the same room for fruit raising as there is for grain, grass, and stock farming. Nevertheless, the opportunities to engage with profit in this industry on a large scale are increasing every year. From being a luxury of a few, the small fruits have become an article of daily food to the million. Even the country village must have its supply, and the number of crates that are shipped from New York city to neighboring towns is astonishingly large.
As an illustration of the rapidly enlarging demand for these fruits, let us consider the experience of one Western city, Cincinnati. Mr. W. H. Corbly, who is there regarded as one of the best informed on these subjects, has gathered the following statistics: "In 1835 it was regarded as a most wonderful thing that 100 bushels of strawberries could be disposed of on the Cincinnati market in one day, and was commented on as a great event. A close estimate shows that during the summer of 1879 eighty to eighty-five thousand bushels of strawberries were sold in Cincinnati. Of course, a large part of these berries were shipped away, but it is estimated that nearly one half were consumed here. About the year 1838 the cultivation of black raspberries was commenced in this county by James Gallagher and F. A. McCormick of Salem, Anderson township.
The first year, Gallagher's largest shipment in one day was six bushels, and McCormick's four. When they were placed on the market, McCormick sold out at 6 1/4 cents per quart, and Gallagher held off till McCormick had sold out, when he put his on sale and obtained 8 1/8 cents per quart, and the demand was fully supplied. It is estimated that the crop for the year 1879, handled in Cincinnati, amounted to from seventy-five thousand to eighty thousand bushels—the crop being a fairly good one—selling at an average of about two dollars per bushel."
It has been stated in "The Country Gentleman" that about $5,000,000 worth of small fruits were sold in Michigan in one year; and the same authority estimates that $25,000,000 worth are consumed annually in New York city. In the future it would seem that this demand would increase even more rapidly; for in every fruit-growing region immense canning establishments are coming into existence, to which the markets of the world are open. Therefore, in addition to the thousands already embarked in this industry, still larger numbers will engage in it during the next few years.
Those who now for the first time are turning their attention toward this occupation may be divided mainly into two classes. The first consists of established farmers, who, finding markets within their reach, extend their patches of raspberries, currants, or strawberries to such a degree that they have a surplus to sell. To the extent that such sales are remunerative, they increase the area of fruits, until in many instances they become virtually fruit farmers. More often a few acres are devoted to horticulture, and the rest of the farm is carried on in the old way.
The second class is made up chiefly of those who are unfamiliar with the soil and its culture—mechanics, professional men, who hope to regain health by coming back to nature, and citizens whose ill-success or instincts suggest country life and labors. From both these classes, and especially from the latter, I receive very many letters, containing all kinds of questions. The chief burden on most minds, however, is summed up in the words, "Do small fruits pay?" To meet the needs of these two classes is one of the great aims of this work; and it is my most earnest wish not to mislead by high-colored pictures.
Small fruits pay many people well; and unless location, soil, or climate is hopelessly against one, the degree of profit will depend chiefly upon his skill, judgment and industry. The raising of small fruits is like other callings, in which some are getting rich, more earning a fair livelihood, and not a few failing. It is a business in which there is an abundance of sharp, keen competition; and ignorance, poor judgment, and shiftless, idle ways will be as fatal as in the workshop, store, or office.
Innumerable failures result from inexperience. I will give one extreme example, which may serve to illustrate, the sanguine mental condition of many who read of large returns in fruit culture. A young man who had inherited a few hundred dollars wrote me that he could hire a piece of land for a certain amount, and he wished to invest the balance—every cent—in plants, thus leaving himself no capital with which to continue operations, but expecting that a speedy crop would lift him at once into a prosperous career. I wrote that under the circumstances I could not supply him—that it would be about the same as robbery to do so; and advised him to spend several years with a practical and successful fruit grower and learn the business.
Most people enter upon this calling in the form of a wedge; but only too many commence at the blunt end, investing largely at once in everything, and therefore their business soon tapers down to nothing. The wise begin at the point of the wedge and develop their calling naturally, healthfully—learning, by experience and careful observation, how to grow fruits profitably, and which kinds pay the best. There ought also to be considerable capital to start with, and an absence of the crushing burden of interest money. No fruits yield any returns before the second or third year; and there are often Unfavorable seasons and glutted markets. Nature's prizes are won by patient, persistent industry, and not by Wall Street sleight of hand.
