by Sally Colby
It takes persistence to start a farm, and the Rowley family of Cherry Hill Farms is keenly aware of the work their forebears did to begin the farm legacy. Today, Cherry Hill Farms, with operations in both Utah and Idaho, is in the process of turning over operations to younger family members.
Curtis Rowley explained that his great-grandfather started the farm legacy growing vegetables and small fruits in Sanaquin, Utah. “Tart cherries and sweet cherries came along in the late 1950s,” said Curtis. “In the late 1950s, mechanical harvesting was developed for tart cherries. The first harvester was a limb shaker; now the machine shakes the whole tree.” He added that by the 1960s, the only way to increase growth and sales with cherries was with a mechanical harvester, and that’s when the family started growing tart cherries.
“Dried cherries were developed in the early 1990s,” said Curtis. “We made a big push for that in our co-op and that’s been our main product since around 2000.” Utah is the second largest tart cherry grower in the country, and the majority of tart cherries grown at Cherry Hill Farms are processed and sold dried.
Although cherries continued as the mainstay, the Rowleys wanted to expand their farming operation. In 2012, they had an opportunity to purchase an orchard in Idaho from a family that was downsizing. With this purchase, the Rowleys were now growing nectarines and apricots.
The Rowleys started to plant apples in the late 1970s when more family members returned to the farm. Curtis explained that through the 1980s, the primary apple varieties were Golden Delicious and Red Delicious. “Then we realized if we were going to survive in the apple world, we had to start branching out and grow more varieties,” he said. “In the last 1980s we started planting Gala, Granny Smith and Fuji. In the last 10 years we’ve planted Honeycrisp and other varieties people want.”
In the early 1990s, the Rowleys started planting apple trees in a high-density system with 1,300 to 2,000 trees per acre. “We started planting peaches in the late 1990s and have been growing them since,” he said.
Although the family has traditionally sold fruit exclusively through a co-op, they’re now starting a direct marketing venture with an on-farm fruit stand. “With all the nephews and nieces who wanted to be part of the farm, we decided to open that,” said Curtis. The youngest generation are between ages 25 and 35. “By bringing back more of the family we can do more.”
Curtis said bringing the next generation onto the farm has been enlightening and has introduced a different mindset regarding selling fruit at other outlets. One opportunity came when his nephew Derek approached him with the concept of selling peaches for higher profit through farmers markets. “It comes back to a culture we’ve instilled in them since they were young,” said Curtis. “We’ve always said ‘Come to us with a good idea, we’ll think about it and if it’s sound business, we’ll make it happen.’”
When grocers started using large banners illustrated with grower families, customers made the connection from the grocery store to the farm. Curtis learned that customers who purchased Cherry Hill Farms fruit from the grocery store were truly interested in the grower and growing process. “When people see a picture they feel the experience and want to try something they haven’t tried before,” he said. “Then they come out to the farm and equate their experience every time they go to the grocery store.”
That realization started the idea “Let’s see what we can do with U-pick.” Today, as the Rowleys continue to sell fruit at several stands, the added U-pick option has been successful for the past three years.
The family is finding that direct marketing involves a whole new thought process. “Our farm has been completely closed up until several years ago,” said Curtis. “The next generation has convinced us we need to open our doors, let people in and share with them.” The Rowleys found that consumers were willing to pay more when they could see the orchard where fruit is being grown.
Cherries can be a tough crop for U-pick if consumers aren’t aware of how to select ripe fruit. Curtis said staff try to provide instruction on how to pick ripe cherries, but it takes time for consumers to learn the skill. “People who come back for several years find they learned how to pick the right kind of fruit,” he said. “Once they learn how to pick the right fruit, they’re excited about coming back.”
He noted that families who visit the orchard for U-pick have commented that visiting the orchard is a good opportunity to turn off electronic devices, if even for that short time, and enjoy family time together. “They’re coming here so the kids can do something else,” he said. “They’re off their phones and can walk around in the orchard and look at the mountains.”
Another U-pick venture, which Curtis said will be scaled down this season, is vegetables. The first year, the family grew several acres of vegetables for U-pick but found there wasn’t a lot of interest. Fortunately, it was easy to sell vegetables at their farm stands. “This year we’re going to grow less,” he said. “We’ll still have some for U-pick but most will be for the fruit stands.”
The Rowleys sell produce at several fruit stands – two on the farms, two in communities. The season begins with apricots and sweet cherries, continues with vegetables in summer and finishes with apples through October. This year, the family is constructing a new building to replace an existing shed, taking the opportunity to plan the layout of the building for the future.
Regarding the younger generation entering the business, Curtis said, “I credit them for being humble enough to listen to us as we’re working through this. They’re recognizing they’re getting good counsel and they’re making good decisions.”
The Rowleys maintain a social media presence to introduce consumers to the farm and what’s grown there. “We allow people to come to the orchard to walk through at blossom time and harvest time,” said Curtis. “People are learning what we have and what we’re trying to do here.”
Visit Cherry Hill Farms online at cherryhillfarms.com.