Hill Orchards in Johnston, RI integrated pest mgmt / GAP certified
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From apples, peaches, plums, to nectarines, Hill Orchard’s hundreds of tress produce some amazing fruit. Allan Hill runs this fifty-acre farm, whose lands was the combined property of his parents. The original orchard was planted in the late 1920s and the old trees stand to tell stories of hard New England winters. Today, they have many heirloom apples varieties, offering old favorites and new flavors. Hill Orchard's fruit can be found at half a dozen farmers markets, schools, and restaurants across the state. Keep your eyes open for apple cider (Hill makes the best cider in Southern New England!) butter, and vinegar from their own fruit. Hill also helps Rhode Islanders eat local apples all year round by working with Buell Orchard in CT, whose controlled atmosphere (CA) storage keeps farm fresh apples crisp and delicious into spring and summer.
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Johnston, RI - Despite being born and raised at the orchard, Allan Hill didn't plan to be an orchardist. When he graduated college with a math degree in 1972, the age of computers called to him much more loudly and enticingly than the family farm. The recession of the early 1970s was putting more experienced people out of work, so he decided to bide his time helping his parents until the job market improved - and he hasn't yet left. “Land is part of you if you're in farming,” Allan will explain with a candid shrug, “it's in your psyche.”
The farm today is both a family legacy and Allan's own, the combined properties of his mother and father. His father and uncle planted the original orchard in 1929, but he trees couldn't have even been old enough to bear fruit when the relentless grind of the Depression almost lost the family its farm. Only the sad but well-timed death of a relative brought in an inheritance big enough to hold the banks at bay.
The crumbling former house and barn are the heart of today's Pick Your Own orchard, and some towering old trees still remain from that original planting. In fact, an orchard visitor in harvest season can still see the proof of Hill's father's skill as a master grafter - high in some old trees, the variety of apple changes from branch to branch. Really sharp eyes may spot the bulging old “seams” where large scion branches were bound to a healthy tree, and the tree grew “healed” the new branch into its own organism. Though the few remaining old trees are getting weary and past great productivity Hill is loathe to replace them with new stock and loose this memento of his father's skill, but those 78 year old trees have split trunks big enough to climb into, and they won't last much longer.
If Allan seems a little sentimental about those old trees, it may be because he lost his father only a couple years after college, leaving Allan and his mother with the farm. After just having talked his father out of selling to farm to a company that would have put its sandy soil to use in making concrete and gravel, they were too soon faced with its upkeep on their own. Luckily Allan had been back on the farm long enough to round out his skills, and his mother's lifelong experience with many aspects of orchard work filled in much the rest.
Learning the best ways to spray the orchards has been something of a quest, because Allan's father hadn't let his son use the chemicals until he returned as an adult. “And rightly so!” he says today, given the dangerous nature of some of the chemicals used back in the day. Allan's mother frugally under-sprayed, diminishing its effect, so Allan refined his skills with help from the Fruit Growers' Association and Cooperative Extension training. He's since gone over to Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to further reduce the farm's impact on its beautiful wetlands and wildlife.
With responsibility, Allan also found freedom for change. Instead of picking apples into small wooden boxes and paying to truck them to rented cold storage, he built his own storeroom and was one of the first in Apple Valley to invest in large wooden crates and a forklift to move them with. Of course, major investments being what they are, he couldn't get the forklift until the second year…
Opening part of the orchard to PYO was another big change - Allan's father hadn't wanted people wandering the orchards, worrying about liability. But Allan and his mother hired the son of a neighboring orchardist to help keep an eye on visitors. Hill recalls the guy was fair to a fault - accustomed to selling wholesale, he thought the retail price of apples was outrageous, and routinely charged PYO customers wholesale prices on principle. Laughing at the memory, Allan sobers and credits him with deeply influencing his sense of fairness that he brings to his customers and employees to this day.
“Ten years ago people came to pick apples,” Allan recalls, “but now they come for recreation, and they get a few apples.” Phone enquiries increasingly ended in disappointment when callers learned there wasn't anything to do but pick apples, so in 2000 they began to offer horse-drawn wagon rides around the orchard, run by nearby Chepachet Farm. The makeshift “stand” consists of a folding table under a tree, staffed by Allan and his genial crew. The big draw is the orchard itself, surrounded by hills and full of birdsong. On crisp fall weekends, families and friends meander the rolling property, pulled ever deeper into the trees with the promise of ever bigger and shinier apples. The most common varieties' trees are marked - Macintosh, Cortland, Gala, Macoun, Empire, Fuji, Red and Golden Delicious, Granny Smiths, and Romes - but odd trees here and there bear more rare varieties, like the two old Baldwins and a Gilliflower.
In fact, these oldies are also the Hills' future. Though most of the original Baldwins, RI Greenings, Gravensteins, and Northern Spy trees are gone, he's started re-planting them, adding Thomas Jefferson's variety of Pippins, too. For a long time, Allan says these tart cooking varieties were “a hard sell, because no one wants to cook.” Customers only wanted apples they could eat out of hand, and as a businessman Hill had adapted the crop to suit.
He's noticed a change, though. Last year a market customer asked about heirloom varieties, and Allan mentioned having a tree of Sheepsnose. The shopper begged him to bring them to market the following week, but didn't show up. Hill put the crate out for sale and offered a taste to anyone who asked about them. To his surprise, people started buying the mealy but floral fruit, a few at a time, to take home and experiment with. “It dawned on me,” he said, “People are looking for real flavors, for something new, and everyone loves to taste something they never had before.” He sold out within the first week.
His most recent undertaking has been to start converting one block of trees over to organic growing, which has been exceedingly challenging. As often as customers ask for organic apples, they still shun small, blemished, or misshapen fruit. A great deal of the first year's crop went into the cider press, although customers at farmers' markets and Urban Greens Coop quickly learned to not judge an apple by its kaolin-clay residue, but by its doubly wholesome crunch.
Allan sells all kinds of apples from the stand, which can be something of a destination itself. Its very much a workspace - no frills, but a mesmerizing and ingenious apple-sorting machine more than compensates. Businesslike baskets of mid-summer plums give way to yellow then white peaches, which lead into apple season and then the farm's own UV-treated cider. But Hill's most exclusive clientele gets delivery -- the hundreds of RI children whose schools have chosen to buy fruit locally, giving kids fresher fruit grown a few short miles away, and supporting local businesses in the process.