Location is very important. A fancy store, however well-furnished, would be a ruinous investment at a country crossroad. The fruit farm must be situated where there is quick and cheap access to good markets, and often the very best market may be found at a neighboring village, summer resort, or canning establishment. Enterprise and industry, however, seem to surmount all obstacles. The Rev. Mr. Knox shipped his famous "700" strawberries (afterward known to be the Jucunda, a foreign variety) from Pittsburgh to New York, securing large returns; and, take the country over, the most successful fruit farms seem to be located where live men live and work. Still, if one were about to purchase, sound judgment would suggest a very careful choice of locality with speedy access to good markets. Mr. J. J. Thomas, editor of "The Country Gentleman," in a paper upon the Outlook of Fruit Culture, read before the Western N. Y. Horticultural Society, laid down three essentials to success: 1. Locality—a region found by experience to be adapted to fruit growing. 2. Wise selection of varieties of each kind. 3. Care and culture of these varieties. He certainly is excellent authority.
These obvious considerations, and the facts that have been instanced, make it clear that brains must unite with labor and capital. Above all, however, there must be trained, practical skill. Those succeed who learn how; and to add a little deftness to unskilled hands is the object of every succeeding page. At the same time, I frankly admit that nothing can take the place of experience. I once asked an eminent physician if a careful reading of the best medical text-books and thorough knowledge of the materia medica could take the place of daily study of actual disease and fit a man for practice, and he emphatically answered, "No!" It is equally true that an intelligent man can familiarize himself with every horticultural writer from the classic age to our own and yet be outstripped in success by an ignorant Irish laborer who has learned the little he knows in the school of experience. The probabilities are, however, that the laborer will remain such all his days, while the thoughtful, reading man, who is too sensible to be carried away by theories, and who supplements his science with experience, may enrich not only himself but the world.
Still, there is no doubt that the chances of success are largely in favor of the class I first named,—the farmers who turn their attention in part or wholly toward fruit growing. They are accustomed to hard out-of-door work and the general principles of agriculture. The first is always essential to success; and a good farmer can soon become equally skillful in the care of fruits if he gives his mind to their culture. The heavy, stupid, prejudiced plodder who thinks a thing is right solely because his grandfather did it, is a bucolic monster that is receding so fast into remote wilds before the horticultural press that he scarcely need be taken into account. Therefore, the citizen or professional man inclined to engage in fruit farming should remember that he must compete with the hardy, intelligent sons of the soil, who in most instances are crowning their practical experience with careful reading. I do not say this to discourage any one, but only to secure a thoughtful and adequate consideration of the subject before the small accumulations of years are embarked in what may be a very doubtful venture. Many have been misled to heavy loss by enthusiastic works on horticulture; I wish my little book to lead only to success.
If white-handed, hollow-chested professional men anxious to acquire money, muscle, and health by fruit raising,—if citizens disgusted with pavements and crowds are willing to take counsel of common-sense and learn the business practically and thoroughly, why should they not succeed? But let no one imagine that horticulture is the final resort of ignorance, indolence, or incapacity, physical or mental. Impostors palm themselves off on the world daily; a credulous public takes poisonous nostrums by the ton and butt; but Nature recognizes error every time, and quietly thwarts those who try to wrong her, either wilfully or blunderingly.
Mr. Peter Henderson, who has been engaged practically in vegetable gardening for over a quarter of a century, states, as a result of his experience, that capital, at the rate of $300 per acre, is required in starting a "truck farm," and that the great majority fail who make the attempt with less means. In my opinion, the fruit farmer would require capital in like proportion; for, while many of the small fruits can be grown with less preparation of soil and outlay in manure, the returns come more slowly, since, with the exception of strawberries, none of them yield a full crop until the third or fourth year. I advise most urgently against the incurring of heavy debts. Better begin with three acres than thirty, or three hundred, from which a large sum of interest money must be obtained before a penny can be used for other purposes. Anything can be raised from a farm easier than a mortgage.
