Apr 7, 2007
Wholesale Apples Give Way to Variety, Agritainment

For 30 years, Peter Barton was a commercial apple grower with 200 acres of apples.

“It was easier then,” he said. “We were properly equipped, our minds were focused and we worked on a schedule.”

Now, he concedes, “we’ve diversified so much, it’s a mixed batch of everything.”

But customers? Instead of one or two buyers, he’s got thousands. The shift to retail has increased income, and the diversification has given him income protection. If Barton Orchards had stayed with just apples, he doesn’t believe he’d have survived the 100-year drought of 1999, the 50-year hail storm of 2001 and the freeze-out that left him with no apples in 2002.

Peter and Donna Barton created their new enterprise in 1992, and since then they’ve been “feeding a monster” that grows year after year. They can clog the Poughquag exit off the Taconic State Parkway three miles away as visitors from New York City, an hour south, come to their Harvest Festivals, seven weekends of them in September and October.

Visitors, mostly families, come for the live bands, the haunted houses, the inflatables, the petting zoo, the carnival atmosphere and, of course, the fruits and vegetables.

“We’re the largest farm straight up from New York City doing this,” Peter said during a tour of his farm last summer sponsored by the North American Strawberry Growers Association. “There are 10 million people down there, so they’re used to crowds. If the neighbors here complain, I tell them it’s only a few weekends a year ¬– and it could be housing.”

The hilltops surrounding his farm are sprouting $800,000 houses, clearly visible.

“So whataya gonna do?” he said, using the familiar idiom of the area. “It’s the price East Coast farmers pay to stay farming.”

During the tour visit, the major activity at the farm was a pick-your-own vegetable garden, which attracts a special clientele of ethnic groups who appreciate gardening. It contains long rows of cucumbers, tomatoes, tomatilloes, eggplant, peppers, zucchini, green beans and flowers like zinnias. Signs at the row ends tell the picking rules and the prices. Customers pick what they want and bring it to the checkout area in a pole building where other products are for sale.

Sweet corn grows nearby, in a field that will be transformed in the fall to a parking lot capable of holding 1,200 cars. That’ll supplement the normal 600-car lot. Labor Day weekend marks the transformation of the farm from a quiet, easy-going summer place to a fall frenzy.

Peter gave a talk that revealed some frustration. He wishes he could make money just growing apples. Instead, he’s had to learn to deal with people. He said they have some problems with theft and have been sued by folks who sprain their ankles in the orchards. He spoke of the waste associated with u-pick (recovered by charging higher prices), and of the cost and difficulty of getting liability insurance, and of reorganizing the farm as a LLC to limit liability, and of planting tree barriers so the nearby school kids won’t be attracted to the orchard, and of spraying at night so nobody will complain.

The farm maintains a Web site, www.bartonorchards.com, that is its major form of advertising and informs returning visitors of what’s going on. In the summer, it offers garden vegetables, raspberries, blueberries, peaches and four varieties of early apples.

Then comes fall. While weekdays are devoted to u-pickers and school tours, weekends are Harvest Festivals. Weekend themes are tied to fall apple varieties: Macintosh and JonaMac, followed by Cortlands, Spartans and Empires, then Macouns and Red Delicious, then Golden Delicious and Red Stayman, followed by Ida Reds, Romes, Fuji, Suncrisp and Cameo, ending with Granny Smiths in mid-October. The last weekend of September features pumpkins.

This fall, they’re featuring a “field of screams” – haunted hayrides, a fear-inspiring corn maze and a house of horrors called Rotten Core Manor. In addition, they have inflatables – inflated plastic things as big as a house that serve as obstacle courses, slides, castles and mazes. Visitors can buy a bracelet for $18 ($12 for kids) and take in all the attractions.

Access to the u-pick orchards is free – after paying $3 for parking. Pickers get a free wagon ride to the orchard and baskets and picking poles to help them reach tree tops. The Old Country Store sells cider and donuts, jams and jellies, produce, crafts and lots more.

Pumpkins are big. The Bartons grow 20 acres of them and then buy 100 tons.

All this takes staff to supervise, and the Bartons hire about 45 people for the fall season.

“We’re always short of people,” Peter said.

The Web site contains a page for those who want to apply for jobs and join the pandemonium.

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