An outing to the Apple Shed in Newark, NY, has become an autumn tradition for many families. Whether it’s to buy apples or other goodies from the market, ride the wagon into the orchard to pick fruit or let the little ones enjoy the play area, the agritourism side of Maple Ridge Fruit Farm has become popular. This year marks the Apple Shed’s 50th anniversary.

Gary and Barb Wells, both 77, established the Apple Shed on the site of her ancestral operation, Maple Ridge Fruit Farm, the 100-acre farm that has been in her family since 1907. New York State Sen. Pamela Hemling recently awarded the farm with a plaque to honor its market’s longevity.

In commemoration of its 50th anniversary, local artist Mark DeCracker painted a mural on the site that depicts the Apple Shed’s history.

Gary thinks the secret to their success lies not only in providing good quality apples, but also tuning the business to what customers want.

Originally, “it was a tiny building,” Gary recalled. “I put in a cooler and a cider mill. I also bought a doughnut machine. I didn’t have two pennies to rub together, and I paid $1,300 for the mixer and doughnut machine.”

After installing the 24-inch cider press, he received a few tips. “An old timer who had a large one walked in and said ‘Hey, young feller. What are you going to do with this little thing?’” Gary recalled. “I said ‘I’m hoping to make cider.’ He gave me a couple tips and off he went.”

Apparently, the advice – and Gary’s experiential learning – has panned out. They wholesale a lot of their cider to area farms, some of which operate much larger agritourism sites than his own.

“I’ve considered a bigger press, but it is seasonal, and at my age, I’m not going to do it,” he said. They still use their original doughnut machine too.

The Wellses have built six additions to the original structure to include a market of goods from both their and neighboring farms, housewares and gifts and a lunch counter with sandwiches, fudge, pies, cider slushies and cookies. The market also sells pre-picked pumpkins grown on the farm and U-pick apples.

Each autumn, Barb directs and participates in baking about 1,000 pies to sell at the market, in addition to cookies and doughnuts.

About seven years ago, the Apple Shed added Old Goat Cidery to sell hard cider bottled and on tap at a bar set up in the market.

The Apple Shed presses cider for its own market and for private label customers. Photo courtesy of the Apple Shed

This year, they added a window-lined addition to the back of the market that overlooks the children’s play area. Gary said their picnic seating was fine when the weather held, but rainy days meant little comfortable seating available for people buying lunch from the market.

Providing mostly free activities has helped draw families back each year. Except for wagon rides and the apple cannon, the children’s playground, farm animal petting zoo, the tumbling culvert and a shelled corn pool are all free. Fresh doughnuts and wagon rides are available only on weekends.

In past years, the Apple Shed has operated a haunted hayride; however, Gary said it’s hard to get help to staff it. Appearances by a costumed Bigfoot character suffices.

The farm resumed school tours this year, as “it’s very important to educate the young kids about ag,” Gary said.

They hire about 20 high school students per year for the busy autumn season. “It’s their first job and they learn responsibility,” he said. “We put them through quite a regimen. They learn about apples and learn to make change.”

One of the shifts he’s noticed in the business is that consumers’ reasons for buying apples have changed, along with the quantities they buy. Years ago, most families would purchase by the bushel. Most shoppers today buy half pecks because they purchase apples for fresh eating and not for sauce or canning.

“We used to have 10 acres of sweet cherries,” Gary recalled. “We would move 80 to 90 baskets a day because people canned. We took them all out. Now you’d sell a quarter of those. It’s the same with the peaches.”

He has a few people who order by the bushel, including Plain sect customers who still “put up” produce.

“The reason you get into agritainment is because you lost the volume revenue,” Gary said. “You need a reason for them to come.”

Instead of buying two bushels of apples, customers might purchase half a peck of apples and a round of doughnuts and cider slushies for the children before taking a wagon ride. It’s more about spending time together than purchasing all the apples they’ll want for the year.

“My goal is to sell what I grow,” Gary said, “but they do a beautiful job in the farm market.”

Operating a farm market has always appealed to Gary, as his family farm included a market. He met Barb at Alfred State College. He eventually graduated from North Carolina State. At that point, he felt expected to return to his family dairy and orchard in Castile, NY; however, he already had a brother in the family business. Gary joined Barb’s family orchard in 1970 and the couple officially took it over in 1973 when they started the market together.

“When I came here, the fruit trees were full sized,” Gary said. “Then I converted them to three-quarters and then to smaller. I started planting half-size breeds. Now I’m converting to trellis wire.”

Smaller trees take up a smaller footprint and improve the ease of picking. But Gary left two rows of the standard trees “to remind us what they look like,” he said.

Initially, they raised 60 head of Holstein beef and field crops. He liked keeping the farm diverse with fruit and beef for greater financial security. But by the late 1990s, he phased out of beef as prices dropped. In addition to apples, the farm now raises peaches, pumpkins, squash and three high tunnels of tomatoes.

“The diversity seems to be the farm market,” Gary said. “If one thing fails, the other brings up.”

The apple harvest has been tough, as frost affected the SnapDragon, Honeycrisp and Cortland varieties. “We’re fortunate to have enough fruit to cover the stand,” he said.

He thinks the frost affected about 40% of the fruit, causing unattractive scarring that does not impact its quality. People want to buy only attractive apples. Low prices for juice – about six cents per hundredweight – deters him from salvaging the fruit for that market.

“We’re leaving a lot on the trees,” he said.

Still, on the busy, brisk weekends when the wagons roll and the aroma of fresh doughnuts fills the air, it’s clear that the Apple Shed is doing alright.

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant