December 23, 2004: The Miller Farm is spread over hundreds
of acres in southeastern Vermont. The farm has been owned and
operated by the same family for more than 200 years. Most years,
depending on the size of the apple crop, most of the farm’s
income is from apples. The rest is from other fruits, vegetables,
maple syrup, hay and timber.
||“I thought becoming organic
would be like adding one more rung to my ladder of skills...
That was a very large mistake. I didn’t realize
that becoming organic would be like starting off again
on the ground and having to build a whole new ladder..."
Read Miller, the current owner, switched to all organic production
in 1995, making the Miller Farm among the biggest organic
orchards in the eastern United States. Read lives on the farm
with his wife, Malah, and two of their three teenage children.
The transition to organic has not been easy for the Millers.
Read is considering switching at least part of the orchard
back to conventional production. The biggest problem he has
encountered since switching to organic is apple scab. This
has been exacerbated in recent years by record heavy rains
in May and June.
“I thought becoming organic would be like adding one
more rung to my ladder of skills that I had built by using
integrated pest management (IPM) through years of trial and
error,” Read said when we spoke in October. “That
was a very large mistake. I didn’t realize that becoming
organic would be like starting off again on the ground and
having to build a whole new ladder.... Right now I’m
at the point where if I fail one more time with apples, we
will have to either spray synthetic chemicals at the last
minute and stop being organic, or we will keep just some of
the orchard organic.”
In the 1980s, Vermont’s Department of Agriculture did
a survey that found the Miller Farm had the lowest pesticide
usage per acre in the state, Read said. The survey also found
that the Miller’s per-acre yield of apples over a 10
year period was almost double the state average: they harvested
609 bushels of apples per acre.
The Miller Farm has “well over” 100 acres of
apple trees (Read declined to be more specific) and about
70 acres for vegetables. At any given time, half to two-thirds
of those 70 acres are under cover crop.
Read owns the business and most of the land; the rest is
rented. He took over the business from his father in the late
1990s. “I inherited some of the farm and I bought some.
I’ve butted heads with my father almost forever,”
he said. When Read bought the business his father “did
not step aside gracefully. He still wants to be in control.”
Read has three siblings. “They didn’t have the
drive and desire to farm that I have had for as long as I
can remember. They didn’t have any interest in taking
over the farm from our parents,” he said.
About six months before we spoke, an electrical fire in the
Miller’s apple-packing barn caused an estimated $450,000
in losses. Read said he and his father hadn’t spoken
since the fire. They live less than a mile from one another.
But there are some bright spots, too. The Miller Farm has
raised up to 12 acres of turnips in one year and made $4,500
an acre on that crop alone, Read said. The Miller Farm makes
up to $1,000 a week at the seasonal Brattleboro Farmers’
Market, located just off of Interstate 91.
Malah is in charge of making the farm’s value-added
products, like pickles, jams, and jellies. Read estimated
they make $20,000 a year from these items.
“A few years ago we were probably the biggest organic
orchard in the eastern U.S.,” Read said. “I think
Ricker Hill Orchard in Turner, Maine now has 100 acres of
organic apples. We have more than 100 acres of apples, but
Ricker Hill probably grossed more this year.”
Read received a degree in Agriculture from the University
of Massachusetts at Stockbridge in the late 1970s. He and
Malah met there.
“When I went to college, ‘organic’ was
what hippies did,” Read said. “In the circles
I was part of, [we thought] anyone who used the word ‘organic’
lived in the city and was not a real farmer. We thought anyone
who was making a living from farming was farming conventionally.
If anyone had told me then that I would be an organic farmer
one day, I would have told them they were full of it.”
Nevertheless, Read said, a lot of what he learned in college
has been useful on the farm.
In 1994, the Chinese government hired Read as a consultant
to come to China for a month and meet with Chinese apple farmers.
“Before I went to China, I firmly believed that you
couldn’t grow apples organically in the Northeastern
U.S.,” he said. “But when I was in China, I saw
they were organic because they couldn’t afford chemical
pesticides and fertilizers. The idea of becoming organic took
hold in my mind.”
The next year, the Miller Farm went all organic.
