Our orchard’s first trees were planted in the mid 1940s. There are only a handful of these old trees left on the farm today. Our orchard operation consists of about two acres of the original plantings of large standard size trees. The majority of our orchards are new young trees planted in the past fifteen years. These new orchards are high-density plantings on dwarfing rootstock. We now have around 10,000 trees planted on approximately thirty acres. There are many new high quality varieties in these new orchards and we are excited about bringing these new apples to market.
Our little farm does not have what you would call a long proud history. It was bought and sold several times and had its ups and downs with owners and renters and inconsistent care. It was originally bought by land investors in the mid 1800s prior to the Homestead Act. This chunk of property was originally part of a several hundred acre piece that was broke up and resold a few times. Most likely only on paper by land investors in the eastern part of the country. By the late 1800s it had changed ownership a few times and finally had residents.
The land was cleared and the farm became one of the many dairy operations in the coulees feeding the Mississippi River valley. After a series of dairy farmers moved on and off the farm, some renting and some owning, an older gentleman bought the rundown dairy farm in the early 1940’s. The old story goes like this. This older guy by the name of Adolf Justin bought the farm as an investment and a business that his son could take over when he returned from World War II. Justin cleaned up the place, and either got a dairy herd with the farm or established one, then started planting an orchard on the north slope.
Sometime in the late 1940s, Justin’s son moved to the farm with his new young wife. The intention was to make a living milking cows and growing field crops, and spending spare time planting and caring for the new orchard.
As you might have already guessed, this plan did not work out. And as the story was told by Andrew Hoch, after one winter on the farm the young wife offered two options to the aspiring farmer: “The farm or me!” Soon after, the little farm was without a farmer, the cows were gone and the land was rented out. Old Adolf Justin’s intentions were noble but were not well thought out. He put the farm up for sale.
It took a few a years to find a buyer for the farm. During that time the buildings fell into disrepair and the little orchard grew up in brush and weeds. Then in the early 1950s a young bachelor in his 30s from LaCrosse heard about the little farm and orchard. This young man did not come from a farming background but he had interest in apple growing and had cared for a small orchard near his home town of Alma, Wisconsin.
This young man was Andy Hoch. He graduated from the Alma Normal School with a degree in education, he managed a grocery store with his brother Clarence for a few years, and at some point in time he moved to Milwaukee and studied welding and worked in that area for a while. He attempted to join the army but was rejected because of his flat feet. After the war was started he was drafted, his flat feet were not considered a problem then. He participated in World War II as a combat engineer. After the war he ended up in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, working as a technician for the telephone company.
Andy Hoch fixed up the dilapidated buildings, cut out the brush growing in between the apple trees (some of which was bigger than the trees), pruned the young overgrown orchard and started planting apple trees. Between roughly 1952 and 1972 Andy planted all sixty acres of tillable land with apple trees while continuing to live and work in LaCrosse. While Andy had a strong interest and considerable enthusiasm for apple tree planting, he had little knowledge of commercial fruit production and even less knowledge of business management. When planting was completed there were almost three thousand standard size (not on dwarfing stock) trees growing on the sixty acres with little or no investment in equipment and facilities. This moderate sized orchard was planted in wide, thirty-foot spacing in a haphazard pattern. Andy had created a beautiful scenic sixty acre hobby farm!
Andy spent all his spare time working on the orchard while he continued to work full time at the LaCrosse Telephone company. Then in the mid 1960s he really complicated things by getting married and starting a family. Andy was nearly fifty years old when he got married. He continued to work full time, raise a family, and run an orchard, not doing a good job at any of them. In the mid 1970s Andy left the Telephone company after almost thirty years of service and retired so he could spend more time on the orchard. By then Andy was in his sixties, he had a home in LaCrosse and farm outside of LaCrescent, and three wild teenage kids. He did not have a lot of energy left for running a sixty acre orchard. As the trees hit what could have been their peak production years, Andy grew tired and gave them less care so they went into decline before they ever reached their potential.
Andy’s wife Jackie (Hafner) Hoch, who had a natural green thumb, fell in love with the orchard. She wanted to move to the farm but Andy was a city boy and never agreed to sell the city house and move the family to the farm. The next generation of kids (Harry, Andrea, and Tim) spent weekends, summers, and holidays on the farm but grew up in LaCrosse.