Success depends very largely, also, on the character of the soil. If it is so high and dry as to suffer severely from drought two years out of three, it cannot be made to pay except by irrigation; if so low as to be wet, rather than moist, the prospects are but little better. Those who are permanently settled must do their best with such land as they have, and in a later chapter I shall suggest how differing soils should be managed. To those who can still choose their location, I would recommend a deep mellow loam, with a rather compact subsoil,—moist, but capable of thorough drainage. Diversity of soil and exposure offer peculiar advantages also. Some fruits thrive best in a stiff clay, others in sandy upland. Early varieties ripen earlier on a sunny slope, while a late kind is rendered later on a northern hillside, or in the partial shade of a grove. In treating each fruit and variety, I shall try to indicate the soils and exposures to which they are best adapted.
Profits.—The reader will naturally wish for some definite statements of the profits of fruit farming; but I almost hesitate to comply with this desire. A gentleman wrote to me that he sold from an acre of Cuthbert raspberries $800 worth of fruit. In view of this fact, not a few will sit down and begin to figure,—"If one acre yielded $800, ten acres would produce $8,000; twenty acres $16,000," etc. Multitudes have been led into trouble by this kind of reasoning. The capacity of an engine with a given motor power can be measured, and certain and unvarying results predicted; but who can measure the resources of an acre through varying seasons and under differing culture, or foretell the price of the crops? In estimating future profits, we can only approximate; and the following records are given merely to show what results have been secured, and therefore may be obtained again, and even surpassed. "The Country Gentleman" gives a well-authenticated instance of a fruit grower who "received more than $2,000 from three acres of strawberries." In contrast, however, it could be shown that many fields have not paid expenses. I once had such an experience. The market was "glutted," and the variety yielded berries so small and poor that they did not average five cents per quart. Occasionally we hear of immense shipments from the South being thrown into the dock.
Mr. William Parry, a veteran fruit grower in New Jersey, states the truth I wish to convey very clearly, and gives a fair mean between these two extremes:
YIELD AND PROFIT
"There are so many circumstances connected with strawberry growing, such as varieties, soil, climate, location, markets, and the skill and management of the grower, that the results of a few cases cannot be relied on for general rules.
"We have grown over two hundred bushels per acre here, and realized upward of six hundred dollars per acre for the crop; but that is much above the general average. Having kept a careful record, for fourteen years past, of the yield per acre and price per quart at which our strawberries have been sold, we find the average to be about 2,500 quarts per acre, and the price eleven cents per quart in market, giving the following results:
"Commissions, 10 per cent $27.50
Picking 2,500 quarts, at 2c. per quart 50.00
Use of baskets 10.00
Cultivation, etc 25.00
Net profits per acre 145.00
"Gross proceeds, 2,500 quarts at 11e $275.00"
In the year 1876 the same gentleman had ten acres of Brandywine raspberries that yielded about eighty-two bushels to the acre, giving a clear profit of $280, or of $2,800 for the entire area. This crop, so far from being the average, was awarded a premium as the most profitable that year in the section.
J. R. Gaston & Sons, of Normal, Ill., have given the following record of a plantation of Snyder blackberries: "We commenced to pick a field of seven acres July 12th, and finished picking August 22. The total amount gathered was 43,575 quarts, equal to 1,361 bushels and 22 quarts. The average price was eight cents per quart, making the gross proceeds equal to $3,486. We paid for picking $435.75. The cost of trimming and cultivating was about $400; cost of boxes, crates, and marketing was $1,307.25, leaving a net profit of $1,343."
A gentleman in Ulster Co., N.Y., stated that 200 bushes of the Cherry currant yielded him in one season 1,000 lbs. of fruit, which was sold at an average of eight cents per pound. His gross receipts were $80 from one-fourteenth of an acre, and at the same ratio an acre would have yielded $1,120. Is this an average yield? So far from it, there are many acres of currants and gooseberries that do not pay expenses. Thus it can be seen that the scale ranges from marvellous prizes down to blanks and heavy losses; but the drawing is not a game of chance, but usually the result of skill and industry, or their reverse.
I might have given many examples of large, and even enormously large, profits obtained under exceptional circumstances; but they tend to mislead. I write for those whose hearts prompt them to co-work with nature, and who are most happy when doing her bidding in the breezy fields and gardens, content with fair rewards, instead of being consumed by the gambler's greed for unearned gold. At the same time, I am decidedly in favor of high culture, and the most generous enriching of the soil; convinced that fruit growers and farmers in general would make far more money if they spent upon one acre what they usually expend on three. In a later chapter will be found an instance of an expenditure of $350 per acre on strawberry land, and the net profits obtained were proportionately large.