Planting an Orchard for a Commerical Hard Cider, What to Consider

Hard Apple Tree Orchard

Hard Apple Tree Orchard

I have been toying around with the idea of getting some land and planting a small orchard. For anyone else thinking about planting an orchard for hard cider, here are some things to consider.

It takes about 15 to 20lbs (closer to the low side of this range) to make 1 gallon of cider. The yield per acre of mature apple trees is anywhere from 12,000 to over 50,000lbs (when using extreme growing methods).  Therefore in theory, you could produce about 800 to 3,333 gallons per acre of apples.  Hitting the mid-range of both of these stats, I would guess around 25,000 lbs of apples per acre would be a realistic goal without extreme growing measures. Remember that yields in the first few years are a tiny fraction of this amount.

The first question you should be asking yourself is, “where would I put 25,000lbs of apples or 1,666 gallons of cider?

The second question you should ask is, “how will I even harvest and move 25,000lbs of anything?”

Both great questions, but there is one final even more important question, “What am I going to do with it?

Many of the questions can be answered with one word, infrastructure. Tractors, trailers, machinery, storage refrigerator, packaging, farmer markets and stands are the first few things that come to mind, but heck we didn’t even talk about actually growing or harvesting the trees.

Well there is good news, you can take it slow. 

You will need equipment and possibly labor

hard cider bladder press

hard cider bladder press

A large scale press and grinder will be needed. If you are commercial size, you might have to look into a “bladder” juice press (uses pressure from water, available here). Most of the equipment you will need is sadly not very cheap. Maybe you have an existing structure for storage or are already driving a truck, these things will help you save. When it comes time to pick, be prepared to hire labor if you have a decent amount of fruiting trees. You only have so much time, and the trees will only wait so long. This of course is all on the premise that you want a larger scale operation. Also don’t forget irrigation (more later).

You need to learn to Graft, Long-term for larger scale

No way around it, you will need more trees, and if you constantly buying trees you are going to have a bad time. That isn’t to say it isn’t profitable to buy pre-made trees, but you don’t have everything in place anyhow. Consider finding a supplier that will sell you a lot of varieties. Maybe start with 100 or 200 trees in total, expect to be paying around $6 to $12 per tree for these smaller orders. Let’s call it roughly $1k to $2k investment in trees per acre. Avoid any nursery that comes in around $20+ per tree, unless you are dealing with a very small order, rare tree, or more developed tree.

Planting a couple of hundred trees isn’t as daunting as it sounds (they probably are about 2-4 feet tall and fairly small). Designing the long-term layout of your property is arguably a scarier task.

Before talking long-term layout though, you need to have a goal. What is your long-term play? If you are looking for a few hundred gallons of cider a year, you honestly don’t need a full acre or much of any equipment or additional labor. Maybe you would rather design your orchard as a hassle free, no irrigation orchard where some years you get a crop and some years you get nothing. It’s not a terrible idea since the time commitment and cost would be minimal. Just know that planting trees is a long-term commitment.

This weekend I attended the 35th Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association Conference (OEFFA). At this conference, we heard a lot of techniques and strategies for farms and homesteads, and some are really interesting.

Speakers like Mark Shepard, Author of “Restoration Agriculture.” Mark grows a variety of plants, including nuts, apples, and berries (to list a few). Mark has a few big messages mainly talking about water management, eco-structures, and permaculture. The overall idea is you want to do as little as you can, with lower infrastructure. The water management is probably the most interesting aspect of his message. By creating a system of water ponds and underground “lines,” you can slow waters movement on your property and allow it to be absorbed. This is not a new technique, but seeing how it is accomplished is really interesting. You establish a pond or lake at a high point, and then use a tractor with a big hook called a sub-soiler, and drag lines in your property for your water to follow. You grade these lines so that the pitch is very low, but enough to allow gravity to do all of your watering. It’s a concept worth checking out if you are interested and thinking about a large scale operation. Water can be a very large cost for any form of agriculture.

