Groundswell Trainee Profile: Maria Klemperer-Johnson and Hammerstone Orchard

By Erika Lundahl

The seven acres of land that make up Maria Klemperer-Johnson and Chad Purdy’s property doesn’t look like too much now, but in the next few years it will overflow with trellises, deer fencing, a tractor, and rows of Dwarf Apple Trees; everything needed to support a growing orchard. Recent recipient of an FSA microloan and trainee in the 2013 Groundswell Farm Business Planning Class, Maria saw the growing number of artisanal cideries in upstate New York as a great business opportunity.

“The demand for hard cider only seems to be growing, and there are so many local cideries looking for local apples to source. This seemed like the perfect use for the land, and through the Groundswell program we saw it was really possible.” A carpenter and contractor by trade, Maria is part of the growing number of people who turn to farming out of a desire to learn about farming, make the most of their land, as well as generate a second source of income for their families.

“The best possible way of learning is in the service of creating something – and that’s exactly what this project is,” says Maria. With the help of Groundswell’s business planning course, and from the Cornell Orchard manager, Eric Shatt of Red Byrd Cider, Maria says she has ample resources to feel confident in the new business plan.

“The plan is to have our first production year in 2017, after ordering and planting dwarf apples in 2015,” explained Maria. Dwarf apple trees bear fruit after three seasons and grow well in cold winter climates such as Ithaca. The fruit could then be sold wholesale to local cideries to supplement their apple crops. Unlike some apple varieties, the small trees are supported by trellises and grow close together. While this maximizes the crop, it requires more ground preparation than some other planting systems. The main challenges facing Maria and Chad– as with many beginning farmers – lay in how to fund a complex agricultural endeavor where the return on investment takes several years.

Even as an experienced local business owner (Double Dog Timberworks) Maria found banks didn’t want to take on the risk. With the help of Groundswell, the orchard has been able to gain access to funds from the brand new microloan program through the USDA’s Farm Services Agency (FSA). According to USDA, the new program “is aimed at bolstering the progress of producers through their start-up years by providing needed resources and helping to increase equity so that farmers may eventually graduate to commercial credit and expand their operations.”

The microloan program is specifically designed for small agriculture endeavors such as Maria’s, that aren’t covered by conventional loan programs. At first Maria and Chad were turned down by the local FSA office, whose staff were unfamiliar with their cider orchard concept. Groundswell intervened by contacting higher ups in FSA, who worked with local FSA staff to ensure that the application got a closer look. It was soon approved.

Though there’s plenty of time before picking season of 2017, Maria is dreaming big about where she would like to take the orchard. “I would love to support the rich homebrew community in this area with a “You Pick, You Press” business, bringing in cider pressing experts and hosting educational classes. That would be a dream come true for this orchard.”

Erika Lundahl is a volunteer writer for Groundswell. An Ithaca transplant, she graduated in 2012 from Ithaca College with a Writing degree. While in school she worked with our local bookstore cooperative, Buffalo Street Books and has been working at The Piggery for the last year. We’re grateful for her help in bringing you stories about our amazing Groundswell trainees. Thank you Erika!