When orchards sold fruit in the late 1800s, many of them took freshly picked fresh crops to city markets by horse and buggy. That’s what Steve Lewis’s great-grandfather did when he grew fruit on 12 acres and sold it in Hagerstown, MD.
While Lewis Orchard in Smithsburg, MD, is currently operated by fourth-generation farmer Steve Lewis and his wife Chris, the heaviest growth in the business occurred when Steve’s dad Nevin was farming 350 acres of owned and rented ground. Today, the Lewises farm about 200 acres with a focus on growing high-quality fruit. Their acreage is somewhat spread out, which Steve said is a benefit, especially when it comes to severe weather such as hail. This year included a severe hailstorm that resulted in damaged fruit.
“When my dad was in his prime, we had 125 acres of apples and 85 acres of peaches,” said Steve. “We sold a lot of fruit wholesale to grocery stores in Baltimore and D.C. Now we grow about 65 or 70 acres of apples and 12 acres of peaches.”
He added that when his dad was the primary orchardist, there was ample local help for pruning and picking. Today, the Lewises rely on H-2A labor for orchard work. Steve’s brother Kevin handles the H-2A paperwork, nutrient management, equipment repairs and trucking. Mom Shirley does the GAP paperwork and Chris manages the retail store, which is also staffed by local college students.
Crops include 24 varieties of apples that ripen over the season and 17 varieties of peaches, as well as pears, nectarines, plums, cherries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. They also grow an assortment of vegetables for fresh market sales.
The Lewises raise consumer favorite but notoriously difficult to grow Honeycrisp. “Honeycrisp are so different from one year to the next,” said Steve. “Last year we had one of the biggest and best Honeycrisp crops we’ve ever had; the year before it was riddled with bitter pit, spots and watercore, and they didn’t store well.”
He said keeping up with calcium applications helps manage some of the Honeycrisp challenges. This year he’ll pick a little less than half of last year’s crop.
Because some fruit should be consumed shortly after purchase, Steve aims to harvest fruit that will meet customers’ expectations. “We try to harvest fruit as tree-ripened as it can be,” he said. “But we also have to harvest it so it can be handled. We can’t wait until it’s ready to eat because it bruises. We also aren’t picking fruit to be shipped. The difference between fruit here and from a local grocer is we can let it hang on the tree longer and become more tree-ripened compared to fruit that’s shipped in.”
There’s a fine balance between picking fruit at peak readiness and what consumers are prepared to store at home. Picking pears is a matter of timing – Steve said he can’t wait until they’re all turning color on the tree or they’ll be overripe and not suitable for storage.
“When we first see some pears turn a little bit yellow, that’s when we harvest them,” said Steve. “Then when we get some pears out to ripen, we’ll drape canvas over them so the ethylene they put off will help them ripen.”
Because peaches don’t ripen evenly, each tree is picked six or seven times before the entire crop is harvested.
An important aspect of working with consumers on how to manage fresh fruit is teaching them how to store it. “Our goal is to have the best possible fruit for customers,” said Steve. “We can’t pick it too early because we want it to have optimum flavor, but we can’t wait too long or it’s overripe and doesn’t handle well.”
He added that he encourages customers to remove fruit from plastic bags, and if they want to store sensitive fruit for more than a week, it should come out of the bag and go into the refrigerator.
Like others who directly market fresh fruit, the Lewises often field customers’ questions about spraying. “If people ask about sprays, we’re honest about it,” said Steve. “We explain IPM and how we let the good insects help control pests. We have a scout who’s out in the orchard counting insects, and he puts pheromone traps out and advises me when populations are high.”
The 2023 growing season brought an unpleasant surprise the Lewises hadn’t seen for years – fire blight. “All of our blocks with susceptible varieties got it,” said Steve. “Fire blight needs temperatures over 60º, a wetting period and treatment has to go on within 24 hours of the infection period.” Steve and his crew have already gone through the orchard to severely prune damaged limbs to prevent further spread.
While fruit was originally sold at a nearby fruit stand operated by the family, the location became less than ideal. Steve’s parents sold the fruit stand property and used the money to construct a building for packing and storage with the intention of eliminating retail sales and only selling wholesale.
“After the stand was gone, people still wanted to purchase fruit from us,” said Steve, “so now we use the building for retail sales. People like driving past the orchard to get here. I miss some things about the old fruit stand, but it’s nice being back here away from traffic. It’s much more scenic, and people find us.”
In addition to the home market, they sell fresh fruit at a market in nearby Howard County, MD, where customers appreciate what the Lewises bring each week.
“One of the biggest things that has affected our business is the younger generations aren’t canning or freezing fruit,” said Steve. “That has affected the volume of produce we sell compared to about 25 years ago.”
However, as other growers have experienced, the Lewises saw outstanding sales during COVID. Steve said fresh fruit sales to younger customers peaked when businesses were closed because many who came to the farm had always wanted to try canning or freezing fruit and now had time to try it. The orchard has retained quite a few of those first-time customers.
When Steve and Chris took over the operation, they struggled to find help to start autumn harvest. “We had four pickers to start,” said Steve. “We usually have 14. A couple of weeks later we got help and got the crop off but made the decision to use H-2A labor. Everybody is a spoke in the wheel, and if you don’t have everyone, it won’t get done. Everything is labor-intensive, from retail to harvest.”
Visit Lewis Orchards online at lewisorchards.com.
by Sally Colby