Jul 5, 2011Robinette’s Turns 100 – Switching to retail helps farm market last a century
Jim Robinette’s passion for his family history is obvious – and why shouldn’t he be proud? Five generations of his family have been running the same fruit farm (now called Robinette’s Apple Haus & Winery) for 100 years, clinging to the northeast edge of Grand Rapids – Michigan’s second-largest city – while every other farm in the area has disappeared.
Now 84, Jim saw much of the farm’s history with his own eyes. He shared some of what he knows:
The farm itself goes back more than a century. It was established in 1870 by Harvey Braman, who thought it had good potential for growing peaches because it had white oak and hickory trees and sandy loam soil with a little clay loam. Braman soon made a name for himself as a successful fruit grower.
In 1910, Braman was ready to retire and sell the farm. It just so happened that Jim’s grandfather, Barzilla Robinette, was in Grand Rapids at the time, visiting a boyhood friend.
Barzilla, a farmer from Ohio, might have seen a story in the Grand Rapids newspaper about Braman’s profitable fruit farm being up for sale. At any rate, Barzilla bought the farm in 1911 and moved his family from Ohio to west Michigan. Barzilla’s son, Edward (Jim’s father), 22 at the time, joined the new family venture shortly afterward, after deciding a year of teaching was enough for him.
Wholesale to retail
The farm survived as a wholesale fruit operation for the next six decades, but by 1971, Jim had taken up the reins and transition was in the air. His father was still active on the farm (he lived to be 99), but couldn’t help as much. A hired man the family had greatly relied upon had retired. They were still selling apples to wholesale customers, but by the time they paid their expenses there was no money left over. Jim had a decision to make.
That year, he decided to tour farm markets in the Detroit area with one of his employees. They decided that if those farms could build cider mills, Robinette’s could, too.
“When I told my dad I was going to build a cider mill, he said, ‘Jim, that’s like going back to milking cows,’ which I never liked,” Jim said.
It turned out to be the right decision. The mill brought a lot of people, and dollars, to the farm. Soon enough, customers started asking for donuts, so a donut machine was installed the next year. The transition from wholesale to retail had begun.
In time, Robinette’s became a fall destination for people in the Grand Rapids area, though it has activities during other seasons, too. The farm’s website (www.robinettes.com) lists some of the reasons people visit: There’s the Apple Haus, home to the cider mill, bakery, lunch counter and market stocked with fruit, treats, gift boxes and other products. There’s also horse-drawn wagon rides, a mountain biking trail and an area for cross-country skiing. A 6.5-acre corn maze was planted in 2009.
Several years ago, the family turned the old barn into a winery and gift shop. Jim said the winery is the family’s future. They currently sell 18 Michigan-made wines, along with sparkling raspberry juice for the kids. They started serving hard cider in 2006, according to the website.
Jim and his wife, Mary Bethel, are still active in the family business, but their three sons have taken on much of the responsibility. Ed is the president, Bill the winemaker and John makes the cider. Ed’s wife, Alicia, manages the winery and gift shop; John’s wife, Karey, manages the bakery. A fifth generation of Robinettes – Jim’s grandchildren – is starting to get involved.
The family property encompasses 125 acres, completely surrounded by houses, apartments, a college and a state highway. There’s no room for future expansion, but that’s OK with the Robinettes. They’ve found a way to thrive in a metropolitan area. When you run a retail market, it’s nice to have lots of customers living nearby, said Ed Robinette.
Click here to see a video on Jim Robinette talking about the farm.
By Matt Milkovich