Harry got his mother’s green thumb and in 1983 went to the University of Minnesota Waseca to study Horticulture with plans to come back and help run the family farm. In the late fall of 1983 Andy died of a heart attack and again the little farm went without care.
In 1985 Harry graduated with an Associate Degree in Horticulture and moved back to the little farm. In 1986 Jackie (Harry’s mother) sold the LaCrosse house, bought a mobile, and moved to the little farm. Harry lived in the old farm house that had not been upgraded since the 1930s. Lack of running water, no central heat, and a wood burning stove suited him just fine until he decided to complicate things. In the fall of 1986, Harry married Jackie Mauss. Fortunately, Jackie did not give the ultimatum of ‘me or the farm’. Jackie was much more open-minded about the living conditions but she did offer one ultimatum to Harry before the wedding. She said if the indoor bathroom was not installed and functional prior to the wedding vows, she would say “I DON’T”.
In the late 1980s Harry worked full time landscaping, his wife Jackie (now known as Jackie Jr) worked full time in LaCrosse and worked on her bachelor’s Degree in Medical Technology. Between Harry and the two Jackies, they managed the little orchard and got the trees back in shape. While this was going on Angie was born in 1987 and Missy was born in 1989. Just like his father, Harry tried to do many things at once and didn’t do a good job at any of them.
The late 1980’s were not good years for the fruit industry, so in 1990 Harry, Jackie, and the children moved to the Twin Cities area where Jackie worked for Hennepin County Medical Center and Harry worked at the University of Minnesota’s Horticultural Research Center. Again the little orchard was left alone. Jackie Senior stayed on the farm and took care of gardens and a few apple trees. She had a wonderful lifestyle growing fruits and vegetables and selling them at the local farmers markets.
While working for the University Harry received a Bachelor’s degree in Integrated Pest Management and a Master’s degree in Technical Communications and Sustainable Agriculture. Jackie completed her internship and Bachelor’s degree in Medical Technology and continued to work at Hennepin County Medical Center until 1997. After almost eight years living in the Twin Cities area, Harry and Jackie Hoch and family moved back to the little orchard south of Nodine in the summer of 1997 and started aggressively replanting the old orchard. In 2004, Jackie completed a Master’s Degree in Business.
In 2004 Jackie Sr. moved to an elderly high rise in LaCrosse. In the spring of 2011 she had a stroke and spent the summer and fall at Bethany St Joseph Nursing home. In December of 2011 she moved into The Hearten House 2 Memory care center. She still visits the farm and will always be a part of it.
Harry and Jackie celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in November of 2011. Fortunately Harry finished that bathroom back in November of 1986! Jackie Jr. worked for Gundersen Lutheran Medical center for over ten years in LaCrosse. She built a solid career as a laboratory manager there. Then in 2009 she decided to complicate things and she left her medical career to work side by side with Harry running Hoch Orchard and Gardens. We are bucking the American trend and trying to live and work on a small family farm without depending on off-farm income.
When Harry was growing up, the only commercial crop on Hoch Orchard was apples. Over the past twenty years we have diversified into many fruit crops. We planted our first commercial vineyard in 1998. In the past ten years we have added a couple acres each of plums, apricots, raspberries, and strawberries. In 2011 we added another half acre of blueberries and we planted about one hundred sweet and sweet/tart cherries. We also have about ¼ of an acre test planting of blackberries.
We recently started growing fruit and vegetables in high tunnel greenhouses to extend the season of our fresh produce. In the fall of 2009 we set up tunnel #1. In the spring of 2010 we planted it with strawberries, red raspberries, yellow raspberries, black raspberries, purple raspberries, and a few of the primocane fruiting (fall bearing) blackberries. In the spring of 2011 we set up Tunnel #2 and planted it with strawberries, sweet cherry trees on dwarfing rootstock, and the newly released primocane fruiting blackberry called Ark 45. The tunnels help the berries start ripening earlier and produce later into the fall.
Our latest step in trying to develop a truly sustainable farming system is to integrate animal production into our perennial fruit system. We believe the link necessary to completing the natural nutrient cycle is to have animals in the farming system. In 2011 we started our first herd of hogs. We also raised chickens, ducks, and geese. All these animals were rotated, or flashed grazed through the orchards and berry beds. We plan to increase the numbers of animals on the farm over the next few years. The animals will help reduce the amount of organic pesticides and fertilizers that we have to purchase and apply to the farm.