Meet Our Members
NOFA-NH's knowledgeable and passionate members make our organization great. That's why NOFA-NH offers our members eligibility to be featured in the 'Meet Our Members' column in our e-news. Each month, we make our community a little closer by introducing you to someone new. Please contact us if you'd like to be featured.
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Meet Our Members! May 2023
Name: Ron Christie
Business: Off the Wall Orchard
Meet Ron Christie of Off the Wall Orchard in Concord, NH.
Many NOFA-NH members are familiar with Ron Christie from his informative Gardening Series videos, but many of you may not know just how innovative his farming techniques are. Ron is reinventing fruit farming in Concord, New Hampshire.
Ron grew up in Nashua. Neither of his parents were gardeners, but his aunts and uncles were all avid gardeners. His maternal grandparents tried farming in Saskatchewan, but eventually moved to Nashua for a less hostile environment. His paternal grandparents sold their farm in Londonderry to a real estate developer.
“My mother’s family all lived into their 90s, and my grandfather lived to 102.” Ron proclaims. “My father’s family, however, all died in their 50s and 60s from heart disease and cancer. I think they were cursed for forsaking the farm.
“As a kid growing up in Nashua, I wanted to have a garden. Our next-door neighbor, Mr. Le Blonde, had a beautiful garden. My maternal aunts and uncles all had beautiful gardens, and the food that came out of them was fresh and crispy and tasty.
“So, my parents brought in some loam for me to create a garden. I have no idea where it came from, but it wasn’t very good. There were lots of bottle caps and small pieces of brick, stone and plastic. I tried growing corn and tomatoes and cucumbers but nothing grew well. I ended up with lots of bugs and lots of dead plants.
“Mr. Le Blonde’s garden had tall corn, big plants and no bugs. One day in the fall, Mr. Le Blonde drove up with a trailer full of smelly cow manure. He spent the next week folding it into his garden soil. I had no idea at the time how important that was.”
After graduating with a degree in economics, Ron worked in retail for several years and then joined Merrill Lynch as a stockbroker. The market crash in 1987 washed him out, but he learned how to invest and trade stocks.
“I became enthralled with markets – the investing side of finance and trading,” Ron recalls. “I reentered the financial services industry as a Certified Financial Planner and built a business as an asset manager and trader. I was totally consumed by the challenge of producing high returns for my clients. It was fun. It was intense. It was stressful. And it was slowly making me very unhealthy.”
Ron and his wife, Mary, moved to Brookline, New Hampshire in 2005 where they bought a six-acre forested lot. In the process of building a new home, they created about an acre of open space. Ron wanted to finally have a garden that actually grew good vegetables so he could live like the healthy side of his family.
He bought his first book about gardening – “The Vegetable Gardeners Bible” – during their first winter in Brookline. In the spring, he built garden beds that had two feet of forest soil in them, and everything grew very well. That fall, he quit the finance business to concentrate on gardening and farming.
“I dove deep into the process of growing food,” Ron explains. “I consumed every bit of information I could find about gardening and farming. By 2010, we were growing high quality, organic vegetables and starting to sell our produce. I joined the ranks of the Master Gardeners and was eventually hired as Master Gardener Coordinator for UNH Extension.”
Ron’s quest for knowledge led him to the books of Eliot Coleman. Ron had great success growing vegetables under cover using Coleman’s methods of row covers and high tunnels.
“It changed the whole dynamics of growing food for me,” Ron continues. “I started to think about using the same methods for fruit. So, I planted some apple trees and covered them.
“Everything that grew under cover came out great. Everything outside the covers was trash. Covers allowed me to control most of what affects fruit quality, and I knew what I wanted to do next.
“Along with selling veggies, our farm turned into an experiment on growing fruit under cover. Once we had the basics down, we decided to sell our home in Brookline and look for farmland better suited to growing fruit. After working with six real estate agents in four states, we found this property in Concord, close to all my NOFA and farm buddies.
“The property has 14 acres of perfect soils for growing fruit and has great westerly views of the mountains. Seven of the acres are covered by forest. When we’re finished building out, we should have three acres of tunneled fruit trees.”
Several concepts make Ron’s approach to fruit farming different. To raise high quality organic fruit in New Hampshire’s climate, he needed to redesign the whole orchard.
“We started with the idea of a narrow fruiting wall formed by multi-leader trees,” he explains. “A twelve-inch wide fruiting wall allows for maximum sun penetration, rapid drying after a rain event and a lot less space for pests to hide. A multi-leader structure disperses tree energy and controls tree height. We now have a “pedestrian” orchard where ladders are not needed to harvest.
“The fruiting wall is supported with a trellis. The trellis frame allows us to put a roof over the fruiting wall and surround the trees with insect netting. This further reduces pest and disease pressures. Rows are only six feet wide so the orchard looks more like a vineyard. With narrow rows we can fit in more leaders per acre. The insect netting controls pollination and the number of apples per leader.
“We know exactly how much fruit each tree carries and manage fertilizer inputs based on tree needs. Our trees are watered using a wick irrigation system, optimizing hydration without water waste. And, because everything is covered, we can cushion our orchard against the effects of major weather events. We’ll have apples this year and cherries and peaches next year with other large fruit to follow.”
Ron is a passionate proponent of organic farming. He is dedicated to not using chemical pesticides and not degrading the soil. He believes that by the simple act of taking care of their land, organic farmers set the example for everyone.
“Clean food is part of healthy living,” he declares. “I never liked the idea of using chemicals on food or in the environment. I don’t want to spray them. I don’t want to breath them in. I don’t want family, friends or clients exposed to them. So, the chemical thing is really big with me.
“New England has very little cultivated farmland relative to our population size. If we ever need to feed ourselves, we’ll need every inch of quality land we can harness. That means lots of small and micro farms in New Hampshire.
“NOFA-NH’s greatest benefits to me come on the marketing side. I can count the number of organic fruit farms in New England on one hand. As we ramp up production, we will be able to employ NOFA-NH with great effect.”
Ron’s favorite childhood memory is the smell of cow manure. He loved visiting his aunt’s family dairy farm in Litchfield where he could hang out with his cousins in the country.
“It seemed like a long drive from Nashua, but I knew we were getting close when I could smell the cow manure. That memory comes alive every time I get a whiff of it,” he says with a big smile.
Interview and article by NOFA-NH Board Member, Karl Johnson.