Interesting enough, Mark Shepard has a hard cider operation, and it sounds like business is good. Also it’s important to note that Mark has a cattle on his property to complete a permaculture model (provide nutrients to plants).

Tree variety is important, but Confusing

Hard Cider Apple Variety Black Dabinett

Hard Cider Apple Variety Black Dabinett

A lot of people talk about “English and French varieties of trees” being superior for making hard cider, but frankly taste is so subjective, that this statement is laughable. I’m not saying you shouldn’t explore these varieties (often higher in tannin levels), but most hard cider producers use an unknown blend of apples. I would argue that more experimentation is needed on what blend is most desirable here in the United States. The real question is, Where do you think Angry Orchard’s is getting their juice? My guess is they are very generic apples and juices. From a consumer standpoint though, I’m not sure that having unique varieties will produce high enough of a premium on the retail side, as many home brewers might assume. Also you can always buy imported English and French hard ciders, and some of them are dirt cheap.

As for what varieties you should plant? Check out research for your specific state and region to see what is even viable. A big trend is to brew with crab apples, being that they have a large tannin level, similar to those “English and French varieties.” If you want to experiment with crab apples, get on craigslist and see what you can come up with, where I grew up there were crab apples everywhere that went to waste. The bottom line is here is, you will need a blend of apples. A post on tree variety and blending is coming soon.

My personal goal

My personal goals are still blurry. Do I also want to sell fruit at local farmer’s markets? Do I want to brew on a semi-commercial scale? Is there even enough “value-add” to invest in a larger scale operation? I sadly think that profitability on breweries is overstated, but wouldn’t it be cool if you could turn a decent profit on 4-5 acres and a brewing facility? You would be looking at approximately 7,000 – 8,000 gallons of hard cider. That would be roughly $70k – $80k if sold via kegs (most profitable route), but you have a lot of up-front investment (brewing equipment, building, etc.), overhead, and labor costs. I would have to believe it would be near impossible to make a profit more than $10-$20k on that scale.  I actually don’t think hard cider is profitable at that low of a scale in actual practice. It might be more lucrative to have a one or two acre smaller scale fruit operation (honeycrisps, gala, berries, etc.), sell at farmers markets, and just take whatever fruit you want.

Let’s not also forget that you can have a bad fruit season, labor issues, etc.. You also need to carry considerably more insurance and buy a lot of equipment. That $70k-80k revenue also implies that you sell all of your cider via 500+ kegs directly to the retailer. Per hour, your income would be dismal (blogger dismal). I think there are only three stops for hard cider producers, small personal orchard (not intent of profiting), massive commercial (20+ acres), or strictly brewer. Strictly brewer would buy bulk cider, avoiding the hassle of being a farmer. This might be the best route if you are looking to get in the game. Maybe buy a building in a cheaper location, get the federal and state permits (easier to get than beer permits, in most states), and hit up all of the local orchards. Try to grab cider for around $3-$4 a gallon and convert it into $10-12 per gallon hard cider. After your overhead, I bet you could get it down to $3-$4 net per gallon, meaning you would only need to produce about 15,000 gallons of hard cider to make a $50k living. Also noting that the first years wouldn’t show a profit due to tank and building investments.

One final note, I actually had a chance to try an Ohio made hard cider at a bar (Brews Cafe, Grandville, OH) when going to this OEFFA convention. It was about $12.50 for what appeared to be a 18oz blue glass bottle. The labeling was terrible, and it was a higher proof (in the teens I think). If the brewer sold that bottle to the bar for even $6, that’s $.33 an ounce ($42.66 per gallon minus bottling). That seems like a solid concept, but it really wasn’t very good, in fact it was one of the worst hard ciders I’ve ever had. Also, how many $12.50 bottles of cider does the average drinker consume? Just a thought.

Regardless, follow this blog and see how my goals and ideas develop. Who knows, maybe I’ll end up with that land and have my own orchard.

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