Fruit Tour Showcases Central Va. Orchards

7/26/2014 7:00 AM
By Becca Pizmoht Virginia Correspondent

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — More than 100 people from the tree fruit and wine industries of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia participated in the July 16 Central Virginia Orchard and Tree Fruit Tour. Organized by Frederick County Cooperative Extension, the tour showcased five different central Virginia fruit operations: Silver Creek Orchard, Saunders Brothers Farm Market, Crown Orchard Packing House, Albemarle Ciderworks and Carter Mountain Orchards.

Silver Creek Orchards, operated by John and Ruth Saunders, gave participants a view of the diverse business. Silver Creek’s operation comprises about 1,000 acres, the majority of which is in fruit production, with some acreage reserved for the farm’s 300 head of cattle. The orchard has 49 full-time employees during peak season and has 18 year-round.

The orchard features high-density tall spindle plantings. John and Ruth Saunders discussed critical aspects of their business and showed off their orchards and vineyard. Diversification, they said, has been an important element of their success. Vineyard acreage has been added to improve profitability. Silver Creek Orchard is currently the largest independent grape grower in Virginia. Extension agents Keith Yoder, Tremaine Hatch and Tony Volk all emphasized the benefits of adding vineyards to existing orchard operations in order to meet the growing demands of the Virginia wine industry.

During the question-and-answer session, Ruth Saunders cited the difficulty in finding labor to meet the farm’s needs. Paperwork and regulations with the current H2A system, she said, makes finding experienced help the operation’s “largest problem.” John Saunders walked the group through several blocks of Gala trees that had been sprayed with Apogee and showed the difference in fruit size and quality in comparision to blocks without timed applications of apogee. John Saunders said that Apogee was “cost effective, the trees needed less pruning and fruit size was bigger.”

The tour continued on to Saunders Brothers Farm Market, a retail business that incorporates several orchards, a container nursery and greenhouses. The tour included a drive through the nursery since participants were unable to walk through due to concerns about the spread of boxwood blight.

Paul and Bennett Saunders gave a brief overview of the family business before the crowd broke for lunch. After lunch, Tom Saunders explained the cutting-edge technology the container nursery uses for irrigation. A weather station on the property downloads data to the irrigation control, assuring that the plants receive exactly the right amount of water. Tom Saunders said that the system “has reduced water use and cut fertilizer and herbicide costs as well.”

The tour then headed north on Route 29 for a stop at the Crown Orchard packing house. The GAP-certified facility is central to the Chiles family’s century-old fruit business. Crown Orchard is actually comprised of seven orchards totaling about 1,000 acres of apples and 500 acres of stone fruit, as well as the packing house. Crown Orchard has 70 employees and processes as much as 150,000 pounds of fruit per day.

Tour participants got to see donut peaches and nectarines being sorted, packed and stored for shipping; fruit processed on that day was destined for Trader Joe’s and Wal-Mart. Crown Orchard packing house is the largest facility of its kind in the area and is unique in that it features the only mechanized donut peach packing line in the U.S. After the group viewed the facility, owner Henry Chiles spoke about the family business and answered questions. Chiles, like many others in the industry, lamented the lack of available labor.

“Now when we’re short on labor” at the packing house, “we manipulate the picking a little bit,” he said. This helps to keep fruit from sitting too long after picking.

The fourth stop was Albermarle Ciderworks, a business owned by siblings, Charlotte and Chuck Shelton. The Sheltons bought the property in 1986 with the intention of running cattle. They started by planting a variety of fruit trees, but became interested in heirloom apples after attending an apple tasting at Monticello.

The Sheltons have more than 250 types of apples growing on the premises. They have slowly developed their hobby into a successful business venture. Two-thirds of their trees are heirloom and the Shelton family has become the source for traditional Virginia apple trees.

In addition to the nursery aspect of the business, the Sheltons offer workshops and classes on apple tree care and orchard planning. The third aspect of their business, Albemarle Ciderworks, opened in 2009 as an outlet for the orchard’s produce. Charlotte Shelton explained the history and evolution of the family business, while Chuck Shelton showed participants the presses and tank room and explained the process of cider making.

The fifth and final stop was Carter Mountain Orchard in Charlottesvilles, one of the seven Chiles family orchards. The property once belonged to Thomas Jefferson, but has been operated by the Chiles family since the 1970s and has been owned by the family since 1985.

Today, Carter Mountain Orchard is a diverse operation consisting of orchards, vineyards, a farm market and a thriving pick-your-own fruit business. Members of the Chiles family spoke about the history of the business and how it has evolved. The pick-your-own orchard came about because a poor crop one year didn’t warrant a picking crew. It was so popular and successful that the family has continued the practice.

Grapes and wine making have added a new dimension as well.

After dinner, Extension agents Keith Yoder and Greg Peck went over seasonal updates in the Virginia fruit industry.

Organizer Mark Sutphin said he was quite pleased with the turnout and response to this year’s tour. He said the tour “hasn’t been done in about 10 years. The response was very positive to this year’s tour. I’m hopeful that we can do it again next year in another region of the state.”

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