Orchards Compete For A Slice Of The 'Pick Your Own' Pie

Sep 26, 2013

Pick-your-own is increasingly where the money is for New Hampshire orchards
Credit She Shimmers via Flickr Creative Commons

Fall in New Hampshire means fairs, foliage – and getting out to one of the state's 300-odd apple orchards to pick your own. Elaine Starkey is out at Butternut Farm in Farmington, with her sons and grandkids, to do just that.

"They usually have donuts, but we got here a little late."

'Pick Your Own Apples' now means not just picking the fruit, but also hay rides, corn mazes, petting animals, And enjoying other seasonal products, like cider, pies, and yes, donuts. 

Giff Burnap, the owner of Butternut Farm, and the president of the New Hampshire Fruit Growers Association, says it's about getting people to the farm.

"Here in New England we've got a lot of people – potential customers right in our back yards, and if we can, if the farmer can get the retail dollar for the fruit right at the farm gate, so to speak, you know, those farmers are going to be doing the best over the long term." 

Credit Courtesy Butternut Orchards

On a busy day, Burnap says about 900 cars stop at this farm, which has almost seven acres of apple trees. There are still some wholesale fruit growers in the state, but not many. The money is now in selling directly from the farm, and the fruit at Butternut – including apples, peaches, strawberries, and pumpkins, a is entirely pick-your-own.

Burnap says that's unusual,  but Gail McWilliam Jellie, New Hampshire's Director of Agricultural Development, says it's where New England's apple industry is headed.

"The remaining farms have shifted their focus to direct-to-consumer sales, so that pick your own component, drawing people to the farm even if they're just buying a bushel of apples not picking it themselves is all still an important part of the apple industry today."

While there aren't any official numbers for apples specifically, the USDA has reported about a third of New Hampshire farms did pick-your-own last year, and three-quarters of all of the state's farms sold directly to consumers. In fact, McWilliam Jellie says, New Hampshire was number one in the country for direct farm-to-consumer sales, back when the last national survey was taken in 2007.

Credit Courtesy Butternut Orchards

Direct-to-consumer has been an important model for the state's apple growers, who saw bad season after bad season for the last few years. McWilliam Jellie explains pick-your-own is part of a larger set of experiential, "get out to the farm" activities, called agritourism, an area of agricultural that's been growing steadily in the state for about twenty years.

"Agritourism activities have sort of developed a life of their own and have become income generators for the farm, as well as drawing people to the farm."

That's been important for apple orchard owners during the last few seasons, when weather issues repeatedly messed up production.

"I think that's helped especially when, you know there just weren't many apples to pick, so there were other things for people to do when they went to the farm."

 Luckily, this is not one of those years.

"The crop is developing quite nicely, and the growers that I've talked to have been happy with the quantity and the quality of the fruit."

Back at Butternut Farm, Giff Burnap says this season is an exceptionally good one.

"Every farmer in the state that I've talked to has a really good crop this year. The crop is clean and big this year, we haven't had any hail, significant hail events or hurricanes, we have some good color on the fruit from those cooler nights we're having, you know cool nights really make those apples redden up a lot."

The weather's been perfect for the apples, and, Burnap says, perfect for people who come to pick their own. Other agritourism definitely helped New Hampshire's apple growers get through the last few rough seasons. But this year the apples are back to pulling their own weight.The Starkeys got to Butternut Farm when the donuts were already sold out, but Elaine Starkey has been bringing her sons here since they were kids, all the way from Maine – and there weren't always baked goods at this farm.

"They have good apples and we've never been disappointed so, we always come back."

She says these fresh, crisp apples are nothing like the ones at the store. But, good as the apples are, or the baked goods, or other attractions, for this three-generation family it's really about being out on a farm.

"It's fun, to see the grandkids too, and they like looking at the pumpkins and everything else too, and so it's just a nice family day, really nice, if you can do things like this with your family instead of having them home watching TV and playing games, it's worth it."

And, especially with a great crop of apples to sell direct, it's worth it for the farmer, too.