North Star Orchard is a 20-acre orchard and vegetable farm located in Cochranville, Pennsylvania. Our produce is all sold directly to the people who eat it at local farmers’ markets and though our CSA, which is available at pickup locations throughout Southeastern PA and Delaware.
Our focus is on cultivating varieties of fruit which are not commonly grown. Our greatest passion is the flavor and high quality of our produce.
In our orchard, we have the largest selection of fruit varieties around; our apple collection alone includes over 200 different varieties! We also grow a large variety of plums, peaches, Asian pears, European pears and seedless grapes.
We enjoy very much our interaction with customers at the markets and with members of our CSA. It gives us a lot of satisfaction to have a real connection with the people who are eating the food that we grow! We encourage people to buy locally as much as possible, to help ensure the sustainabiltiy of our local food system.
It takes a lot to make a family farm successful. Right now, in addition to the buzz about locally-grown foods, there is a lot of talk about sustainability. But, just what is sustainability? Definitions vary from place to place and group to group. For us, sustainability means three things:
1. People: Farm owners, helpers, CSA members, and Farmers’ Market customers. Our idea of sustainability is to provide delicious, healthy and safe fruits and vegetables for people to eat, as well as a safe and happy environment in which to work.
2. Planet: Including the Earth as a whole, right on down to our local ecosystem. Our idea of sustainability is to grow fruits and veggies using the latest and safest ideas and practices in crop protection and management, so that we can produce consistent high-quality produce, while at the same time being gentle to our environment. Growing a diversity of crops and practicing seed-saving is key to a balanced production system. We use a combination of organic, IPM (Integrated Pest Management), and new technologies such as our solar arrays in order to farm in an environmentally friendly manner.
We will not knowingly use genetically engineered items in the production of our crops, and strongly believe GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) should not be created. Curious as to why? Read the article, “How to Win a GMO Debate: 10 Facts Why GMOs are Bad” here.
3: Profit: Income gained by farming must be enough that those farming can expect to not only pay the bills by earning a living wage, but also have health insurance, save for retirement, and be able to take the occasional vacation.
North Star Orchard was started in 1992 on a 4-acre parcel of leased land near West Chester. Leasing was the only option we had when we got started farming in our mid-twenties. A second orchard was planted on 6 leased acres in Avondale in 1996.
Over the years, our business grew (thank you!), and we were finally able to purchase a permanent home for NSO in 2006 in Cochranville, on which we planted a new orchard and started our vegetable operation. The adjoining 10 acres were purchased in 2011, with the goal of consolidating the entire farm at one location as the orchard came into full production. We currently operate on the 20 acres in Cochranville, having let go of the two leased properties in 2014 and 2016, respectively.
The farm owners, Ike Kerschner and Lisa Ruch, met while in college at Penn State. While still in college, they started their first apple breeding project, growing baby trees in their apartment. One of the varieties they developed, Monolith, is currently being grown in the orchard and sold at farmers’ markets.
After graduating, Ike and Lisa got hands-on farming experience working for orchards in New York and Ohio before moving to Lancaster and Chester counties. At the New York farm they learned about producer-only markets with the extensive Greenmarket program in NYC, a concept that eventually became an integral part of NSO.
While North Star Orchard was in its early stages, Ike worked at Twin Brook Winery and Longwood Gardens, and Lisa worked at a toy store and Chadds Ford Animal Hospital before they were able to switch to farming full-time. They’d originally envisioned a farm operated by themselves and maybe one or two additional helpers. Over 30 years later, they’re working each year with crews of 10 to 12 young aspiring farmers and a bunch of part-time folks as well.
With the goal of high flavor and high quality, and a burning desire to grow a huge assortment of varieties hardly anyone has ever heard of, it became obvious that selling directly to the public rather than wholesale or to restaurants was the way to go. Direct connections with the people who eat the food from NSO is what makes all the farming effort so worthwhile.
