Seasonal orchard sharing

IF you have ever envied neighbors who have heavily laden fruit trees in their yards while you pay high prices for lower quality in stores, cheer up. There is an alternative. Just as some people rent cars, houses, and even appliances instead of buying them, it's also possible to rent an individual fruit tree in someone else's orchard.

Despite the appeal of a seasonal, self-grown supply of luscious red apples, planting your own trees has serious drawbacks. They take quite long to grow, and if larger ones are bought initially, the cost is higher. Having to wait years for a crop cuts down considerably on the pleasure.

Even if things could be accelerated, room for trees in an average-size backyard is limited. By the time patios, garden, swing set, a few shrubs, and perhaps a shed for garage overflow are allowed for, there is little space for spreading branches. Skill is needed, too; you don't just stick a seedling in the ground and forget about it. Many people know little about proper spraying and feeding.

In short, raising fruit at home might not be worth the trouble. Renting a tree from an established commercial grower provides a solution. If you live near an apple-growing area, great. If not, this might be inconvenient, but it's certainly not impossible. People drive hundreds of miles to summer homes or vacation spots, so traveling to even fairly distant orchards a few times a season would not seem overly troublesome.

It's up to you to find an orchard owner who is willing to rent you a tree. This shouldn't pose a problem, since mutual advantages exist. The basic setup goes like this:

The renting apple lover negotiates a fixed seasonal fee, considering with the owner the value of an average tree's normal yield. An added charge can probably be justified to cover possible damage due to amateur picking, insurance, upkeep, and reasonable owner profit. In return, the renter has the right to all the output of that one tree.

Since many bushels of fruit can result, and waste is presumably unwelcome, the agreement should also give the owner the residual right to whatever is not taken by the renter after a certain date. Or more than one family can rent jointly, providing greater assurance that all output will be absorbed.

Advantages for the renter are many. With a fully grown and already-bearing tree available, an instant, current-year crop is soon forthcoming. Expert, year-round care is no problem, either, since professionals tend the tree along with the rest of the orchard. The family backyard is still available for cutting grass and throwing Frisbees, because the apple tree grows miles away. The remote location also prevents children from making off with the crop or messing up the yard.

Every real bargain, of course, requires gain by both parties, and that is true here, too. To the extent the practice becomes popular and more than just one tree is rented, the orchard owner's business risk is reduced. Part of the crop will have been sold even before grown.

Poor results in some years can be absorbed by the renter only, or can be shared by prior agreement and with appropriate fee adjustments. For each tree rented, ``free'' labor is supplied, so fewer people are needed for harvesting, thus reducing the cost of finding, hiring, supervising, and paying them. Renters' word-of-mouth comments provide free advertising.

Finally, since the renter has already paid for a full average crop, if for any reason it is not all taken, the owner-retained residual represents extra profit when sold.

The basic idea here is not really new, of course. In many growing areas, operators reduce labor costs by opening orchards and berry patches to the pick-your-own trade. Pickers enjoy the fresh air and the novelty of doing their own harvesting. They welcome the lower price and fresh product, too, and tend to return year after year.

It's a fairly short step from that situation to renting all of the output from one fruit tree for a season. It's even possible a new interest might be cultivated this way, with some pickers becoming orchard owners themselves, in turn renting trees to a new generation.

Start negotiating for your rented tree during apple picking time this fall.

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