Jan 7, 2021
Finger Lakes’ Apple Barrel Orchards shifts to next generation

A new generation of family owners will lead Apple Barrel Orchards into the next century.

Michael and Allison Hiller purchased the farm market and a sizable portion of the land in the Finger Lakes Region of New York state from Allison’s parents, Bernard and Roxanne Wager, in 2020. Together, they’re the fourth generation of the family to own the farm started in 1922 by great-grandparents Forrest and Olive Wager.

“Mike and I hope to continue to expand the business in different ways and have already made plans to plant some new varieties of apples next spring,” Allison said.

Left: grandparents Charles and Barbara Wager. Right: Bernie and Roxanne Wager. Photos: Apple Barrel Orchards/Ashley Updyke Photography

Fruitful grounds

With the Apple Barrel farm operation, the Hiller family bought more than 21 acres of apples and nearly 29 acres of grapes – mostly winegrapes, but some Concords, Allison said. The farm operation also has a small orchard of sweet cherries for U-pick.h

Bernie and Roxanne continue to manage about 42 acres of fruit that are used for wholesale production. The Wager family sells some apples to the processor for the Mott’s brand, and winegrapes to select local wineries and larger wine companies.

Allison (Wager) Hiller and Michael Hiller.

The ground near the village of Penn Yan and Keuka Lake has mixed soil classes, generally gravelly silt loam, Allison said – deep, well-drained soil with medium natural fertility. Although the invasive spotted lanternfly is a pest to watch for growers in the Finger Lakes, she said it has yet to arrive.

“The spotted lanternfly has not affected our area yet,” Allison said. “For apples and grapes, we are always on the lookout for scab, powdery and downy mildew, grape berry moth and Japanese beetles. Each year is a bit different depending on the weather.”

The Finger Lakes region in general is ideal for growing fruit – as of 2017, there were 9,393 acres of vineyards in the region producing roughly 54,600 tons of grapes, according to a study from Cornell University.

“The climate is ideal for growing apples, grapes and cherries due to the seasons we experience here,” she said. “The trees and vines need a dormant period and long growing season with the right amount of growing degree days.”

Business management

There are more than 50 farm markets in the Finger Lakes region, according to the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance. The past season required growers to provide some precautions for the pandemic.

“We had to change up the flow of our U-pick operation this year,” Allison said. “We added a check-in and weigh-out station to help with social distancing and monitored and controlled the number of people coming into our farm store where our pre-packed fruit is sold.”

It’s not the first time the farm market has had to adapt – in 2005, Bernie and Roxanne sold their farm on Wager Hill Road and moved the Apple Barrel business to their home farm on Sand Hill Road.

“The new location was on flatter land which made it easier for the U-pick operation,” Allison said. “There was more parking for the customers and younger trees on the land which produced higher quality fruit. Moving also consolidated the operation into one location which made life a bit easier. Once they moved, the customer base continued to grow year after year.”

Wholesale contracts supplement fresh sales. The farm employs up to 12 seasonal employees during the summer and harvest months.

“Mike’s family jumped in this year to help,” Allison said. Michael, who has a degree in outdoor studies from Alaska Pacific University, has taken well to the job.

“Michael loves the outdoors and turns out he’s a natural at farming,” she said. “He is right in his element. He says his biggest surprise is just how much he enjoys farming.”

The couple plan to plant in the spring some eclectic apple varieties that are “going to help us expand our already existing operation into a new and exciting direction in the future.”

Family transition

Farm succession is an issue for families across the country. For the Wagers and the Hillers, the transition took place after several years of conversations.

“My parents have been in the business for a long time and are getting closer to retirement,” Allison said. “They have been talking for a few years about slowing down and working less with the U-pick operation and farm store and more directly with the wholesalers.”

Her sister, Kimberly Hughes, is also employed in the fruit industry as finance manager of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation.

“My sister and I have talked numerous times about what we’d like to see happen when my parents decided to sell the farm,” Allison said. “When Mike and I met, we both knew right away that taking over the farm was what we wanted to do.”

Bernie Wager with son-in-law Michael Hiller.

The farm has some long-standing structures: The barn that is the farm store dates back to 1896; the house on the property was built in 1908.

“We would love to see the farm stay in our family,” Allison said. “The Wager family has a long history of growing apples in our area. My grandfather’s brothers were all apple farmers and that carried on to their children and now onto the fourth generation.”

She said a party will probably be held for the farm’s centennial anniversary in 2022. But, at the time of the interview in late December 2020, she had other things on her mind.

“Right now, we are focused on finishing out our first year as the new owners and preparing for our first baby due in January,” she said.

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor

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