With literally thousands of wonderfully diverse varieties available, we prefer to grow fruit other than those commonly grown commercially. Since you can go to just about any store or market and buy Red Delicious, Granny Smith, McIntosh, and the like, we decided we wouldn’t grow ANY of them (not even Honeycrisp!), and instead focus our efforts on some of the other amazing flavors there are to be had.
Farmer Ike said years ago that someday he’d like to operate an apple “museum”, and that’s basically now what we have, with over 200 varieties of apples alone growing in our orchard.
We have planted a lot of disease-resistant varieties in our quest to reduce pesticide usage. We have also planted uncommon and rare old varieties for their excellent flavors and disease tolerance. There are also some varieties we developed ourselves in the orchard, like Monolith and Ludicrisp apples, and Erin and Margaret peaches.
Many newer varieties that we grow are still being tested by the universities that developed them, and only have a test number for identification. How would you like to try to remember an apple called NY74840-1? So we create our own names for them, which we use until (and if) they are given names by the breeder. (That numbered variety is what we call Sugar Snap)
Usually, before we commit to a bigger planting of any given variety, we’ll plant only one or two trees of it at first until we can taste the fruit it produces after a few years and see how the tree itself performs in our climate. Over the decades we have tested many varieties of fruit; some we have kept and others we have discarded. When we have small quantities of new varieties available, they show up at our farmers’ markets or in the CSA shares, so we can get a feel for what customers and CSA members think about them. Then we decide whether or not to expand the planting based both on customer preferences and the production strengths or weaknesses of the varieties.
With Ike’s apple breeding program in full swing, we could technically say we have thousands of apple varieties on the farm! But not all of those will make the cut. In fact, most of them will BE cut over time.
The goal in our apple breeding project is to develop varieties which are relatively disease-resistant, grow well in our climate, and taste good. And that’s basically the order in which selections are made. For example, if a trial apple variety is very prone to certain diseases, it will be discarded (cut down) before it even has a chance to fruit. Once varieties make it through the disease and growth habit ‘cuts’, it comes down to flavor, and only really good ones will do!
Ike started breeding tree fruit back in college, and the apple Monolith is from that progeny. Over the years, he’s made many crosses of various varieties…mostly apples, but some peaches, and has little test blocks of different ages all over the farm.
Although we’ll try to point out which varieties during the season are “NSO exclusives”, please feel free to ask about them!
It takes a great team to make NSO run smoothly. Our farm staff spends time working in the fields, in the barn cleaning and packaging produce or CSA shares, and helping out at farmers’ markets. Many of our helpers are young people who want to learn, hands-on, about sustainable farming before they go off to start their own projects.
Do you want to get your hands dirty? Check here for staff openings.
Ike (Farm Owner, Production Manager): Ike grew up gardening, and at a young age was selling his vegetables at a tailgate market near his home. As a teen, he worked for a small local orchard that grew dwarf trellised trees. That experience inspired his goal to have his own orchard someday. Ike spends his leisure time reading, cooking, hiking, and kayaking. A quote from fellow orchardist Ed Fackler, “You’re the only person I’ve ever met who had apples shooting out of your fingertips like fireballs.“
Lisa (Farm Owner, Marketing & Business Operations): Lisa had no farming background other than helping in her parent’s garden (which she did not enjoy so much), but discovered she enjoyed working on the student farm at Penn State, after which she decided to pursue a degree in agriculture. She is also an artist working in sculpture and mixed media. You’ll find her up to her elbows in messy sculpture-building materials, colorful acrylics and other gooey mediums in her studio when she is not doing NSO work.
Melissa (Farm Store Manager): Melissa graduated from Penn State with a degree in Environmental Resource Management. She has spent a good many years of her life managing wineries with her husband, Tim. She loves traveling with Tim and her 2 children (especially far off the beaten path), gardening, and botany. A favorite pastime is taking peaceful (though sometimes chaotic) walks through the woods with her 4 Australian Shepherds.