AT A GLANCE
The Miller Farm
Location: Near Massachusetts
and New Hampshire, about 100 miles northwest of Boston.
orchard, plus other fruits, vegetables, maple syrup,
hay, and timber. All certified organic since 1995. (The
farm has been continuously operated since the late 1700s.)
to supermarket chains and local stores, retail at farm
stand, pick-your-own, mail order, and the Brattleboro
Employees: Up to
50 seasonally. Four or five year-round.
Member of: Northeast
Organic Farming Association (NOFA).
I asked Read what advice he would give to a conventional
apple farmer who is thinking of becoming organic. “The
biggest piece of advice I could give is, first, talk to everyone
you can who has done it,” he replied. “The Extension
office isn’t necessarily the place that has the answers.
Then, leave everything that you know to be true, and all the
tools and experience you have -- leave them behind emotionally
and physically. Have your mind take on complete openness.
No one told me that. It took three years for me to do it.”
Read was ambivalent about whether an orchard should be partly
organic or all organic. Early in our hour-long conversation,
he said a conventional apple farmer who wants to become organic
should start with just part of their acreage. But later he
said: “Our orchard was half organic and half conventional
for a year before we went all-organic,” he said. “It
took me a long time to have my mind swept of old habits. I
would say to myself, ‘If only I could use some insecticides
to solve this problem...’ It took me three years to
get my head organic. When your farm is half organic and half
conventional, it’s a little like being married and screwing
around at the same time: you can’t get your mind clean.”
We spoke over tea at the worn wooden kitchen table in his
modest house on Miller Road, near the center of town. Like
many New England farmers, Read was occasionally less than
direct when asked about trade secrets. When asked, “How
many tractors do you have?” He answered, “Not
enough to get everything done; too many to fix.”
Read attends church and has a reputation among his neighbors
for generosity. When a nearby vegetable farmer’s tractor
broke down at a crucial time of year, Read loaned the farmer
a replacement tractor for two weeks.
Read is tall and built like a football linebacker. His wife
Malah is blonde and petite. They are an attractive, youthful
couple. But Read declined repeated requests to be photographed.
“I have to comb my hair – call next week,”
he joked at the end of our interview. He did not return several
phone messages over the next week.
Random facts about the Miller farm
According to Read Miller, the Miller Farm:
- Has grown about 70 varieties of apples for the past 50
- Is hilly. The farm’s lowest point is 400 feet above
sea level; the highest is 2,000 feet.
- Is spread out. One end of the farm is 50 miles from the
- Produces about 30,000 gallons of apple juice annually
for sale to wine makers and for hard cider.
- Is one of the biggest rhubarb growers in the Northeast,
with about 8,000 plants. The majority is sold to wine makers.
The rhubarb was certified organic in the early 1990s.
- Produces maple syrup, timber, strawberries, raspberries,
blueberries, grapes, rutabagas, turnips, pears, peaches,
hay, salad greens, spinach, tomatoes and other minor crops.
- Operates several greenhouses.
- Usually sells mostly wholesale—sometimes 90-percent
wholesale. This year, due to the poor apple harvest, most
sales were retail.
- Is heavily influenced by weather. Since 1998, the farm’s
highest gross income for one year was $900,000; the lowest
- Is the oldest continuously operating maple syrup farm
- Was home to the oldest continuously operated Holstein
cow herd in the nation. Read’s second cousin, Peter
Miller, now keeps the herd in nearby Vernon, Vermont. The
Miller Farm no longer raises livestock, except for a few
pet horses, goats and sheep.
- Has enough cool and controlled atmosphere (adjusted oxygen,
nitrogen and Co2) storage space for 50,000 boxes of apples.
(One apple box weighs 42 pounds.)
Asked if he communicates with other organic apple growers
about techniques, Read said he has met Peter Ricker from Ricker
Hill Orchard once.
The University of Vermont (UVM) Extension has been supportive,
he said. “But we have given them more ideas than they
have given us. As opposed to me going to them for answers,
they usually come to see me, and they go away with ideas they
want to try out.” Read said he has spoken many times
UVM vegetable and berry expert Vern Grubinger.
Read uses vinegar as an herbicide to control weeds under his
“I love our soil type,” Read said. “I’ve
been all around the world and I wouldn’t go anywhere
else to grow what we grow.” The farm has bottomland
and upland soils.
“We don’t have a problem with soil erosion. On
our sloped fields, we grow perennials like grapes, raspberries
and blueberries. We have enough bottom land with reasonably
level ground to grow [vegetable] crops.”
