South Baldwin Farms prepares for fall with gift from Kansas Dept. of Agriculture

Marissa Ventrelli
The Ottawa Herald

A grant from the Kansas Department of Agriculture and K-State's Johnson County Research and Extension Office provided Baldwin City orchard farmer Gabe Spurgeon with the opportunity to test out an innovative product that, if successful, will increase his crop yield as apple season in Kansas comes to a close.

With the help of a specialty crop block grant, Spurgeon was able to install DrapeNets over the apple trees at his orchard, South Baldwin Farms. the nets, which are made in Vietnam, block the apples from harsh elements and prevent damage that makes them unsellable. "Heat is a big issue for apples in several aspects," Spurgeon explained. "By keeping the net on, we help with sunburn. We also have a lot of hail in this area, so it protects from the hail." Hail protection makes sense, but not many people know that apples can get sunburnt. The sun's rays can actually damage apples to the point of rotting, making them inedible. "Netting has been used in orchards for a while, but a lot of times it's overhead," Spurgeon explained. Since the DrapeNet goes around the trees and not just over them, it's able to prevent birds and insects from eating or damaging apples. Each net lasts seven to nine years, and Spurgeon says the farm is looking into purchasing more to cover the rest of their trees.

As part of the grant, South Baldwin Farms was required to present at conferences to show other orchard farmers how the netting works. On September 18, the farm is holding a demonstration for agriculturists and the public to see how the DrapeNet works in person. The field day will include presentations from local fruit growers, insect researchers, and horticulturists. The farm actually received the grant from the KDA in 2020, but the field day was moved back to this year due to the pandemic. 

Close -up of a DrapeNet placed over trees at South Baldwin Farms in Baldwin City

Seeing what Spurgeon does for a living now, it's hard to imagine him sitting at a desk for eight hours a day. The Missouri native worked as an engineer for several years before realizing office life just wasn't for him. His father-in-law, Dave Miles, purchased land in 2000 and had planted several apple trees, but was working as an engineer at the time as well. One day Spurgeon approached Dave and asked him if he'd be interested in doing the apple orchard full time. To his surprise, his father-in-law said yes. "He said, 'well I wouldn't mind having an orchard as a business,' and I said 'I wouldn't mind not working at a desk anymore,'" Spurgeon said. In 2015, the family planted more apple trees. They now grow 18 varieties of apples, along with peaches, cherries, blackberries, and nectarines. Dave even keeps several beehives and harvests the honey. The property spans 15 acres, and the family is working on adding an additional 35 within the next few years. South Baldwin mostly sells their produce wholesale and to local grocery stores, but they welcome families to pick their own apples one weekend a year in late August. Right now, they're busy crushing apples and turning them into cider - that cider is then sold to local grocery stores and wineries as a refreshing fall beverage. As with any orchard, fall is a busy time at South Baldwin Farms: the farm is participating in the Kaw Valley Farm Tour on October 2 and 3rd and will be open on weekends for pumpkin picking from September 25 to October 31. 

Apple trees and beehives at South Baldwin Farms in Baldwin City

Spurgeon says he and his family feel it's important that people know where their food comes from, which is why the farm has so many events for the public. To him and his family, the farm isn't just a business, it's home - literally - he, his wife, and their three children live in a home on the property and it's not uncommon to see one of their dogs wandering around among the apple trees. "I'm much happier now," Spurgeon says when thinking back to his previous job.  "I always joke that I made a conscious decision to work a lot harder for a lot less money, but it's worth it because I'm happier."