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Mark and Mike Orr share same name, chase different goals

Slideshow: The Orr brothers are both part of the class of 2020 Mid-Atlantic Master Farmers.

When George S. Orr died unexpectedly in 1989, it was up to his three sons, Mark, Mike and G.W., to continue the business that he started.

Fast forward more than 30 years and the business is a lot different and a lot bigger. One brother, G.W., is no longer involved, and the original farm is now two separate businesses: Orr’s Farm Market and Appalachian Orchard Co.

The Orr name is still very familiar in Martinsburg, W.Va. Mark and Mike have continued the family business, growing it to one of the most successful orchard operations in the Mid-Atlantic. The brothers farm a little more than 1,000 acres in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle. They’ve implemented soil testing, contour strips, no-till, integrated pest management, crop rotation and plant tissue sampling.

While they still work closely, the brothers have split the original farm in two to focus on their individual needs and strengths, and to get these operations ready for the next generation to take over.

Between the two of them, the Orr brothers grow apples, peaches, cherries, plums and many other small fruits.

The separation of George Orr and Sons Inc., the original farm name, started five years ago but became official on Jan. 1, 2018, when Mike’s part of the business, Appalachian Orchard Co., started on its own.

Staying wholesale

Appalachian Orchard Co. includes 517 acres.

Mike grows 17 varieties of apples and plums, opting to focus on wholesale customers.

While many orchards have opted for smaller, more dense plantings on expensive trellises, Mike has stayed with what works for him: bigger trees and wider spacing, with modifications.

“We went from the old-style standard-size trees when we were kids, and now we're planting different varieties on different root stocks,” he says. “We're staying between 40% and 60% the size of an old tree. The real small plantings I don’t think benefit us.”

Once trees are taken out because of low production or age, Mike moves the new plantings half a row over into the grass strips, using the old rows for servicing the new trees. He says planting new trees like this has helped to control apple and peach diseases, and fumigation has gone down.

Controlled-atmosphere storage rooms — apples are treated with 1-methylcylopropene — allow him to store his apples for longer, enabling him to hold out for better prices during peak pricing season.

Mike’s top varieties are Red and Golden Delicious — 60% of acreage — while the rest are newer varieties. He has 25 full-time and 20 seasonal employees, and 35 pickers during harvest. Average yield is around 1,000 bushels per acre; the largest yield was 1,950 bushels an acre last year in a 5.4-acre block of Golden Delicious.

Two years ago, a new state-of-the-art apple packing line was installed to increase efficiency and decrease number of employees needed to operate it.

The behind-the-scenes work is Mike’s strong suit. He ran the financial end of the combined business and focused on growing new sales channels. But he also stayed on top of what’s new in the business.

He’s been involved in numerous regional fruit growing organizations and was involved in national policy development for American Farm Bureau Federation for several years.

“One thing, if you are involved and you get into that stuff, you find out that you’re on the leading edge of finding out what’s ready to come down the pike,” Mike says.

He’s also had his fair share of struggles to overcome. In 2018, months after his business officially opened, the worst hailstorm to ever hit his orchards destroyed 200 acres. It was made worse by the fact that he couldn’t get crop insurance in time for covering the damage. Only 25% of the total fruit that year was sold. The debt from having to recover from the storm has set the business at least five years.

“Trying to figure out how to hold it all together when you lose a crop, trying to figure out how to get through those periods, that was tough,” he says.

Still, Mike’s looking forward. He’s trying to stay on top of what apple varieties customers and retailers want by switching older plantings and starting new ones. He’s also started the transition process. One of his daughters, Julie Bolyard, is already involved in the business. Mike says the plan is to create a family structure corporation, but the details still have to be fleshed out.  

Growing retail

A few miles from the Appalachian Orchard Co. office, Mark and his family run Orr’s Farm Market, which opened in 1995. His focus is on growing the farm market and agritourism.

He grows a bigger variety of crops to fill his peach and apple packing sheds, and to also meet the needs of his market.

“It's really hard to do because the farm market needs a lot of different things and we try to raise as much for it as we can,” he says. “Other things that we don't raise we try to buy as much local as we can.”

He starts out with 8 to 10 acres of strawberries, including pick-your-own. He also grows 10 acres of sweet and sour cherries, and 3 acres of blueberries, blackberries and black raspberries.

His top fruits are peaches and nectarines — 300 acres — and another 170 acres of apples.

Most of peaches aren’t bearing fruit yet, so he’s using his brother’s remaining peach orchards.

He doesn’t do pick-your-own peaches or apples, but that will change after the 30 acres of pick-your-own apples he planted start bearing fruit. More than $300,000 was spent on putting the block in.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed on that one because we have seen tremendous crowds here in the fall picking pumpkins," he says. “You want as many local customers as you can get because they're really your best customers.”

Mark says that he tries to plant the right amount of fruit to keep his 30 or so employees busy.

The farm market has grown considerably since it opened in 1995, including a new addition a few years ago that nearly doubled the size of the market.

The agritainment portion of the business includes a small petting zoo, pumpkin picking and other activities.

This past spring, when many stores struggled to keep going as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, Mark and his family, most notably his daughter, Katie, pulled up their sleeves and created a pickup business where customers could call ahead and pick up their orders while maintaining social distancing. It’s been a hit thus far.  

Still, the business has its challenges. The trade issues with China hurt the business considerably. Peaches went for $5 to $6 less per bushel as a result of the trade war with China, and Red and Golden Delicious apples that once went for $17 a box tumbled to $11 a box after Washington state growers, no longer able to sell to China, flooded the national market with apples.

While there are several reasons the brothers split the original business, for Mark it was about figuring out how to pass down his business to not only his children, but also to people who have worked for him for many years.

“My father pretty much gave us a debt-free company. Now my main goal is to develop and transition the farm so when I get ready to retire, the next owners won't have to take on much debt,” he says.

Mark and Mike Orr, at a glance

Operation. Appalachian Orchard Co., 517 acres, and Orr’s Farm Market, 465 acres

Family. Mark Orr is married to Melissa Orr and they have three daughters: Katy Orr-Dove, Rachel Stacey and Olivia Orr.

Mike Orr is married to Vicki Orr and they have four daughters: Jennifer Orr, Julie Bolyard, Rebecca Wacthel and Laura Rogers.

Ag and Community Involvement. Mike Orr is a board member of West Virginia Horticultural Society, Farm Credit, Nationwide Agribusiness, Berkeley County Planning Commission, West Virginia Farm Bureau and his local 4-H planning committee.

Mark Orr is a board member of the West Virginia Horticultural Society and his local church council and 4-H planning committee. He was also a runner-up for the 2014 American Fruit Grower of the Year.

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