Dec 2, 2011Apple Castle celebrates 150 years growing apples
Few farms have the longevity and tradition of Apple Castle, a family orchard that has been growing apples for 150 years. Six generations of the Johnston family have dedicated their lives to apples and the lifestyle that goes with them, and as a seventh generation appears on the scene, the family shows no signs of slowing.
“I think it’s very fulfilling to work with your hands, to work with nature and to grow something that is healthy,” said Steven Johnston, Apple Castle’s orchard manager and part of the sixth generation. Steven’s father, Lyle, is the current owner.
Apple Castle is near New Castle, Pa., amidst the Amish country that spreads across Pennsylvania and Ohio. It was here Josiah Smith Johnston moved his family in the 1850s, when they relocated to Lawrence County from Franklin County. Johnston bought the property in 1861, christening the new orchard Johnston’s Fruit Farm.
It wasn’t long before the orchard found a new name in Edendale Farms, taking its cue from an unlikely source – famed English author Charles Dickens, courtesy of Lyle’s great grandfather.
“He was a fan of Charles Dickens, and (Dickens) had a summer home named Edendale,” Lyle said.
A section of the orchard was also named Bleak House, while an adjoining orchard was named Ellersly – all from Dickens.
Apple Castle received its current name in 1950, when they built the first orchard showroom. It was Steven’s grandfather, Ralph, who coined the name, partially based on neighboring New Castle. There’s a more sentimental basis behind the name, however.
“The primary reason is my grandfather thought of apples as the king of fruit, and therefore had to be in their own castle,” Steven said.
Apples have been a mainstay at Apple Castle, but the orchard has found ways to branch out in new directions – not all in the produce market.
One expansion was a dairy operated by Lyle’s grandfather, opened in the early 1900s. The dairy led to a reduction in the orchard, as they put a new focus on livestock.
“We always grew apples and my grandfather ran the orchard, but that wasn’t his primary passion,” Lyle said. “He downsized the orchard and built the dairy.”
The dairy closed in the late 1940s when Ralph took over from his father, reaffirming the family’s commitment to apples. He also initiated the next operation change by constructing the orchard’s first sales room, transitioning it to more of a farm market and retail atmosphere.
Lyle formed a partnership with his father, eventually buying his father’s share of the orchard. Lyle opened the second sales room in 1982 in a much larger building.
Today, Apple Castle sits on 145 acres, with 17 devoted to apples. Roughly 50 varieties are picked each season, ranging from niche varieties to popular favorites like Red and Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Honeycrisp, Fuji, Braeburn, Gala and Cortland. They grow peaches and nectarines on about 4.5 acres, sweet corn on 15 acres and a small handful of acres devoted to blueberries, raspberries and an assortment of vegetables.
The family focuses on the consumer rather than the commercial retailer, selling its products directly through the sales room. The largest sales come from apples, available by the peck, half peck and pound. Bushels have always been available to customers, though today they sell more in pecks.
Apple Castle markets a variety of products derived from apples. Bakery items are sold daily, including doughnuts baked each morning at the orchard, as well as apple cider, pies, cobblers and crisp mixes, dried apples and apple butter. Caramel apples are also available in the fall. They bake the doughnuts personally, but friends and neighbors bake the other products for the farm market. To make their cider, they send their apples to a cider processor, Lyle said.
The orchard has a core employee base throughout the year, but that number increases each September and October, the peak picking season. The family tries to secure as many local pickers as possible, but is increasingly turning to migrant labor to find reliable help.
“Right now, our biggest labor demand is at 20 people, but in winter the number definitely drops down. We do have a couple of migrant workers who come to help during apple picking season – two to four, depending on the year,” Lyle said.
Apple Castle operates year round due to its high volume of apples, and employs techniques to increase freshness throughout the year. Surplus apples are stored in large coolers on-site, and ethylene blocker keeps the apples fresher in the sales room. Apples are also stored in coolers at GreenStar Cooperative, an apple cooperative in Ohio.
“They have large coolers, and I take my apples and rent space in the coolers with other growers,” Lyle said. “I get them in the spring, as needed.”
Apple Castle takes food safety seriously, and starts with washing the apples before they even reach the sales floor. Employees power-wash the bins before picking. While they have never been faced with a food recall or illness outbreak, they have a plan in place that traces each apple back to the tree it was picked from.
“We mark down where each bin was picked, who picked it and when. It is fairly standard for orchards,” Lyle said. “We try to be smart and follow regulations.”
Steven only recently returned to the orchard after several years away, and is excited about the prospect of running the orchard and continuing the family tradition. Whether that involves expanding the orchard is another story.
“I have dreams of expanding, but sometimes being smaller can be better. We have a business that is better, we’re debt-free and we’re going to watch the consumer market to see where it is headed,” he said. “We don’t see a need to build a multi-million dollar building right now.”
But whether they expand or remain the same means little right now. They family is simply happy growing apples, a tradition sparked by Josiah Smith Johnston before the Civil War.
“It kind of gets in your blood, the joy of renewing life and being able to give people a good product they’ll come back to,” Lyle said. “It is a healthy lifestyle to raise a family, and as long as the good Lord gives us the ability, we’ll grow fruit.”
By Everett Brazil III, Southern Correspondent