Picking a profitable line of farming

Robert Shuh, Dave Brown, Lisa Shuh, Leroy Martin, and Tim Shuh stand between rows of apple trees at Shuh Orchards.

Shuh Orchards feeds into growing market for Ontario apples

During Robert Shuh’s farming career, he has pretty much worked his way around the barnyard. Over the years, Shuh and his wife, Lisa, have been involved in dairy, turkey, chickens, cash cropping, and working with sesame as part of a MEDA project in Nicaragua. “I’m not somebody who’s afraid to make changes,” he said during a tour of his latest passion, Shuh Orchards, a 50-acre apple orchard near West Montrose, Ontario.

“For those people who don’t understand being wired the way I am, they think I have a severe problem with commitment or stick-to-it-ness. But I’m always excited about what else is out there.” In a speech to the Waterloo MEDA Hub this spring, the 61-year-old spoke of entrepreneurs understanding that “every once in a while, it’s just time for a change. You’ve taken the last project, you’ve built it up, so again, it’s time for something new. In 2011, that’s where we were. We spent a year doing research.” Shuh knew little about apple farming when he began that research. Yet there was family history in that venture. “Interestingly enough, there was an apple orchard on the (home) farm.”

His grandfather, Clarence, planted a three-acre orchard at a farm just outside of Elmira in the 1920s. Robert’s brother, Bruce, sold apples at the Kitchener Market with their father, Howard, on Saturday mornings in the 1960s. Those trees were 50 feet apart. The current practice is to plant trellised trees three feet apart. The earlier Shuh orchard had 10 trees per acre; the newer orchard has 1,260 trees in the same space.

A chance conversation with another father while watching his son play hockey led Robert Shuh into the apple business. He was speaking to someone who worked for Martin’s Family Fruit Farm and told that person about his journey. “He turned to me and said: Robert, you should grow apples.” That led him to a series of conversations with the company’s president, Kevin Martin, and a decision to enter the business.

Martin’s is a family-owned operation. The company’s website says it “has grown into one of the country’s largest apple growers, packers and processors,” with more than half a million trees on over 700 acres. Its farms are on the north side of Waterloo, Ontario and on the north shore of Lake Erie near Port Burwell, nearly two hours south of Waterloo.

Robert and his wife, Lisa, chose to partner with Martin’s due to the reality that to get into the retail market, a grower needs to have multiple orchards to be able to supply year-round. “The Martins have been an outstanding partner with us in the supply chain,” Robert said. “We could not ask for a better relationship there.” Almost all of the Honey Crisp, Gala, and Ambrosia apples they grow are marketed by Martin’s. The Shuhs’ son, Tim, oversees a laneway fruit stand business that sells about one percent of annual production.

Growing apples can be a lucrative business. Shuh Orchards produces north of $1 million in value annually on 50 acres, significantly above what growing corn, wheat, or soybeans could produce, Robert Shuh said. Apple acreage in Ontario has increased dramatically in recent years. About 38 percent of apple tree acreage in the province was planted less than 10 years ago, the Ontario Apple Growers’ 2022 annual report said.

Aerial view of Shuh Orchards, just outside of West Montrose, Ontario

About half of the apples consumed in Ontario are imported. Like many farming endeavors, Shuh Orchards experienced its share of growing pains and challenges. In 2013, family and friends helped them to install all of the irrigation and most of the apple trees on the property. But when fall came, and students returned to school, the work was incomplete. The Shuhs felt some panic, but then the phone rang. The leader of a Conservative Mennonite youth group that was planning to do a missions trip to Nicaragua wanted to know if the Shuhs had any work that needed to be done. They were looking to raise money for their trip.

The remaining task, putting white paint at the base of each tree, was “back-breaking work,” Robert recalled. (White paint reflects light away from trees to prevent winter damage.) That experience helped the Shuhs realize they needed a committed, skilled staff to work at their orchard. So they became involved with Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers program, hiring Jamaican laborers every year. “That was absolutely the best decision that we could ever have made,” Lisa said.

Extreme weather provided the next challenge. In December 2013, a major ice storm hit. The weather changes within a day or two in most cases with Canadian ice storms. “But it turned cold, and the ice remained on the trees for two weeks,” Robert said. Many trees cracked, “and we started wondering what have we done? It could be a disaster from which there’s no coming back.” Problems mounted when the ensuing winter became the coldest of the Shuhs’ lifetime, with several days of temperatures below minus 22 Fahrenheit (minus 30 Celsius). He said that mature trees can handle that fine, but young trees are less able. “Again, what can be done? Anxiety.”

Those trees came to life in the spring of 2014, and they thought all was well. When their agronomist visited and started cutting trees off, Robert was shocked. After cross-sections were taken to a lab, they were told to cut off 36,000 Gala apple trees at the knees. “It was horrible.” Another 1,800 trees that they didn’t cut off developed black rot, a fungal disease. The situation reminded him of Wally Kroeker, the former editor of The Marketplace magazine, who once described farmers as being God’s junior partner in creation. “God didn’t need help to do this whole creation thing, but the trees don’t grow in the rows, and be grafted and all that, without the help of humans. And so, we clung to the hope that there is tremendous resilience in God’s creation.”

“A few weeks later, new shoots came up, and we were back in business again.” The Shuhs’ first harvest was in the fall of 2016. “It was not a large crop at all, but it was enough to cover the annual costs of operation of the orchard.” 2020 was a difficult year for the Shuh orchard operation, as it was for many others, Lisa said. One of her tasks was to process all the emails from various levels of government and public health and try to keep up with rules around what they should be doing. When they arrived from Jamaica, their seasonal workers had to quarantine and do daily health checks. “It was challenging,” she said.

The pandemic spotlighted the living conditions of seasonal agricultural workers, with many media reports that workers were forced to live in sub-standard housing. “That was really not the truth at all,” she said. “We had our workers in housing that was completely adequate.” Partly in response to these perceptions, the Shuhs built dedicated bunkhouses for their workers, to provide more capacity and more space for a kitchen, larger communal meeting areas, “and also a little more privacy in their sleeping arrangements,” she said.

Robert sees Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program as being analogous to MEDA’s mission. He served nine years on the MEDA international board, including seven years as chair of MEDA Canada. “MEDA’s mission is (creating) business solutions to poverty. We love that. It absolutely works. We believe it’s the best way to deal with economic injustice,” he said. “In Jamaica, there is very little economic opportunity” for people whose skills are to provide manual labor, he said.

The Shuhs cannot operate their farm without seasonal workers. During the pruning season, they have three workers, two during the summer. That swells to between 15 and 25 people during the fall, depending on the size of the harvest. People who come to Canada for a seven-to-eight-week harvest season can make as much money as they can earn in their home country in an entire year and improve the lives of their families back home as a result.

Machinery is also an important part of modern apple orchards. Robert Shuh describes the four propane-fueled, v10 engine-powered frost fans he installed in the orchard as the only equipment he has ever purchased that paid for itself in one night. The fans circulate air to protect 12-15 acres of trees when temperatures drop below mid-single digits at night. Last year, Shuh Orchards bought a harvesting machine that allows workers to put apples into a conveyor. The machine handles the apples more gently, resulting in less bruising, and is also easier on the workers.

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