by Sally Colby
As an eighth-generation grower, John Lyman has had the unique opportunity to watch his family’s business grow from a typical New England farm to a New England destination.
“From the late 1950s on, we had a purebred Guernsey herd,” said Lyman. “We were also in the orchard business, which was pretty much wholesale-driven. In the early 1960s, we opened a retail stand to sell our product.”
Today, Lyman Orchards, in Middlefield, CT, encompasses four main businesses: an orchard, a retail market, wholesale pies and golf.
“People ask how farming and golf work together,” said Lyman. “We look at it from the standpoint of managing open space. This is a beautiful piece of property in central Connecticut, with more than 1,000 contiguous acres. My dad [Jack] always said that the most important guiding principle was to manage open space rather than being stuck with any one industry.”
Jack was instrumental in figuring out new and more effective ways to market fruit. During the 1950s, Jack and some other growers formed a coop to market fruit to a grocery chain. At the same time, the family realized it was important to take marketing to the next level.
“Even though we were wholesaling, we were close to the direct market through the store,” said Lyman. “It became clear that we needed to get more fruit directly to the consumer if we were going to get a better share of that dollar. We saw evidence of that 30 years before with people coming to the packing house wanting to buy directly.”
The next logical business move was to sell fruit at the farm. “My parents knew they wanted to construct a retail market but wanted to be sure to do it right,” said Lyman. “They went up and down the eastern seaboard — New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts — to get ideas from people who had built retail markets. One of the ideas they heard consistently is that they should consider opening a scratch bakery.”
The result of that research is the Apple Barrel, the retail market built in 1970. It’s a round, stand-alone facility shaped like an apple barrel. Other than an expansion in 1991 that added floor space and expanded the deck, the building is essentially the same as it was when first constructed.
The retail store and PYO account for a significant portion of orchard business. Lyman says while PYO customers in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were picking fruit primarily for canning or freezing, that changed in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when more families came to the farm in the fall as a family activity. The Lymans have seen the business grow by making the on-farm experience even more family-friendly.
Lyman Orchards’ wholesale pie business is one of the fastest-growing segments of the operation. Lyman’s mother Kathy was the first pie baker. In the mid-1990s, the family re-scaled the apple pie recipe for commercial production, and now make more than 900,000 pies/year. “My parents never thought we’d grow the business to that level,” said Lyman. “The bakery has been the biggest draw to the store, and is the biggest department within the store.”
Foresight is the reason Lyman Orchard pies are made exclusively with fresh fruit. “We built CA storage in the early 1960s,” said Lyman, “so we have the capacity to store quite a few apples. In addition to having our own peeling operation for apples, we purchase freshly peeled apples from suppliers. Pies destined for grocery chains are sold frozen and ready to be baked in the store.”
About 15 years ago, Lyman Orchards decided to market the business as a destination. “To do that, we have to offer activities that will be attractive, including pick your own,” said Lyman. “We added a corn maze in 2000 that operates in September and October, and a sunflower maze about eight years ago. The golf course draws customers in May, June and July.”
As for growing methods, the orchard has kept pace with modern production techniques. “We’ve gone through the same transitions as other orchards — from standard to semi-dwarf to more dwarfing varieties,” said Lyman. “We probably have about 65 percent dwarf trees with a slender spindle system — about 400 trees/acre. For our equipment and our terrain, that will work best, and it’s also good for U-pick.”
Lyman Orchards maintains about 100 acres of apples, 35 acres of peaches, 10 acres of pears, 35 acres of pumpkins and additional acreage devoted to strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. Although the orchard is not organic, they are affiliated with Red Tomato, a non-profit organization that works with growers to address consumers’ questions about the use of pesticides. Through Red Tomato, growers can become certified to market under the Eco Apple™ and Eco Stonefruit™ programs.
“Even if we don’t have to address an issue because the question didn’t come up, when a situation does come up, that’s the moment of truth. You have to look at the way you operate with the anticipation that you may be asked that question some day, and be ready to give an answer. That’s the reality of today’s consumer. They may not have all the facts or information, but they’re inevitably going to want an answer to a question. All growers have a responsibility to recognize that these things are important to consumers, and we have to do our best to address those questions.”
To help their community, Lyman Orchards works with local food bank and participates in a gleaning program. This year, volunteers helped prepare excess pears for distribution. Lyman Orchards also participated in “Pick for Your Neighbor,” a pilot program in which PYO customers pay for and pick an extra bag of fruit for the Connecticut Food Bank.
Lyman is currently executive vice president of Lyman Orchards and is responsible for overseeing orchard operations and pie production, and acts as spokesman for the company. The company president, by design, is not a Lyman. “When my dad retired in 1997, the board decided to hire a non-family president/CEO,” said Lyman. “Steve Ciskowski started as the company’s controller and is celebrating his 20 year with Lyman Orchards. Two ninth-generation family members are currently involved in the business full-time, and it’s exciting that they see opportunity and have enough interest to work in it full-time.”
Generational orchard becomes a destination
by Sally Colby