Ben Clark was raised on a generational fruit farm in Deerfield, MA, but he didn’t think that’s where he’d be today.
Ben’s father Tom was the third generation on the farm, and Ben grew up working in the orchard during summers. After high school, Ben went to college and lived the city life as he built a career. In 2005, when his grandfather passed away, he started thinking about the future of the farm.
“That’s what brought me back to work with my father,” said Ben, who returned to the farm in 2006. “I didn’t always see myself here but was drawn back and wanted to continue the family legacy and keep the farm going.”
Ben said returning to the farm was always in the back of his mind. He credits his parents for not pressuring him or his sister to return. “They encouraged us to go off and try something else,” he said. “The reality of my grandfather passing is what brought into focus the future of the farm.”
Over time, Ben has taken on more management responsibilities. “My father and I have transitioned to where my wife Lori and I have full ownership of the farm now,” said Ben, “but my father is still working on the farm full-time.”
Ben has seen changes in the farm over the years, including apple varieties and marketing. The farm was primarily a wholesale grower until Tom transitioned to retail sales in the 1970s. Today, about 85% of sales are direct retail from the farm stand. Clarkdale Fruit Farms also sells at one farmers market; the remainder of the fruit is distributed by the family to about eight outlets including schools and local grocers.
“When my grandfather was growing fruit in the 1950s, he was primarily growing the New England mainstays like McIntosh, Red Delicious, Gold Delicious and Macoun,” said Ben. While they still grow those varieties, they’ve added more classics including Esopus Spitzenburg, Roxbury Russet, Gravenstein and Pound Sweet.
Ben said he’s fortunate his father had the foresight to realize in the ‘70s that returns from packing weren’t there due to competition from apples coming in from other states and countries.
“He started the transition and we benefitted from the ‘buy local’ movement,” said Ben. “It’s strong in this area. We have a loyal customer base who come to the store to buy fruit.”
Apples are the main crop in terms of acreage and revenue, with about 25 of their 45 acres devoted to a wide variety of apples. “Like a lot of other orchards, we’re increasing Honeycrisp plantings,” Ben said. “We’re also putting in a lot of newer varieties like EverCrisp® and CrimsonCrisp. We also have a large number of heirloom apples.”
The selection of heirloom apples is a big draw for many customers. “Years ago, Baldwin was heavily planted in the Northeast before McIntosh came along,” said Ben. “We kept Baldwin cuttings and grafted some, so we still have some of the original Baldwins growing on new rootstock. That follows the trend with Northern Spy, Spitzenburg and a lot of other heirloom varieties people were growing years ago as all-purpose apples … We’ve continued growing them and have put in new plantings.”
Ben said the heirloom varieties are great all-purpose apples – good for eating, cider and baking. Some customers visit the farm for those varieties because they aren’t available elsewhere. The farm has also benefitted from the cider movement, with growing interest in commercial and home production of hard cider over the past decade.
Clarkdale Fruit Farms’ cider is made fresh on the farm with a drum grinder and a rack and cloth press. “We start making apple cider the first week of October because we’re still picking peaches until the end of September,” said Ben. “We’ll do some heirloom blends, which people like for either drinking or hard cider.” He also makes pear cider, made strictly with pears, and said it’s exceptionally sweet and sought after by customers.
Ben and Tom are in the process of switching to high-density apple plantings. “About 15 years ago, we started planting tall spindles,” said Ben. “Now all new plantings are in a tall spindle system. We’ve taken out some unproductive acreage and are replanting, and in many cases, doubling production on the same acreage. We get so much more fruit and the quality is better.”
The farm features over 50 varieties of peaches, which ripen from the second week of July through the end of September. “We don’t store peaches,” said Ben. “We pick fresh and sell them within a day or two. They’re ripe enough to eat the same day or the next day. With each peach variety, there’s a week or week and a half so there’s a lot of overlap.”
Peaches can be challenging in certain years, but Clarkdale Fruit Farms makes an effort to have a good supply throughout the season. “Since we’re known for our peaches,” Ben said, “we don’t want people to come here and be disappointed that we don’t have something.”
Other fruit includes cherries, plums, nectarines, Concord grapes, quince and pears. Pear varieties are available between mid-August and Christmas and include favorites such as Bartlett and Bosc as well as lesser-known varieties including Harrow Delight, Magness, Packham’s Triumph, Sheldon and Spartlett.
Although the farm doesn’t offer large scale U-pick, they maintain a small section of trees near the farm stand where customers can do so. “We have trees that are approaching 100 years old,” said Ben. (The trees were established by his great-grandfather.) “Those are old standard apple varieties, and we’ve cut the tops down. People like to pick from those so we’ll keep them as long as they last.”
Since the Clarks sell most fruit directly from the farm, they take pride in having friendly, knowledgeable staff in the store. “It’s an extension of our farm and our name,” said Ben. “We’re fortunate to have return seasonal business, and the highest compliment is when customers tell us how friendly and helpful the staff are. We also have return employees who know the products and are passionate about them.”
Tom and Ben are both devoted to using the best IPM possible. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Tom was one of the first growers in the state to work with UMass to develop an IPM plan for the orchard. Weather stations, a pest consultant and pheromone mating disruption for several insects all contribute to the effort.
“We don’t bring any beehives in,” said Ben. “For the last 30 years, we’ve relied on native pollinators. We’re strict about no insecticides used during pollination and we also have pollinator areas that are not mowed to encourage wildflower and natural habitat for foraging by bees and other pollinators. There’s purple vetch and other low-growing ground covers in the peach orchard for the pollinators.”
Blue orchard bees, mason bees, bumblebees and other pollinators work throughout the season. “Bumblebees are slower and not as productive as some other bees, but they’ll work on windy, cool days,” said Ben. “They’re the workhorse and we’re always happy to see them. The diversity of crops and varieties within crops provide months of bloom for a variety of pollinators.”
Ben said his father was fiscally responsible when he was operating the farm, which meant no debt when Ben returned. “We own all our own land,” he said. “The farm was thriving and that made it so much easier for me to come back and transition.”
Visit Clarkdale Fruit Farms at clarkdalefruitfarms.com.
by Sally Colby