Learn more about how Gem Orchards utilized NRCS's Conservation Stewardship Program to take their conservation to the next level.
Written by Carly Whitmore, Public Affairs Specialist
Gem Orchards is a family-owned U-Pick/We-Pick orchard located near the heart of the Emmett Bench. The orchards’ products range from peaches, nectarines, apricots, cherries and applies to jams, jellies and purees crafted in the Treasure Valley.
Lance Phillips, owner and operator of Gem Orchards, made the jump to full-time orcharding in 2019 following the end of his tenure with USDA’s Farm Service Agency, where he served as a County Executive Director. Phillips has a long history with conservation, serving as a grant writer and a program manager with the Malheur Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) in Oregon. Prior to these experiences, Phillips’ family grew a variety of fruits on their family orchard in Central Washington.
Phillips was first introduced to USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Idaho during his time working for Malheur SWCD, where he heard real stories of success from farmers and ranchers. Upon his departure from civil service in 2019, Phillips decided to dive head-first into full-time farming. Beginning with only a few varieties, Gem Orchards quickly expanded, offering a wider variety of produce.
To accommodate the expanding operation, Phillips knew he needed to improve his irrigation system. With assistance from the Emmett Field Office, he began work with the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). CSP expands on the work a landowner is already doing to improve their land, and helps landowners find new, innovative ways to meet their goals. “The cool thing was that CSP was going through some changes at the time, and we got a chance to look at all the practices,” said Phillips. CSP offers many options for landowners to choose from, and Phillips knew Gem Orchards needed an improved irrigation system. So, NRCS went to work helping Phillips with the project. From the conservation plan to the engineering design, NRCS was there to assist Gem Orchards and navigate their needs.
Through his first CSP contract, Phillips was able to install an on-site pumping plant, a new irrigation pipeline and a modern, efficient microirrigation system to his orchard. “The end result was [that] we put in a good system that captured the gravity and replaced a mainline that we were very worried was going to fail,” said Phillips. “We went from a very inefficient, large sprinkler to a micro-spray sprinkler, which not only saves us time but labor, too.”
Shortly after improving his irrigation system, Phillips wanted to go even further. Through his second CSP contract, Gem Orchards expanded their U-Pick offerings to include blackberries, elderberries and raspberries. The orchard now provides pickers nine varieties of cherries, 19 varieties of peaches, five varieties of nectarines, three varieties of apricots and three varieties of berries to choose from across 34 acres of land.
In the future, Phillips plans to expand his conservation to even more of his operation. His hope is to replicate his microirrigation system that has been so successful in his cherry orchard to his peach, apricot and nectarine orchard.
For more information about Gem Orchards or to see what is ready to pick, visit gemorchards.com.
For more information about CSP, visit nrcs.usda.gov/programs-initiatives/csp-conservation-stewardship-program