“We have several acres of grapes on our very weak,
well-drained steep soils with very little loam that you couldn’t
do anything else with except pasture.”
To build organic matter on vegetable fields and in greenhouses,
“We make a lot of apple cider, up to 100,000-plus gallons
a year, which gives us a mountain of pumice. We use pumice
and mulch hay. We used to get leaf matter from the [county
government]. We don’t buy manure.”
Read especially likes plow-down clover as a cover crop.
“I don’t do any soil testing anymore. I used
to, but by now I have a really good idea of what my soils
The Miller Farm avoids transplanting vegetables, preferring
to direct seed.
“I’ve had over 20 acres of green beans –
all hand harvested.”
“Me and my family have been growing peaches here for
150 years. We plant new peach trees every four years. Our
peach trees last 12 to 15 years, tops. We plant them closer
together than we used to. We prune them hard to keep the strength
and vigor up.”
“With apples, we can graft trees. Planting is needed
mostly to adjust your varieties for what the market wants.
Our orchard is so big, we plant and cut down some apple trees
every two or three years.” Pears are slightly easier
to grow than apples, Read said.
“I have found that there are certain apple varieties
that are easier to grow organically around here: Red Delicious,
Gala, Ida Red, Paula Red.”
“Now I have a few Gala, a lot of Red Delicious. Nearly
half of our apples trees are Macintosh – that’s
our biggest variety. It’s very hard to grow organically.
Now people want Gala and other varieties. Macintosh isn’t
necessarily first on their list.”
“We have no problem with irrigation. We have two year-round
streams and six or seven ponds. We know how to pump water.”
“There are three things between me and great financial
success as an organic apple grower: apple scab, coddling moth,
and apple maggot. Scab is the primary problem, and it’s
been much worse since we’ve been organic. If we can
get through scab season with some normal weather, then everything
else is OK. There are ways to deal with coddling moths and
apple maggots. My biggest nightmare is to have three or four
days of continuous wet weather in May or June.”
Read is proud of his innovations: “In 1978, we were
the first farm in Vermont to use row cover on strawberries.
Now everyone does that... I had the idea for the Health Spout
maple sugaring spout. It allows you to get the same yield
by drilling a smaller hole in the maple tree. The idea is
‘smaller holes in smaller trees.’ [Westminster,
Vermont farmer] Dan Crocker took the idea to Canada and had
them made, but the idea was entirely mine. Now the entire
North American maple syrup industry uses them. That was probably
my biggest achievement. But nothing would have come of my
idea if Dan hadn’t gotten the taps made.”
Read’s latest innovation could be even more significant:
“I’m working on year-round maple sugar tapping,”
Read and Malah have three children: Will is 14, Ruth is 16,
and Martha is 19.
||“I have two very simple goals.
One, that my wife and I continue to be happy. The other
is to be financially successful – to be able to
pay my bills.”
“I want my kids to enjoy their lives and be happy.
I will not apply pressure on them to try to get them to work
on the farm or to take it over one day,” he said. “Lately,
my son has been showing a genuine interest in the farm. I
have no idea what Ruth’s plans are. Martha despised
me and what I did for a long time. Now that she’s older
and she is living her own life, she actually comes home and
is interested in doing what I’m doing. ”
Asked if he wants to continue growing organically, Read said,
“I don’t have a choice. I have to do what needs
to be done to make a living. I may no longer have the pleasure
of being an organic farmer. At this point, if I have to put
something in the [sprayer] tank to get a crop through I will.
But I haven’t done that yet.”
“Becoming organic hasn’t worked out well as a
business decision for apples. It has for other crops. Part
of that is because we have had bad weather a lot since we
became organic. In 2000, we had what I think was the wettest
spring and summer on record. In 2001, we probably had the
highest value crop of any farm in Vermont; we grossed almost
In 2002, there was a late freeze that caused a small apple
harvest. In 2003, a very rainy spring had the same effect.
This summer was the third rainiest on record in Vermont.
Read says growing vegetables organically is easy compared
to growing apples organically. “When I want a vacation,
I grow vegetables,” he joked.
“I have two very simple goals. One, that my wife and
I continue to be happy. The other is to be financially successful
– to be able to pay my bills.”
Eesha Williams is a reporter for NPR-affiliate WAMC and
author of Grassroots Journalism (Apex Press, 2000). He lives