When I’m knee deep in day to day farm and business life, our story seems pretty unremarkable, but when I step away and look at the evolution of our orchard and market over the past 50 years, it’s pretty neat.
Shannon and I were both raised on farms in Rockingham County, VA. While, I grew up on a farm, after college I didn’t think that was going to be my cup of tea. I became a teacher. For Shannon, he knew from the get-go that the orchard was and would always be his life.
We know the orchard had been planting apple trees since the early 1900s. The grading shed dates from the late 20s or early 30s with much of the same equipment used then. There have of course been a few modernizations. We use it during apple season to sort apples by size and grade. In 1965 Shannon’s father, Joe bought the orchard from the original owner, Dave Propst’s daughter, Lealla Turner and her husband Dave. They had only owned the orchard for a few short years after her father’s death.
When he bought the farm the apples that were grown were strictly for processing and were sold to the local processor. The need for adding value to the fruit that he was growing became apparent. He began to establish the orchard as a place to purchase fresh market fruit. He sold directly to the consumer. During this period the original sales area and cold storage were constructed.
In 1975 this now 100 year old hydraulic press was installed as a way to again add value to our fruit and particularly to the “not so pretty” grade outs. We now produce nearly 40,000 gallons of fresh juice each year. It’s sold to local and regional grocery stores, specialty shops, restaurants and right on the farm. We usually make juice from early September through late December.
Having an orchard means VERY seasonal cash flow. Joe and Frances were seeking opportunities to supplement their income outside of Autumn. They made the decision to build greenhouses and grow annuals, veggie starts and perennials for spring time sale. This began in the early-seventies.
Fast forward to 2002. Shannon was the only one of the 3 sons still working on the farm and his parents were ready to retire. We were already partners but at this point purchased the remaining interest in the orchard/business.
In 2010, we began to take more seriously the reality that our kids were growing older and we really wanted them to have the option to stay on the farm, if they wanted. So we began talking a lot about how to keep the orchard relevant, sustainable and profitable.
We seriously considered establishing a winery.
One thing that Shannon and I have always enjoyed is food and wine. Shannon had been fermenting things since I had met him. One of our favorite libations is red wine. Years before we planted a small plot of three red bordeaux varietals –mostly as a hobby. We had serveral successful vintages using the grapes that we had grown so we had our plot of land analyzed and evaluated by an expert from Virginia Tech’s viticulture department. He explained that we had a GREAT place to grow WHITE grapes. As we contemplated our next move the hard cider industry began to emerge and expand with a crazy vengeance. I was reluctant at first because, like many folks, the only ciders I had tried were sticky sweet “alcoholic soda” types of beverages. This is not what I thought we wanted to produce or drink. I needed to LOVE what we were doing and what we were producing.
Upon further investigation and tasting, we discovered the likes of some other Virginia Cider Producers like Albemarle Ciderworks and Foggy Ridge Cider who were making craft ciders that were distinctive, food friendly and very wine like. I was hooked! It turned out that Shannon’s experience with wine-making combined with expertise as an apple grower and juice producer was a foundational part of what he needed to make excellent cider. We already had a lot of infrastructure for production beginning with apples that were good varieties for making cider, a press, a cold storage and existing traffic flow to establish a tasting room and retail market. This was another undeniable opportunity to add value to our produce. In 2011 we had our first official production year and we began sales in May of 2012. Our growth has been phenomenal.
The future looks bright for our kids. Shannon and I are rejuvenated by the challenge and opportunity that this brings to us. It turns out our son does want to return to the family farm. On August 18 he moves to Blacksburg to begin his career as a Virginia Tech Agriculture Department student. We’re looking forward to having him work with us too.
— Sarah Showalter