Despite Crop Losses, Saratoga Apple Keeps Customers in Good Supply

9/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

SCHUYLERVILLE, N.Y. — In 1994, when Saratoga Apple owner Nate Darrow purchased his farm, it had a 126-acre orchard.

He decided right then to adopt a direct marketing strategy, made possible by his ideal location on Route 29 in Schuylerville, a major east-west connector between I-87 at Saratoga Springs and Vermont.

The move cut costs by eliminating a wholesale broker and gave him the flexibility to sell wherever and to whomever he wants. This year especially, with New York’s apple harvest devastated by a late-spring frost, his forward-thinking plan has turned out to be especially beneficial.

“There will not be any shortage of apples from the consumers’ perspective,” Darrow said. “However, they may be from somewhere else. Usually when eastern New York has a shortage, western New York makes up for it. This year, the whole state was hit hard.”

A U.S. Department of Agriculture crop forecast released Aug. 10 places the 2012 New York state crop at 14 million boxes, down 54 percent compared to the state’s five-year average production of 30.7 million boxes.

His own farm suffered a nearly 70 percent crop loss, which has delayed the U-pick season for early varieties such as McIntosh. Customers might have to wait until the weekend of Sept. 29-30 to get their own apples.

Fortunately, Darrow still has plenty for regular retail sale, thanks in part to a backup supply from his brothers’ Green Mountain Orchards in Putney, Vt.

In addition to its year-round retail stand at the farm, Saratoga Apple takes part in nearly a dozen area farmers markets.

“That allows us to do a lot of cross-promotion and put more product in people’s hands,” Darrow said. “By handing out literature, some people follow us back to the farm.”

Darrow recognized right away the advantages of owning a business in Saratoga County. Saratoga Springs — about 10 miles away — is a thriving small city, with a fairly affluent population, surrounded by rural small towns and a strong agricultural sector.

“What makes this area special is the possibility of direct marketing,” he said. “It’s made a big economic difference, not having to deal with a wholesale broker who sells your goods to supermarkets.”

Saratoga Apple’s three main farmers markets are year round, in Troy, Glens Falls and Saratoga Springs. In recent years, markets have also sprung up at many other sites. The farm now belongs to seven others, including two in Vermont and one at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.

“We bring home a little bit of money from each of these,” Darrow said. “Sometimes we might only make $150. You wonder if it’s worth it. But it’s a way of getting established. We’re trying to build something.”

He and his wife, Marie-Christine Gaud, originally from France, work as a team. At this time of year, especially, he’s busy overseeing the harvest and managing farm operations while she deals with customers at various markets.

For picking, Darrow relies heavily on migrant labor from Jamaica and hires the same trusted individuals each year.

Darrow constantly strives to make the farm more efficient. From its original total, he now has less than 40 acres of apples, culling out old trees and replacing them with smaller, more productive ones all the time. Smaller trees are also easier and therefore less expensive to maintain. In addition, they can be harvested more easily, which saves time and money, too.

While cutting back, Darrow has moved trees inward toward the farm’s core, away from roadsides and nearby residential areas. The town has Right to Farm laws, but he wants to eliminate conflicts over things such as noise and spraying drift.

Some former orchard is now used for raising vegetables, another source of farm income. By rotating crops, he’s also building up the soil’s nutrient base, which helps when it comes time for planting new apple trees.

The farm is not organic. However, Darrow said he’s using more natural substances such as neem oil, a non-toxic insect deterrent, in place of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fungicides whenever possible.

In addition to the retail stand and farmers markets, Saratoga Apple sells fresh slices and cider — made year round — to local restaurants, colleges and schools. Some apples are also sold at other roadside farm stands in the area.

The big challenge this year, after heavy losses, will be simply supplying all these many outlets. Normally, apples are dispersed all year long.

By next summer, however, there might not be any left.

As a rule, the farm’s roadside stand stays open year round. After Christmas, when apples are in high demand for baking and gift giving, Darrow and his wife might close up shop, put whatever apples they have left in climate-controlled storage and go visit their friends in Jamaica or someplace else warm.

“We haven’t had a vacation in 19 years,” he said smiling.<\c> Photos by Paul Post



Owner Nate Darrow checks out this year’s lighter-than-normal crop at Saratoga Apple orchard and farm in Schuylerville, N.Y.



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