Mar 4, 2021Boyer Orchards goes from side business to award winner in three generations
Western Pennsylvania’s Boyer Orchards LLC was the side business of a steelworker in the late 1950s, but fast forward a couple of generations and his sons and grandsons are employed at a farm operation honored by growers across the state.
In February, at the virtual-only edition of the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention, Matt Boyer was named Outstanding Grower of the Year by the State Horticultural Association of Pennsylvania (SHAP).
“Apple growing is in his blood,” according to the SHAP award announcement. “It’s what he loves to do and he is dedicated to growing the best crop possible.
Building a legacy
Matt’s parents, Allan and JoAnn Boyer, started Boyer Orchards in 1957 while Allan continued to work in the steel mills in Johnstown. Growing up on a farm made a deep impression on the second generation of the family: In 1979, Matt earned a horticulture degree from Penn State University and returned home to New Paris, Bedford County, to manage the orchard. A decade later, his brother and business partner Bruce, took over the orchard from their parents and started to expand by small land purchases while leasing three neighboring orchards. Matt’s sons Wesley and Sam, and Bruce’s son Ben, are now involved in the operation, with each of the men specializing in different work.
Including leased ground, the farm has about 350 acres of apples, 10 acres of peaches, 10 acres of pears, and 3 acres of pumpkins and various types of winter squash: butternut, acorn, spaghetti The family has a retail farm market, and in addition to their crops, they sell pasteurized cider that a friend makes for them. About 10% of the Boyer Orchards’ apples are sold retail, but the rest are shipped 150 miles east to Lancaster County’s Hess Bros. Fruit, a major fruit packer.
Hess Bros. has had a relationship with the Boyers for more than 40 years.
“They’re right in all the population (centers), and they don’t have far to take them to Giant or Martin’s,” Matt Boyer said, referring to popular retail chains. “They handle the big outlets.”
West Pennsylvania hills
The orchards are in mountainous Bedford County, where the elevation (1,300-1,700 feet) helps the farm deal with spring frost.
Matt Boyer describes the soil as a “gravelly loam.”
“Our soil is not real strong,” he said. “We still have to fertilize every year.”
The farm has in the past relied on M.9-type rootstocks, but Boyer said they have since diversified with M.26 and Geneva rootstocks after experiencing dieback and orchard failure in replant situations.
“It’s a shame to have a tree, just 2, 3, 4 years old, and then one morning it’s just dead,” he said. “It’s discouraging.”
Some of the orchard roots have been re-grafted with new cultivars.
“We’re in a variety shift,” he said. “We’ve grafted over our Red Delicious – we still have some of them, but not as many as we used to.” Other varieties include Premier Honeycrisp, Gala, Fuji and Wild Twist – the latter being a club apple from Hess Bros. that’s a cross of Honeycrisp and Pink Lady.
The Boyers have to deal with their share of challenges to tree health and fruit quality. Without Lorsban, San Jose scale is again becoming an issue for tree fruit growers in such locales as Michigan and Pennsylvania.
The advent of what’s forecast to be a bumper crop of cicadas this year in the Midwest would also do some damage to the trees. According to Penn State Extension, female cicadas weaken small branches while laying eggs, and underground, the nymphs attach themselves to root systems to feed off the tree nutrients.
Finally, apple scab, an issue for growers for 150 years, is the farm’s top fungal disease and can become a problem if not addressed quickly after a rain.
“You can get behind on sprays in a hurry,” he said.
By-the-book food safety practices, changes in the enforcement of labor regulations and pandemic precautions are some current operational challenges.
About 10 years ago, Matt Boyer led an effort to get the farm aligned with PrimusGFS, the well-known international food safety audit.
“They have to change a little bit of something every year,” he said. A preference for plastic apple bins over wooden bin, and certain field sanitation practices have been among some of the changes required.
About 5-6 years ago, the farm began using foreign labor through the H-2A visa program and an outside labor contractor. Two of the younger members of the Boyer family speak Spanish quite well, and that ability has helped the working relationship with crews from Monterrey, Mexico.
“They’re like family to us,” Boyer said.
COVID-19 has affected many of the farm’s business dealings, from labor to food safety and the farm market where masks and social distancing are required.
“Due to COVID-19 restrictions, at our farm market, we’re not able to have any free samples of fruit or cider,” Boyer said. “We canceled our fall festival.”
It’s a disappointment for a farm with a club apple to introduce to the public.
“I really think farm markets help introduce new varieties with samples of apples,” Boyer said.
Colleagues and community
Outside of the family farm, Matt Boyer served as president of the State Horticultural Association of Pennsylvania from 2008 to 2009 and also served on the Extension Advisory Committee. He also has kept up memberships in SHAP, the Pennsylvania Vegetable Growers Association, Adams County Fruit Growers, National Peach Council and other industry groups.
His favorite part of the volunteer work was compiling some pages of history for a publication celebrating 150 years for SHAP, the state’s horticultural association. Working together with his wife and others, the group pulled together an addendum chronicling the last 25 years that was added to an older historical booklet.
He highly recommends serving on industry committees to other growers – those meetings are where he’s made lifelong friends and given back to the community.
“You’re not after the payment, you’re volunteering your time and talents for the benefit of others, and that’s what I like,” he said.
— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor; Photo at top, courtesy of Boyer Orchards LLC: From the left are Wesley Boyer, Matt Boyer, Sam Boyer, Ben Boyer and Bruce Boyer.