After driving past pastures and farm ponds in rural Davis County, Heath Greiner stops his truck outside a 7-foot deer fence that surrounds a scenic farm near Bloomfield.
"Welcome to Jurassic Park," says Greiner with a laugh. He opens the fence gate to reveal, thankfully, not vicious dinosaurs but rather serene rows of newly planted apple and cherry trees.
A sturdy fence — the taller, the better — is a necessity to keep the deer out when you’re starting an apple orchard in southeast Iowa’s prime deer-hunting country.
"I call it the deer net," Greiner says. "When we first planted the orchard, (the deer) were destroying the trees. It took about two months to get the fence up."
Greiner, a 31-year-old cattle farmer and Davis County Farm Bureau member, said he planted the orchard as a long-term investment — both as a way to diversify his farm income and for his own future enjoyment, watching the trees grow and bloom in one of the most peaceful spots in Iowa.
"It’s fun. You can just stand here and listen," he says, as the sound of the wind and the birds rise up around him.
Greiner is among a growing number of young farmers in Iowa who are diversifying their traditional row-crop farms by tapping into alternative ag opportunities — whether that’s growing tomatoes in hoop houses, renting out goats for weed control or selling apples at the local farmers market.
Trying different things
"If (young farmers) have the time to do it and the manpower, and they can figure out their business plan, then they should definitely try different things," Greiner says. "It’s like cover crops. That used to be the newest thing, and now everyone is trying it."
Greiner says he planted the orchard with financial help and encouragement from an out-of-state investor, who owns the land but prefers to remain anonymous.
The 21-acre farm where the orchard now stands was once a hazelnut farm before the investor purchased it. However, the hazelnut trees never grew well, Greiner says. So Greiner and his partner were looking for another opportunity for the farm.
Greiner said he grew up working on a local apple orchard that pressed its own cider and thought he could build on that experience.
He and his partner decided to move forward with the idea and plant their own orchard, keeping it relatively small at first with 3-1/2 acres.
"It’s something different, a different market," Greiner says. "You can sit around and watch the grain markets go up and down, the politics and the weather. We’re so vulnerable here in southeast Iowa. Our weather patterns never seem to be the best. So I wanted to try something different, something that used to be."
It will take about three years for the apple trees to start producing. Greiner says he plans to sell the apples and cherries at local grocery stores and farmers markets.
"The local-grown, farm-to-market thing seems to be the new trend that the public likes," he said. "And even with a few acres, the production off of this is going to be huge in a few years. We are going to have enough apples to feed southeast Iowa."
In total, Greiner has planted about 500 trees. Most are apple trees, including popular varieties Gala, Honeycrisp, Zestar and Cortland. There are also about 100 cherry trees, which so far are growing well, Greiner says.
The blueberry bushes, on the other hand, have been a struggle, Greiner says. Blueberries grow best in acidic soil, and Greiner says he hasn’t had the time to make the soil conditions more favorable for blueberry production.
It turned out, Greiner didn’t pick the best summer to plant his orchard. Last summer, the farm didn’t get any rain for 60 days. Greiner had to water the newly planted apple trees by hand twice a week, using a tanker truck and water pumped from the farm’s pond.
"It was horrible. It was hot. It was probably 100 degrees out here," Greiner recalls.
Greiner says it’s been difficult to hire someone, even part-time, who is willing to help him with the mowing, spraying, watering and other work that needs to be done in the orchard.
"I’m farming full-time. We have cattle and row crops. In the spring time, I’m very busy in the fields, and I turn around and start putting hay up, working cows. So it’s hard for me to devote a lot of time right now," adds Greiner, who also runs his own custom manure application business.
This spring, Greiner invited the local Davis County FFA students to plant several more apple trees, and one of the FFA instructors offered to help in the orchard this summer.
Greiner says his goal is to free up more of his own time so he can focus more on the orchard.
"The work, honestly, is so easy and peaceful," he said. "The people who have been able to come out here say this is so relaxing and nice. This is something I’m looking at in the long term, to invest more time.
"Five years from now, I want to be here a lot more," Greiner says, looking at a few green apples already hanging from the branches.