Rick Leadbeater ’64
Orchardist, Gould Hill Orchard
This profile originally appeared in Bowdoin magazine, Vol. 72, No. 3, Spring 2001
Lying under an apple tree, looking up at the moon in the sky, Isaac Newton saw an apple fall. Might not an occupation attract a man with the same kind of gravitational force? In the case of Rick Leadbeater, the answer is as apparent as the apple itself.
Seeking a new lifestyle for his new family, Rick's father (Bowdoin Class of 1928) bought an apple orchard in south central New Hampshire and became a farmer. Rick was born and raised on the orchard and learned his knowledge of apple growing "through osmosis." Much of his interest in the sciences later in life, he says, can be traced back to what he saw every day growing up so close to nature.
Yet it was the gravity of war that spun Rick in the direction of his initial career. Deferred from the Vietnam draft for three years, he eventually entered into military service. Out of OCS (Officer Candidate School), the Navy sent Rick to Great Lakes, Illinois to teach at a school for enlisted personnel serving on nuclear powered vessels. Rick taught physics, metallurgy, thermodynamics, and chemistry, winding up as head of the chemistry department.
While in the Navy, he earned his Master Skipper papers and became the yacht racing coach and base Sail Master. In the off-season, Rick "was forced" to go south to sail. "One night off shore of Miami," he describes, "with flying fish landing in the cockpit, and porpoises playing with the bow...on a screaming beam reach and the loom of the mainland to steer by, I made what my fellow crew members considered a strange decision." By the time the sun came up, Rick had made up his mind to return to the family farm in New Hampshire.
When he returned to Gould Hill and took over for his father, Rick had aspirations of becoming an organic grower. After much research, "it became apparent that to grow our particular crops responsibly in northern New England, with our unique mix of soil conditions, climate, pest and disease complexes, and market demands, that a program of integrated pest management (IPM) was best in our ecosystem." IPM is a "holistic" approach to food production that allows Rick to draw from many disciplines to use the least environmentally intrusive methodologies for his orchard. "Luckily," he says, "the world leaders of apple IPM research in entomology and pathology are located at university facilities right here in New England, so we've been cooperating and participating in their research for the past 30 years."
Rick explains that the "cosmetically perfect, large, crisp, pretty (i.e., marketable) apple isn't 'natural,' and totally flies in the face of nature's design." Achieving an acceptable balance between pest and predator requires extensive monitoring and knowledge of nature's dynamic systems. "Our interest in environmentally responsible growing has produced unique problems and benefits," Rick explains. "Limited use of herbicides requires more labor intensive mowing to reduce competition for nutrients between trees and orchard floor species. That healthy ecosystem provides an ideal habitat for beneficial indigenous and introduced species that may consume other problems." Rick's careful approach to growing also attracts desirable employees. "There's a hidden resource of environmental activists who wish to live their convictions," he says, "and we've been able to tap that pool for pickers and pruners-one year I had four PhDs on my picking crew."
High atop Gould Hill in the township of Hopkinton, New Hampshire, Rick's orchards spread out as the foreground to a 75-mile vista north to the White Mountains. He grows on 100 acres of orchard land and offers much of what he grows at his Orchard Store, inside an historic 1810 post and beam barn. Last year, Gould Hill fruited 87 varieties of apples, 16 varieties of peaches, a few varieties of plums, and quince. Two of their apples are unique to Gould Hill, including one they've patented, The Hampshire, "a large red apple with an explosive bite."
Visit Gould Hill Orchard at www.gouldhill.com.