Lisa and Howard Mileur have been running Mileur Orchard out of Murphysboro, Illinois since the early 1990s. When Howard’s parents decided to retire, Lisa and Howard moved from California to keep the orchard in the family. Lisa, originally from Phoenix, describes herself as a “city girl” who did not know much about farming. Nonetheless, the appeal of raising their kids away from crowded California was enough for her to say, “yes.”
After acquiring thirty years of experience running the farm with Howard, Lisa is hardly the mere urbanite she was. She now stands a deeply knowledgeable and passionate farmer, well versed in the ins and outs of running an orchard. Lisa is also a retired nurse, a certified food manager, and an operator of a certified kitchen that bakes the pastries sold in their store.
The Business of Running an Orchard
Peaches over Apples
The Mileurs’ journey has been far from easy. When Lisa and Howard took over the orchard in the 1990s it was already well-established. However, they were beginning their tenure as its stewards during a time of change. When Howard was growing up on the farm, the family business centered on selling apples wholesale to small grocery stores. By the 1990s, however, these small grocery stores were few. Consequently, Howard and Lisa were tasked with moving the business away from wholesale to retail. No longer selling to grocery stores, Lisa and Howard now sell their products at farmer’s markets and their farmstand.
The Mileurs facilitated the transition to a new business model by switching from being a predominately apple orchard to a predominately peach orchard. Apples, while they can be hardier peaches, have a lot of market competition. For a 36-acre orchard like the Mileurs’ to compete in the apple market, they have to find a way to price themselves competitively with several thousand acre orchards in Washington and Michigan. The reason being, thanks to carbon-dioxide storage, apples can keep remarkably well. As Lisa put it, “you can go to the grocery store and get a really fresh apple . . . like it came right off the tree a week or so ago, any time of the year.”
This is not the case with peaches. Local, fresh peaches maintain a niche in the market in the absence of substantial competition. If you want a fresh peach in Illinois, the product you get at Mileur Orchard or their stand at the farmer’s market will be a measurably better product than your general grocery store peach.
Weather and Climate Change
A Hard Year at the Orchard
This year has been particularly rough for Mileur Orchard. A series of weather events beginning last fall has resulted in a 13% peach yield. The first insults were abnormally warm days in November of more than eighty degrees followed by lows in the teens. Rapid fluctuations in temperature inhibit the dormancy process and damage buds before they close for winter. The spring has added further insult with a late frost and drought conditions, which only broke with storms in early July.
Damaging weather events are especially hard for small orchards like the Mileurs’. Small orchards tend not to carry any crop insurance because of the prohibitively expensive price tag. Consequently, the damage that is done has to be absorbed by the farmer. Running on a smaller scale of operation, they also tend to have less capital in reserve. For summers like this, the Mileurs must wrestle with making enough money to support themselves this year and enough to support next year’s harvest.
Weather events like those that have happened this year are not unprecedented. However, scientists tell us that climate change is making weather events like drought and warm temperatures into late fall more frequent. If destructive weather becomes the new normal, it raises the question about the long-term viability of small orchards in Illinois. Without some type of intervention, technological, governmental or social, orchards like the Mileurs’ may find it even harder to exist.
Solutions and Frustrations
When I asked Lisa what she thought some solutions might be, she discussed, with some frustration, the absence of research being done that might help them. The problems facing small orchards in light of climate change are numerous and the solutions cannot practically come from the farmers themselves. For example, the Mileurs do not have the resources to invest into researching heat tolerant apples or weather tolerant peaches.
The logical place for the kind of research that could help the Mileurs would be land grant universities. Unfortunately, Illinois’s only land grant university— the University of Illinois (UIUC)—does not do any substantial research on fruit trees. While plenty of research is being done on corn and soybeans, for work on orchard crops one would need to travel to Michigan, Minnesota, or California. In this sense, the abundance of commodity crops in Illinois is shaping the research agenda at the University to the detriment of farmers wanting to do something different. The stakes are, as Lisa put it, either this research is done or these orchards will disappear.
Labor and the Economy
Another aspect of running a small orchard that Lisa and I discussed was the retention of labor. While finding adolescents and young adults to work farmers markets or their farm store is easy enough, finding people to do farm work is more difficult. Mileur Orchard has been employing the same crew of four guys for orchard work for twenty-four years. However, they’re sometimes not enough. Labor shortages have caused delays which have resulted in losing product on the tree. Lisa credits the difficulty of the work as a main factor in deterring labor. “You can try to hire a college kid or a high school kid or whatever, but they last about two days out in the peach orchard and they’re done.” Thus, for a small orchard the issue of labor is a bit intractable and perennial.
Selling luxury crops also means that you are more susceptible to economic downturn. As Lisa commented, “Peaches; you don’t have to have peaches. They are not a necessity like bread, milk, and meat. People got to have those things. [When money is tight], that’s what they’ll spend their disposable income on to eat.” For example, in 2008 after the Great Recession, the Mileurs noticed a drop in business. This year, while a recession has yet to hit, Lisa called attention to its potential as something on their radar. In a year already thwarted by bad weather, there is good reason to be concerned about an economic downturn.
The Mileurs’ experiences and worries bring to the front the interconnection of environmental instability and the economic well-being of society. The consequences of failing to stop climate change means that farmers like the Mileurs will be even more susceptible to economic downturns that appear once to twice a decade.
Lisa Mileur’s Philosophy of Running a Small Orchard
A Farmers Market is for Farmers
Lisa Mileur is a highly principled individual in her outlook on the relationship between farmer and customer. She takes great pride in the products she brings to market and in knowing the processes in which they get there. In her mind, a farmers’ market and her farm stand should be a place first and foremost where producers sell their products directly to customers. Unfortunately, not all markets share this philosophy, which is why the Mileurs are particular about what markets they go to. As Lisa elaborated, she is fine with competition, but as long as that competition is not people selling someone else’s peaches at a farmers market.
This position speaks to one’s intuitive sense of fairness, but in a year where your peach crop is sitting at 13%, it is not easy to stick to that philosophy as it may seem. One of the Mileurs’ neighbors, after suffering through the same weather events the Mileurs have, has opted to sell South Carolina peaches. The Mileurs considered doing the same, but have decided to just work with what they have and open up their farm stand when they can, hopefully in August.
“Eat on your Own Continent”
In the context of a conversation about how a lot of people are alienated from the production of their food, Lisa pointed out that a lot of people no longer have a concept of seasonality: “People have no clue about seasonality. That’s one of my favorite things—eat on your own continent. We shouldn’t be flying fruit in from Peru.” While the system of transcontinental food chains makes things convenient for the consumer, the tradeoff is taste. As Lisa noted, “If you care about how good your fruit tastes, the best quality comes from being in season.”
Taking Care of her Community
I asked Lisa what she most enjoyed about being a farmer. She responded that it’s “very fulfilling to grow food for people.” To Lisa, she connects growing food as a form of taking care of people that draws parallels to her time as a nurse.
Besides growing healthy food for people, the other part of Lisa’s care-focussed conception of being a farmer is education. Teaching customers how to be more knowledgeable consumers, e.g. what peach is best for canning, is deeply rewarding to her just as doing school tours is.
“Education is key,” Lisa told me. Teaching people about where their food comes from and how to be a more knowledgeable consumer benefits small farms and society alike.
For a deeper dive into Lisa’s thought on running an orchard and more, read the full interview here.
In case you missed it, check out the previous parts of Farmers at Large: