Monday, May 24, 2010

The farms behind the food you eat

New England’s orchards, like the apples they grow, come in all shapes and sizes. There are the larger farms that grow exclusively for the wholesale market; these are the apples that you typically find in your supermarket (admittedly, a large farm in New England is dwarfed by the huge acreage apple growers farm in states like Washington, New York and Michigan, which collectively produce the bulk of the U.S. crop).

There are the farms that span generations, and many of these, happily, continue to thrive (although succession is often a concern). There are the mid-sized operations that make ends meet with diversified crops and an entrepreneurial approach to retail marketing. There are the hybrids—orchards that supplement their farm income with a second business that takes advantage of the beauty of their land, from golf courses to weddings to microbreweries.

However diverse their operations, New England’s apple farmers are a hard-working and resourceful bunch. The New England apple you see at a grocery store, farmer’s market, farmstand, pick-your-own orchard or restaurant is the product of a labor of love: of fruit, land and tradition. Admiring the spectacular view from one orchard lately, a friend commented on its beauty, but then added rhetorically, “Do you know any orchard that isn’t in a beautiful setting?”

It is that love of the land, the fruit it bears and the hard work it takes to sustain it that makes a New England orchard “typical,” rather than its business profile. In this sense, Hamilton Orchards in New Salem, Massachusetts, serves as a good example of the farms behind the fruit you eat.

Hamilton Orchards today produces fruit on about 30 acres, set high off Route 202 on the western side of the Quabbin Reservoir (you can glimpse the Quabbin from several places in the orchard). They grow mostly McIntosh, Cortlands and Macouns, a few Red Spys, with some plums, blueberries, strawberries and pick-your-own raspberries mixed in.

Owner Barbara Hamilton lost her husband, Bill, three years ago; they had been together for 30 years, marrying just months after a chance meeting at an apple growers conference. Today Barbara, at an age when most people have retired, continues to work seven days a week. She says that Bill was still working when he died at 81, and adds, “if he had lived to 101, he still would have been doing what he could in the orchard.”

They had two sons, aged 10 and 12, from previous marriages when they moved to the farm in New Salem in the late 1970s, and the eldest, Bruce, returned to manage the farm after Bill died. Under Bill’s direction, says Barbara, Hamilton Orchards became the first orchard in the region to launch a pick-your-own operation, and to grow raspberries in a greenhouse.

At the outset, they built a small restaurant and bakery, the Apple Barn, with picture windows overlooking the view. We recently had breakfast there (they open weekends beginning in March, but suspend serving breakfast during the peak of the fresh harvest), and it was delicious.

There were no frills, just good food in a nice atmosphere at a reasonable price: blueberry and raspberry pancakes (if you visit, be forewarned: they are huge) served with maple syrup made on the farm, eggs and sausage, home fries, cider donuts, cider and coffee.

The adjacent bakery sells pies and pastries as well as cider donuts (the latter were outstanding), plus cider (from Carlson Orchards in Harvard, Massachusetts), and a few of their jams, jellies and maple syrup. There are a couple of photographs of Bill on the spare but attractive barn-board walls, some apple posters and, spanning several walls to either side above the cash register, an enormous collection of potholders with apple themes.

The place is bustling in late summer and fall, but much of the selling is done on the road. Though she still limps slightly from a broken foot suffered in February (the cast has been off now for less than two weeks), Barbara has already begun making weekly trips Tuesdays and Fridays to the farmer’s market in Boston’s Copley Square, and sells at farmer’s markets in Chicopee Wednesdays, Holyoke Thursdays, and Amherst Saturday mornings.

The cider donuts, not surprisingly, are a big hit year-round, as is the maple syrup, while it lasts. The berries and apples are sold mostly in season (supplemented with the berries grown inside their greenhouse).

Asked what her favorite pie apples are, Barbara answers quickly and succinctly, “Cortlands.” While she clearly misses Bill, she seems to savor his memory rather than dwell on his loss, and she has successfully managed to carry on their enterprise with Bruce’s help. Whatever challenges she is facing (such as the replacement of two hoods for her industrial ovens this winter, to the tune of $12,000), she’s not complaining. Her love of the land and the lifestyle is palpable.

There is much more to tell about Hamilton (or any New England orchard), but the best way to learn about the source of your local apples is to visit for yourself. At the very least, you can expect good food, fresh air and stunning views. The essence of this quintessential New England experience lingers in every apple you taste grown on these soils, whether you find it in on the limb, at the farmer’s market or in the bin of your produce aisles.

1 comment:

  1. What a great story! This is what the mainstream media needs more of.