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Hedges Apples Grew from a 20-Acre “Retirement Project” into a Full-Scale Commercial Operation

Chris Hedges of Hedges Apples grows 300 acres of apples and runs an orchard supply company. And he makes time to serve a second term as a district director for the Ontario Apple Growers (OAG), which represents more than 200 commercial growers across Ontario.

Rebecca and Chris Hedges

Yet Hedges, a first-generation farmer, admits that he got into apples as a “fluke.”

Town-raised and working on area tobacco farms in his youth, Hedges attended Delhi District High School where his father was a teacher. Later, he received a degree in Economics and Financing and settled into a full time job at an area credit union. He married a Delhi tobacco farm girl-turned-teacher, Rebecca Bakos; they have a son, William, age 12.

Hedges’ farm career emerged at age 20, when his parents bought a 20-acre apple farm near Windham Centre as a retirement project in the late 1990s. They asked him to run it. He grew his first crop three years later in 1998 while still working at the credit union.

“I got hooked,” said Hedges, laughing in his Windham Road 7 office.

Today Hedges Apples operates on 300 acres throughout the former Windham Township, including the parents’ home farm, an adjoining property and a controlled atmosphere storage facility on Harmony Road, east of Delhi.

The farm mainly grows Honeycrisp, Gala and Ambrosia, which are harvested by 40 pickers from Jamaica.

Chris Hedges outside his storage facilities
Chris Hedges outside his storage facilities

Most of the crop uses high-density planting, meaning that the trees are planted quite close together, enabling up to 1,500 trees per acre, supported by posts and wires. The system allows higher yields and quality without needing to expand acreage.

Other advantages are the increased sunlight for apples with better colour, taste, and easier pruning and picking that the traditional, free-standing and larger-canopied trees that existed in Hedge’s earliest growing years.

Hedges sat on the board of the International Tree Fruit Association (ITFA) for nine years, providing him the opportunity to study high-density growing systems elsewhere. In turn, his farm became part of a 12-farm stopover for an ITFA cherry and apple farm tour of Southern Ontario in 2019.

The harvests go to Martin’s Family Farms near St. Jacobs, which makes specialty, value-added products such as apple chips, sauces, syrups and jams.

Orchardists know Hedges as the proprietor of Ontario Orchard Supplies, a full-orchard supply warehouse near Vanessa. Beginning in 2004 when he began selling tree posts, the business expanded to include tree holders, branch benders, trellises, and rabbit tree guards.

“We supply everything but the trees,” he said.

Running a farm and a warehouse concurrently creates some work-life balance challenges.

With Rebecca teaching part time in Simcoe, Hedges said that he operates both enterprises alone. He estimates his warehouse-orchard time ration to be 20-80 at present.

He said that one of his farm priorities is to simplify his workload, but finding someone with managerial experience is difficult.

“That’s why HR (Human Relations) and staffing for me is one of the biggest elements in the business. Working two full time jobs in your 20s is one thing, but in your mid-40s it’s going to wear you out.”

Hedges said that similar commercial orchards often hire management from other countries such as New Zealand. “Growing apples is pretty skilled work, and it is hard to find a replacement.”

The first generation farmer monitors changing consumer marketing trends, timing any new production to them as best as he can. “I’m trying to find new varieties but it takes years to diversify the orchard. It takes eight or nine years for a new variety to come on stream and maybe by then people lose interest.”

“Orchards can last forever.

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