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Wednesday, Dec 6, 2023

Sunrise Orchards incorporates sustainability into orchard operations

Apple orchards and renewability: two things for which Vermont is famous. Once fall rolls around, every Vermonter worth their Blundstones feels the draw towards stunning foliage, apple cider and pumpkin patches. These pieces of the puzzle combine at Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall, Vt., a business run by Barney Hodges ’91. 

Hodges began his journey to owning the orchard on an unconventional path. A geology major at Middlebury, and Hodges did not originally see himself where he is today. After college, he took a job as a geologist following a stint pursuing cross-country skiing. However, he couldn't resist the pull of living off of the land originally acquired by his parents and took over the business fully in 2010. 

“I realized the opportunity that was here, the opportunity of being able to work a piece of property, a large piece of land with a vision,” Hodges told The Campus.

He is fascinated with more than just the farming involved in owning an orchard. He also enjoys the challenge of running a business that is not always predictable — tackling issues that might arise with creative solutions. The hardest part about owning and running land can double as the most rewarding and fruitful pieces. Recently, the orchard has added a bakery, farmstand and cidery, all ideas that have hatched out of a difficult financial period during the Covid-19 pandemic. The goal is to employ diverse solutions in order to drive business forward and create more opportunities for growth. 

“My favorite part is also our biggest challenge, which is remaining nimble and being able to come up with new business ideas of how to economically sustain this family business, ” Hodges explained. “I think what I like most is being able to feed off of my entrepreneurial desires of being in business.”

Sunrise Orchard is 100% solar-powered and utilizes environmentally friendly pesticides. 

The orchard’s website explains part of their mission and commitment to being environmentally conscientious — “At Sunrise Orchards we prioritize the health of our soils, waterways, and workers, and encourage beneficial insect species in the control of pests. We gather information about our trees, specifically the insects and fungi that live on the leaves and how the weather interacts with these populations…. We are stewards of this land and put a priority on working with the wild inhabitants of our orchards!” 

It is important to acknowledge that people’s tenure on land is limited and they should make an effort to raise food as carefully as possible, Hodges said. Since the late 1990s, Sunrise Orchard has utilized more gentle pesticides than many other commercial farms and orchards. The orchard’s solar panels are a reflection of Hodges and his wife’s beliefs, as well as being economically beneficial. The orchard itself is maintained by the on-site panels, but Sunrise Orchards also co-owns additional panels in Shoreham, Vt. These panels provide power for their commercial warehouse, where they store their own apples as well as products for other businesses. 

Hodges credits Vermont with the orchard’s ability to garner power from solar energy. “The approach the state of Vermont has taken to encourage investment in solar is the primary reason we were able to do that. It makes economic sense to do it, so we did it,” he said.

Hodges added that one of his favorite parts about owning and running an orchard business is the involvement of the Middlebury College community, and he enjoys when students can connect with the business. Recently, an economics class visited the orchard in order to learn more about the business aspects of the farm, an opportunity beneficial for both students and the orchard.

“Having professors get students to engage with the community is really important and often was missed when I was at Middlebury,” Hodges said.

Sunrise Orchard serves as a place of employment for Middlebury alumni, as it continues to draw Middlebury students even after their time at the college. For any Middlebury student aspiring to explore the world of farming, Sunrise Orchards could be a starting point. For those looking to pick or buy apples, this fall season ends Oct. 29, and students can check the orchard’s website for further details and information.