Neil (Full Time Farmer): Neil is our all-around great field helper and equipment operator. “I’ve been a home gardener for almost 10 years … And I like to try cooking all different kinds of recipes from whatever type of produce I can grow or get at the farmers market or now get from work! I really like old and foreign movies(anything on the filmstruck app) and reading about history and class struggle.” Neil is a happy father of two little ones with his partner, Jacqueline, who works remote for us writing and sending out the CSA Fruit Share emails.
Rionna (Full Time Farmer): You’ll find Rionna in the field, doing deliveries, and helping out a farmers’ markets. She has been gardening at home for a long time, and loves growing plants, reading, listening to music, and spending time with her family.
Eden (Full Time Farmer): Eden is an all-around field staffer and equipment operator. He also owns his own business, Eden’s Bee Garden. Any spare time he has he spends with his wife and family of several active small children.
Sarah (Social Media Manager): Sarah has a degree in Psychology with a minor in Biology, and has worked for various search engines fine-tuning advertisements. Sarah is instrumental to keeping NSO up to date on all of the major social networks. Growing food in an earth friendly manner, and sharing that experience with her children, is one of Sarah’s passions. She loves starting plants from seed and watching them grow and produce food for her family.
We often get questions about where the name “North Star Orchard” came from.
Although I’ve heard some say it must be because we are your “guide to great flavor”, I can honestly say we did not think of anything as marketing-savvy as that!
So here’s the scoop:
Our first leased property for NSO was located on Stargazers Rd. in Chester County. This is the wonderfully-named road which commemorates where Mason and Dixon spent the winter working on the initial studies for the Mason-Dixon line. They may have, in fact, even camped out on our land there, as it is the highest hill in the area – a great place for those two stargazers to observe and calculate!
There is a Stargazers Winery nearby, however, and while we would have loved to use Stargazers Orchard as a name, we thought it would prove too confusing for people.
Being sci-fi geeks, we really wanted to keep the name stellar in some way. So, hey, the North Star is pretty darned important, and our farm was on the north slope of a hill, so “North Star Orchard” we became.
Note there is no “s” at the end of our name. Many orchard operations end with an “s” (Highland Orchards, Spring Hill Orchards, etc.). We always felt that was a little inaccurate, however. We had only ONE orchard, not several, so no “s” was needed.
Skip forward a bit to when we leased an additional parcel AND then bought a property, at which point the “s” WOULD have been appropriate, as we’ve had up to 3 different orchard locations at one time. But we opted to stick with the singular “orchard”.
At this point, we do not have the originial orchard on Stargazers Road anymore. But it would be too tricky and confusing to everyone to change our name, so we decided to stick with it.
But that’s ok….we’re sci-fi geeks, so we continue to have lots of ‘stellar’ things to go right along with our name:
- “Monolith” apple – the first from our own apple breeding program
- Varieties with stellar names: Aurora, Autumn Star, Enterprise, Gold Star, Northstar King, Starfire, Star Song, Starr, Stellar, Suncrisp, Sundance, Sunglo, Sunrise, Super Nova, and more.
- Ike decided that all of the new apple introductions (from his breeding project) will now come with stellar names; he’s planning to go with star names. “Ludicrisp” he named before making that plan (and besides, Ludicrisp NEEDS that name!), but don’t be surprised if, down the road, you see some NSO varieties called such things as “Casseopeia”, “Andromeda”, “Draco”, or “Betleguese”!
For now: Continued farming of fruits and veggies, going to farmers’ markets, operating our CSA and farm store. PLUS Ike will continue with his apple breeding projects.
At some point? Retirement!
Ike and Lisa plan to step back sometime between 2027 and 2030, whether that be much sooner or not remains to be seen. The exact year will depend on finding the right new owner who will care for the land and develop what is now NSO into what he/she/they want to see it become. We are looking forward to seeing the future of the farm’s development!