Fruits of Labor: Vermont Orchards Make Profitable Pivotal to Pick-Your-Own Apples | Agriculture | Seven days

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  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Greg burrt

Before Christiana and Barney Hodges started an apple picking operation this year in their Sunrise orchards in Cornwall, they learned how to make donuts.

Acting on the advice of friends in the business, the couple converted part of their cider press into a commercial kitchen so they could offer a range of baked goods. Now, in addition to wholesaling apples and squeezing them for cider, Christiana runs advertisements for the farm in local media and answers visitors’ questions about the varieties of apples available on her 130 acres.

U-pick operations appear to be a valuable option for small orchards which compete in a market where apples are an important commodity. The same kinds of economic forces that make it difficult to run a family dairy farm are on apple growers.

“It’s very difficult to compete with the West Coast farmers who plant blocks of apples measuring 10,000 acres,” said Eric Boire, executive director of the Vermont Tree Fruit Growers Association. “The big ones have to get fat to survive.”

The Vermont apple industry has been in decline for years. In 1997, the state owned 3,700 acres of orchards; by 2017, the number had fallen to 1,700, according to the Agriculture, Food and Markets Agency.

The larger farms in Vermont benefit from certain economies of scale that allow them to continue to wholesale fruit; the smaller ones, which make up over 80 percent of the state’s orchards, struggle to find the packaging and distribution channels they need. In recent years, many have started selling primarily to Vermont stores.

Boire sees U-pick as a sign of return.

“We have new producers coming in every year because it’s so popular,” he said. Orchard start-up classes have also become popular, Boire added.

The growing cider industry has become a major force in wholesale purchasing. The number of cider makers in Vermont has more than doubled since 2010, according to a 2020 state agency report. Cider houses are an important market in the state for Vermont apples, but they pay much less than other buyers of fresh fruit, according to the report. Terry Bradshaw, a professor and researcher at the University of Vermont who focuses on specialty crops such as apples and grapes, said cider houses typically pay $ 6 to $ 8 a bushel; However, U-pick operations that provide a fun experience can cost anywhere from $ 36 to $ 72 a bushel.

The Vermont apple industry remains a very important player in the state’s agricultural economy. It only tracks dairy products and maple syrup in the total value of the annual harvest, according to the 2020 report.

U-pick is a big part of it. Vermont growers produce about 1 million bushels of apples each year, according to the Vermont Tree Fruit Growers Association. About a fifth of these are chosen by consumers on fall outings.

During the first summer of the pandemic, Boire said, interest in apple picking increased. Many producers have had the best season in their history. Some reported that their sales had doubled; others closed earlier because they were full.

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Pickers at Burrt's Orchard in Cabot - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Pickers at Burrt’s Orchard in Cabot

Greg Burrt has a popular U-pick operation on his 15 apple acres in Cabot. Its gross sales in 2020 were double what they were the year before. He ran out of apples in October.

Drinking and growers attribute the u-pick surge to pandemic restrictions that have driven people outside. This year is always busy, Burrt said, but not on the scale of 2020.

U-pick operations are also suitable for consumers who are interested in their food, said Kevin Lawyer, who owns orchards in Franklin and Swanton. He said he answered a lot of detailed questions about trees and fruits.

“I love conversations about how I do what I do,” said Lawyer, who hosts many school groups. “It’s funny.”

To stay competitive, Sunrise Orchards, 50, of Cornwall, is always adapting and diversifying, Christiana said. Last year, the company gave up its wholesale contracts to sell fresh apples to Shaw’s and Price Chopper. This year he signed a deal to sell apples to Mott’s, the maker of applesauce.

For Christiana, learning how to make donuts was the hardest part of creating the new U-Pick option. She sees U-pick as an important part of the bigger picture, not only financially, but also because she also enjoys answering questions from people on the orchard.

“It’s a piece of our business that was missing,” she said. “I enjoyed connecting with our closer community. I meet neighbors that I have never met before.”

In Lawyer’s opinion, donuts are as important as apples. The closure of the Canadian border has reduced the number of its visitors, but the traffic is still strong, especially in its Franklin orchard. He noticed that visitors tend to buy fewer apples than in previous years and more baked goods.

“U-pick is the fastest, easiest way to make money,” Lawyer said.

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