Matt Bycer’s “etrog experiment” – which involved incubating etrog seeds in his living room in the hope that someday they would grow into trees that would bear fruit – has finally come to fruition.
This past June, about six years after the initial seed was planted, Bycer’s Scottsdale etrog farm produced its first fruit.
The farm – which is now called Sweetwater Orchards and has its own Facebook page – is a daily, year-round project for Bycer, 35, an attorney at his law firm, Bycer Law, PLC that specializes in patents, trademarks and copyrights.
The impetus for starting this project stemmed from Bycer learning about shmita – Israel’s sabbatical year during which Jews are not supposed to benefit from produce grown in Israel. Since Israel is the main supplier of etrogim for the Sukkot holiday, he committed himself to investigate how he could help provide etrogim for the next shmita year, which started last week on Rosh Hashanah.
Over the past few years, members of the Valley’s Jewish community, as well as individuals across the country, donated etrog seeds and etrogim to Bycer’s efforts; he now has 172 trees, with three of them bearing fruit.
The first fruit was from a Yanover variety tree, Bycer says, which is from the Italian Calabrian heritage and prized by many in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
So far, Bycer’s backyard farm is personally financed, but he plans to look into other sources of funding to keep it afloat.
This past winter, the farm underwent a major renovation and expansion, Bycer told Jewish News, growing from 900 square feet to 2,400 square feet. This included repotting plants into larger containers and expanding a large shade structure, which is now about 10 feet high and built from electrical and plumbing supplies from Home Depot. He also installed two 300-gallon tanks, with an improved water system from Jon Sigona at Perfect Water Technologies and installed an overhead misting system based on an Israeli design.
Many volunteers have contributed beyond providing seeds and etrogim, Bycer notes; students from Yeshiva High School of Arizona, as well as others, helped fill pots for replanting and assisted with building the roof of the shade structure.
Bycer’s family has also grown since last year – he and his wife, Elly, members of Ahavas Torah in Scottsdale, now have two daughters, Nava, 2, and Talya, 9 months.
Will the Scottsdale farm actually be able to provide a supply of etrogim for next year’s Sukkot holiday at the conclusion of the current shmita year?
Bycer thinks it may be possible to have a minimal crop available to help with the potential shortage.
On Sept. 22, nine members of Girl Scout Troop 1674 of the Arizona Cactus-Pine Council visited the farm, where Bycer led a tour for the fifth-graders and talked to them about Sukkot customs and shmita. The troop’s members – Jewish students from Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe – are in the process of earning their junior gardening badge, according to their troop leader, Halle Farber.
“The orchard was a real lesson to the girls in perseverance,” Farber wrote in an email. “The girls were impressed how much work Matt put into the farm, knowing that the trees would not bear fruit for many years.”
They were also “fascinated by the concept of shmita and wanted to know what happens to etrog farms in Israel during the year when farmers there let the land rest.”
Although the girls were unable to touch the etrogim because the fruits were so new and delicate, “they were able to get their hands dirty with a seed and soil planting project, and they were particularly captivated by the caterpillars and bugs on the property,” Farber wrote.
“They also learned about the sun, shade and irrigation required to grow etrogim in Arizona and the financial considerations made in determining how much and when to plant.
“It was a fascinating glimpse into all of the various components that go into cultivating fruit in our desert climate.”
Contact Matt Bycer at email@example.com.