A Time for Pie

9/15/2012 7:00 AM
By Paul Post N.Y. Correspondent

CHARLTON, N.Y. — Smith’s Orchard Bake Shop hasn’t just given its Charlton, N.Y., farm owners an added source of revenue.

It’s been a game changer, especially this year in the wake of a 75 percent apple crop loss resulting from a late spring frost that decimated the orchard’s early bloom.

However, despite the weather effects, Smith’s bake shop sales are booming, with more than 60,000 pies a year heading to all parts of the country and overseas.

“See that map?” said Richard Smith, pointing to his farm store’s wall. “That’s where our pies have gone. The pie shop makes money when the farm doesn’t. That’s why we’ve diversified.”

His wife, Shelley, first started making pies off site in 1990.

“It started out with 10 per week,” she said. “It’s just really taken off since then. It’s increased every year.”

In 1999, demand was strong enough — fueled mostly by word-of-mouth advertising — to justify opening a bake shop of their own. By being on site, Shelley could also oversee other types of farm retail sales. The bake shop store is now a year-round operation with eight employees, offering beef, pork and a variety of fresh vegetables all raised on the farm. It provides much-needed and welcome revenue streams.

The Smiths also have 175 milk cows and raise hay for the horses in Saratoga County’s thriving racing industry.

At one time, the Smiths cut back on their orchard as trees got older. Now, because of the thriving bake shop, they’ve expanded and planted new varieties that customers want, such as Zestar and Honey Crisp, because of their crisp texture and rich flavor.

Shelley wouldn’t divulge her tasty recipes, handed down from Richard’s grandmother, Emily, the family matriarch. But she shared a few tips.

“The dough is always made fresh in small batches,” she said. “We never make it ahead of time. That’s what keeps it flaky. We make dough all day long. Everything is hand-rolled.”

Cider donuts are another popular item.

Because of heavy orchard losses this year, the Smiths, like many farms that rely on retail sales, will have to supplement their own crop by purchasing apples from other orchards.

“We have to have enough apples for pies until September of next year,” Richard said. “That’s going to be a concern. You really have to be strategic.”

They’ve already begun contacting growers from Rochester, N.Y., to the Champlain Valley. “We hope to be able to buy in-state,” he said.

A few miles from Smith’s, Mourning Kill Orchard in Ballston Spa suffered a 100 percent crop loss. A sign outside their bake shop says it all: “We have no apples. Lost crop to spring freeze and frost. See you next year!”

Like Smith’s, however, their bake shop is still busy, using apples picked from neighboring Knight’s Orchard along with some brought in from outside the immediate area. Many customers show up looking for a bushel of apples and end up purchasing pies while they’re there.

Without that bushel business, Mourning Kill is concerned that pie and cider sales, two-third’s of the farm’s apple income, might drop off a bit.

“What a crazy year,” owner Laurie Boekeloo said. “My father, Harry Davis, is 90. This is the first time since 1948 that he can remember a season like this.”

Richard Smith said that this year’s harvest, of apples he didn’t lose, has been unusual, too. The growing season got off to an early start because of the mild winter, so fruit has ripened earlier than normal and it hasn’t been uniform, which has made picking them even more time-consuming than normal.

“You need sunny days and cool nights in the 40s and 50s to get a nice red apple,” he said. “We haven’t had that. It’s been mild at night.”

However, this hasn’t deterred devoted customers.

Charlton native Sandra Fendentz-Briggeman stopped in the Smith’s store recently to pick up some Greening apples on her way home to Myrtle Beach, S.C.

“I can’t get a Greening apple anywhere else in the country that I know of,” she said. “They make the best pies here. Two years ago, we sold them as a church mission fundraiser.”

The Smiths provide many local school, church and civic groups with pies that get sold for fundraisers, which in turn generates more business for the bake shop. There are 10 different types of apple pie alone (apple blackberry, apple peach, etc.) and more than a dozen others, such as the popular Very Berry, made from blueberries, strawberries and raspberries.

“We bought 600 to 800 pounds of rhubarb and 2,000 pounds of blueberries this year,” Richard said.

Most customers come from within an hour’s drive. However, Saratoga County is a popular tourist destination and many people have summer camps, so sales really start picking up in May and are strong right through the Christmas holidays. Whether they’re driving or flying, people have taken Smith’s Orchard Bake Shop pies from coast to coast. Some have even gone overseas to Ireland, England, Spain, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico.

The Smiths don’t ship them anywhere because they can’t guarantee what condition they’ll arrive in. “One customer paid $105 to send a pie to Hawaii and it got there beautifully,” Shelley said. “Somebody else paid $65 to go to Cleveland and it was a mess. That’s why we don’t ship.”

Contrary to the old adage, this is one instance where the world has literally beaten a path to their doorstep.

“We’re really in high gear,” Shelley said.

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