“It sounds strange,” Amy Yackel admits, “but the moment I saw this place, I knew it was where I wanted to die, after a long life.”
Someday she and her husband of 24 years, Rod Adams, will move into the stunning solar home they own on a gentle hillside off Michaud Lane north and west of Fort Collins. But not soon. For now they rent the house to friends and carve out whatever hours they can from their busy lives to develop the meticulously planned Firefly Holistic Orchard on the land surrounding their dream home.
It’s taking a long time. Yackel and Adams are patient people, though, committed to creating a place where apple, peach, pear and plum trees will thrive alongside grapevines, blackberry and raspberry bushes. The peach trees they’ve planted are doing well and the dwarf apple trees are slowly recovering from an invasion by deer last summer. Now an electric fence has been replaced by an 8-foot high orchard fence that not even the most athletic deer can vault.
Every decision these farmers make is based on their core beliefs. “We love this earth and the people who populate it,” Yackel said. “We want to nurture the earth and make our little corner of it a place that produces organically-grown fruits and berries and welcomes the people who will consume them.”
It will take three years before the fruit trees begin to bear. Adams and Yackel knew that while they dug trenches, amended the soil with leaves, worms and rich local compost, planted tiny trees and waited for them to grow, they were going to need a source of income.
Adept in the idea department, Adams and Yackel wrote and received a $10,000 Specialty Crop Grower Research and Education grant managed by Colorado State University to investigate the most profitable way to grow strawberries year round in a high-tunnel greenhouse. They cleaned out an existing greenhouse on the property and set to work planting day-neutral strawberry plants that are dependent on temperature rather than amount of daylight for growth. Berries from these everbearing plants, grown in a special worm compost, are extremely productive and have a long shelf life.
Rows of strawberry plants surrounded by straw mulch line the floor of the greenhouse. Above the in-ground plants, rows of plastic gutters filled with a four-part compost mixture, and more strawberry plants hang suspended from the ceiling. Adjacent to them are rows of hanging baskets containing more strawberry plants.
Yackel explains that the set-up will provide answers to whether or not it is profitable to make use of the empty “air space” in the greenhouse to raise a crop and whether baskets or gutters produce the best plants.
These days Adams tends the plants by plucking off flowers in order to encourage vigorous plant growth. He is loading worms, leaves and soil into a 16-inch deep pit in the center of the growing area. A “worm walk” will eventually extend the length of the green house and be covered by a boardwalk making it possible to tend the plants easily.
They also launch bi-weekly attacks on the pesky bindweed that finds its way into the growing area and keep detailed reports on the progress of the plants in order to fulfill the requirements of the two-year grant.
If all goes as planned, a second high-tunnel greenhouse will be fitted with a “skin,” doubling their strawberry-producing capacity and generating enough income year round to support the developing orchard until it comes into its own.
The couple envisions a day when customers will visit the orchard to pick fruit, enjoy a picnic on the land, and introduce their children to the joys of picking and eating fruit off the tree or vine. They named the orchard Firefly in recognition of a tiny population of fireflies, unusual in Colorado, that exist in the area.
Right now there’s plenty of backbreaking labor from hand-digging lanes that will eventually hold a row of trees and amending the soil that will nurture them. Winter squash will be sown into the soil this season, before it is ready for the seedling fruit trees.
Adams keeps the high grass in the orchard cut with a long-handled scythe, custom-made for him in Maine. “I can cut the grass down a 150-foot row in 10 minutes,” he said. “It’s more quiet, meditative, and carbon-neutral than a gas-powered weed whacker. Scythes are a remarkable technology, from the past.”
Adams and Yackel do everything they can to stay carbon neutral, from riding their bikes to justifying a truck trip to the orchard by calculating their energy-saving activities. Every day Adams pedals his bike to Mugs Coffee Shop in Fort Collins and hauls home 50 pounds of coffee grounds for composting, to later use in amending the soil. The solar panels on their house in town produce five times their energy needs.
Yackel confesses that she’s had a moment or two when she looks at all the work yet to be done in the orchard and fantasizes about hiring someone with a tractor to plough up all the garden rows in a day. But those thoughts are fleeting. “The point of what we are trying to do here,” she said, “is to power our work by food, not by petroleum and noise.”
Adams and Yackel did not embark naively on their orchard project. In many ways it is the natural outcome of a lifestyle they having been living for nearly a quarter century. They met when both were involved in a program helping Central American refugees re-settle in Canada.
Early on they discovered that they loved working together and for most of their lives they’ve made that happen. For many years they traveled the country picking up jobs in areas of their common interests, often in national parks, mostly dealing with bird studies.
A decade ago when Adams suffered a broken neck resulting from a rollover accident while he was on the job, they paused and took a look at their lives. (Thankfully, Adams made a complete recovery.) “We’d had great adventures, and in our minds we’d been conservative about our choices,” Yackel said. “Yet we felt it was time to figure out what we really wanted to do and to settle down.”
After discussion and listmaking they discovered that organic agriculture was at the top of their list. That realization led to an urban farm in, around, in front of, behind and next door to their Fort Collins home. They have been operating a CSA there for six years and have found unexpected pleasure in the sense of community it has developed in their neighborhood.
Along the way, Adams has earned a graduate degree in philosophy and Yackel earned a doctorate related to her interest in birds. He now teaches philosophy at Front Range Community College and she has a full-time job as a research statistician for the U.S. Geological Survey researching invasive snakes — pythons in Florida and brown tree snakes in Guam.
They both like their jobs. They’re both committed to their urban farm and CSA. They treasure the times they spend developing their orchard. They’d just like to find a half day each week when they could sit down and relax.
“Rod played his guitar for a couple of hours one evening last week,” Yackel said. “That was special.”
Now perhaps, it’s Yackel’s turn.