by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Many fruit farm owners inherit a family farm as their entry into the business after working on the farm for years and perhaps attending an ag school. Others purchase a farm they’ve worked on for many years. Robert Abendroth had never even seen his fruit farm before he bought it. It was just another step in his quirky, serpentine route to farm ownership.
Abendroth had been working as an architectural engineer in Minneapolis, but wanted to break away from the white-collar world. He and his family moved to Germany to learn farming. His two older children, Alicia and Alec, studied farming at Geisenheim University and through an internship, respectively. Upon returning to the U.S., Alicia, now 25, and Alec, 22, studied farming further. Alicia earned her second ag degree at Cornell and Alec completed an internship in Chile.
Abendroth purchased an 80-acre orchard in Wolcott, NY, in 2014 and named it Abendroth’s Apple Ridge Orchard.
“It took every penny we had to buy the farm,” Abendroth said. “It would cost us $10,000 to come over and look at the farm, so we bought it without seeing it first.”
He saw moving to the top apple-producing county in New York as a huge opportunity to break into the fruit-growing industry. The family arrived in August. With proceeds from the first harvest, they purchased two more farms about half an hour away in Sodus.
“We keep pushing the money into purchasing more equipment and land to produce more fruit,” Abendroth said.
Now farming 320 acres along Lake Ontario, the operation includes several varieties of apples, peaches, plums, tart cherries and sweet cherries. The Primus GAP-certified orchards include low-density orchards of about 40 trees per acre along with more modern high-density orchards of 1,000-plus trees per acre. Abendroth also operates a rootstock and tree nursery. He also distributes wholesale produce from a network of growers from Buffalo to Oswego to buyers in New York City. Those goods include grapes, pears, pumpkins, squash and tomatoes.
Abendroth sells his apples wholesale for fresh eating or for slicing, juicing and processing.
His two older children, along with Marcelo Vasquez, orchard manager, operate the farm. Alec met Vasquez while interning in Chile. “He studied agronomy and has an amazing work experience behind him, managing 600-acre farms,” Abendroth said.
While Vasquez manages day-to-day orchard work, Abendroth handles the marketing and produce distribution side of the operation, often driving all day to pick up produce from across the state to deliver to New York City. During the busy season, Abendroth employs 40 workers. The farm shuts down Dec. 1 through March 1.
For now, he and his children take time to learn from other farmers. Traveling to places like Chile, Ecuador and South Africa has given the Abendroths a greater perspective on farming’s challenges and how growers in other parts of the world creatively meet those challenges.
“The knowledge and relationships that has created is incredible,” Abendroth said. “My son worked with Marcello and he came up to visit and he said ‘If you offer me a job, I’ll come.’”
Vasquez and Abendroth are working to create greater density on his farmland, since it costs $250,000 per acre to spray his trees. Closer planting also means he can produce more per acre, which can only add to Abendroth’s bottom line.
Abendroth advises farmers to “be brilliant.” “Be smart. Be on your game. Hopefully, you have a good education so you’re trained to think,” he said. “Farming is about grow bigger or go home. That’s why we’re trying to grow. The only way you can rationalize these costs is to grow big. My tractors never stop. I use them up in a five-year period. When you have 80 acres, you have to do it all yourself.”