by Sally Colby
What began as a home away from home for the dean of the Sargent School at Boston University grew into something the original owner would never have imagined, but his family knows he’d be proud of what they’ve done.
The Harvard, MA, property known as “Westward” was originally purchased by Ernst Hermann as a summer retreat. Ernst and his son Bill grew vegetables on the farm and sold them along with apples from trees already on the farm. Bill decided to devote his life to farming, and graduated from the Stockbridge School of Agriculture in 1929 with a degree in pomology. He returned to Westward, added “Orchards” to the name and leased and purchased additional acreage as he was able. At one point, the orchard included 350 acres.
Today, Chris Green and his sister Stephanie are the fourth generation on Westward Orchards. Although their parents Don and Karen are still active on the farm, Chris and Stephanie make day-to-day decisions. Chris’s wife Kerri said Bill opened a farm store in the early 1970s which allowed him to sell fruit directly to the public. “Bill was instrumental in building the farm into the kind of company it is today,” said Kerri, “with loyal customers who come for seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables.”
The 200-acre farm includes 125 acres in permanent ag preservation. Remaining true to the original fruit grown on the farm, apples are a predominant crop. Kerri said Bill had a trademark apple dubbed “Hermann Mac.” “That was a variety he grafted and grew,” she said. “A lot of acreage is in Hermann Mac. It’s known for color and flavor.”
Although some of the apple acreage is still in the original plantings, the family has added several high density plantings of Honeycrisp, a customer favorite, along with unique varieties including Arkansas Black, Jonaprince, Blondee and Red Jonathan.
“We also grow peaches, nectarines and a big assortment of plums,” said Kerri, adding that a lot of the fruit goes into CSA shares. “We have quince, cherries, apricots and strawberries, and a blueberry patch for pick-your-own and the market.”
Kerri said the original quince trees on the farm were established by Bill, and she has noticed more people interested in using quince. “They’re popular among high-end chefs,” she said. “It’s something unique, and goes with the trend of people being interested in food. We’ve had a decent harvest from the existing trees, and we’ve planted more. As they mature, we’ll have more to offer.”
Chris handles growing vegetables on 15 acres of the farm. Although there’s a new high tunnel on the farm erected through an NRCS program and plans to eventually start seeds himself, Chris currently relies on another experienced grower for that aspect of the crop year.
Sweet corn is popular among customers, although Chris has had to deal with deer damage. Succession plantings provide fresh corn for as long as possible, and Kerri said last year’s corn crop lasted well into September. Chris selects varieties for early, mid and late season sweet corn harvest.
In autumn, Westward Orchards features a PYO pumpkin patch, but like many other growers last year, an unusually high amount of rain resulted in low yields. “We didn’t have a great crop so we had to outsource,” said Kerri. “The situation was the same for a lot of others in the area.”
One of the most popular seasonal treats for customers is cider donuts. Kerri said people had been coming to the farm in autumn for PYO and asked if donuts were available. They weren’t at first, but the family listened to customers and now make donuts almost daily. “We have customers who have tried a lot of different donuts in the area and like ours the best,” said Kerri. “It’s a treat for everyone who comes to the farm store in fall.”
One of the orchard’s marketing tools is their CSA, and 2019 will be the eighth season. “When we first started in 2012, we had fewer than 50 members,” said Kerri. “It was very new for us, and the CSA boxes were fruit-heavy. We dabbled in vegetables and offered some variety in the beginning. It was about a 70/30 split.”
Kerri said many of Westward Orchards’ CSA members have been loyal from the beginning. “Some people wanted more vegetables, and they either moved on to other opportunities or shopped in the store rather than committing to a box,” she said. “We’ve seen ups and downs, asked for feedback and now we have vegetables.” Kerri said members are pleased with the variety, and last year there were 186 CSA members.
“We saw a big uptick in our member base in 2017, but we hadn’t set up our pickup schedule to allow for further growth,” said Kerri. “We packed everything on Tuesdays and had a broad pick-up time – members could come any time between Wednesday and Saturday morning.” A simple change helped the family provide the freshest fruits and vegetables as well as facilitate distribution. Members select a two-day pick-up window at sign-up, making it easier for Chris and his team to plan more efficient harvest, packing and pick-up.
Like other CSAs, selections are rotated according to yield. Kerri believes adding vegetables to the CSA shares has allowed them to remain viable. “I’m not sure if we would have remained in business if we hadn’t started growing vegetables,” she said. “We have a great return base as well as new members coming every year. We also have incredible feedback. We’re proud of the community for rallying behind us so we can remain viable.”
Instead of, or in addition to the CSA box share, members can select Westward Orchards’ freedom share. Kerri explained this variation as a card that members purchase and use in the store. “Our box share members who want to supplement their box also get a discount,” she said. “We have options because not everyone can handle a box – maybe they’re single and still want to source their produce locally and support small business.” Another option that works well for some families is a 10-week fruit-only option which has been a great addition for those who appreciate a unique selection of fresh fruit throughout the season.
Farm-to-table events are an integral and growing aspect of the farm. “In 2017, we invited a chef to come in and oversee everything,” said Kerri. “In 2018, we wanted to take more of that on as our own and host it ourselves. We partnered with a chef and held a cocktail party gathering and two dinners. The majority of what was served was grown on the farm or sourced from other local farms. We want to support other agriculture.”
Visit Westward Orchards at www.westwardorchards.com.