Fifth-generation Orchard Changes With the Times

7/13/2013 7:00 AM
By Helen Margaret Griffiths New York Correspondent

New York state ranks second nationally for apple production, and according to the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, in 2010 apple production was valued at $233 million.

The state’s involvement with apples goes back to 1647, when the last Dutch director-general of the colony of New Netherland, Peter Stuyvesant, planted an apple tree obtained from Holland on the corner of Third Avenue and 13th Street in New York City.

Now there are nearly 700 commercial growers in the state. Beak & Skiff Apple Orchard in LaFayette, near Syracuse, N.Y., was established in 1911 and is now a fifth generation, family-owned apple farm.

The farm was started as the result of the foresight of George Skiff, an onion farmer on the north side of Syracuse, and Charles Beak, a dairy farmer, who joined forces to start what was to become a very successful venture in Onondaga County.

The farm has experienced some hard times as a result of weather conditions. 1937 was exceptionally dry and the trees lost all of their leaves. In 1945, there was a very late spring freeze and the entire apple crop was lost.

Fortunately, according to co-owner Candy Beak Morse: “The horrific weather in 2012 has not caused any ill effects in 2013. We did not lose any trees or have any other lasting damage,” she said.

In spite of these issues, the farm has not only survived, but also prospered due to the owners’ willingness to constantly try new technologies, implement new marketing schemes, adhere to a strong work ethic and produce a high quality product.

In 1956, the farm was the first apple producer in the Northeast to implement wind machines to protect tree blossoms against the cold spring air, which tends to settle in the valley bottom and cause lots of damage.

In 1975, Beak & Skiff diversified from being entirely wholesale to adding U-pick, and then a few years later converted an old dairy barn into the Apple Hill Country Store & Bake Shop, both of which have been highly successful.

Beak Morse said the business has kept up with Americans’ changing buying habits.

“Our wholesale marketing program for apples and cider has evolved over the years as the wholesale market itself has changed. However we have found that the best way to compete in this tough new marketplace is to continue to offer the highest quality for the customer and the best service for the produce buyer,” Beak Morse said.

The main fresh-market products the farm sells are apples and cider, with the sweet cider being produced for wholesale and the farm market. Since 2001, Beak & Skiff has produced hard cider and apple wine. They now produce a new “1911 Series” of alcoholic products, named to highlight the farm’s first orchard planting in 1911 and to emphasize the story of the 100-year-old apple farm.

“By building on our past we are establishing a strong future and moving our legacy forward into our second century,” Beak Morse said.

The “1911 hard cider” is available in five flavors — hard cider, raspberry, blueberry, sweet apple, and light and crisp — and in addition there are apple wines, including Northern Spy, Empire and Gala apple wine.

In 2009, a distillery that produces the farm’s apple vodka was opened, which, according to Beak Morse, has been very well received by the wholesale and retail markets. The apple vodka won a gold medal at the New York State Fair in 2012.

Things never stop at Beak & Skiff and in June 2013 they introduced a “1911 gin.” Beak Morse said the increased interest in local food has helped them market their products in central New York. The marketing of the hard cider and distilled spirits is still in the early stages, but the farm’s dedicated marketing team has already established sales with over 150 restaurants and liquor stores in upstate New York.

“We feel continued growth on the wholesale level will be strong,” she said.

Disease and insects can be a huge issue in apple orchards and weather can be a big player in the appearance of both. Fortunately, the mild winter has not resulted in more insects or early disease.

“We use the standard fungicide and insecticide program recommended by Cornell Cooperative Extension,” she said.

In 2012, Beak & Skiff, like most other apple growers in the region, had a very low yield. The flower set was moderate this season and so far the fruit quality looks to be good. The only issue has been the wet weather in June, which only allowed a tight window for spraying. Looking to the future, the farm has invested in more trees — 15,000 were planted this spring.

Major renovations have been done to the country store and bakery, allowing visitors to observe more of the cider making process as well as the apple packing machine, which according to Beak Morse has fascinated people for years when they used to only catch a glimpse of it behind closed doors. The bakery has also been expanded.

“And we’ve added a second doughnut robot, which will produce doughnuts in view of the customers,” she said.

The new apple barn includes apple tasting and sales of packaged and loose apples.

“Our biggest new venture this year, however, will be our new winery, cafe and tasting room at the Apple Hill location,” she said.

The new building for the cafe and 1911 tasting room is well underway. It is being built in the style of the original barn, decorated and furnished to reflect the 1911 period, which will compliment the new “1911 brand” alcohols being offered. There will be three tasting bars and two patios with views of the valley and vistas of distant hills. In the cafe, customers can enjoy lunch and snacks along with wine and cider. The public will also be able to view hard cider being produced, and for those wanting to saver the taste for later, they may have a growler filled to take home and enjoy.

Information on Beak & Skiff, picking schedules, and arranging outings can be obtained from their website:

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