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Windy Ridge Orchard... a place of family memories and apples

Windy Ridge Farm sells more than apples. Samuel Langdon, of Haverhill, hauls a large pumpkin. Langdon, a student at New Hampshire Institute of Technology studying law enforcement, is in his second season working at Windy Ridge Farm. Jeff Woodburn. (click for larger version)
September 23, 2009
HAVERHILL–While agriculture in New Hampshire is struggling with parts of the state being deemed a disaster area by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, some farms–like Windy Ridge Orchard in Haverhill, are booming–both in the quality of their apples and the volume of customers coming to pick fruit and enjoy a host of other farm-related activities.

The 42-year-old orchard started by Richard and Ann Fabrizio has become a popular destination for the wholesome family fun that ranges from feeding a collection of farm animals, traversing the nature trail and picking blueberries in the summer, apples in the fall and cutting Christmas trees in the winter.

Last Saturday afternoon, the field in front of Windy Ridge Orchard was packed with cars, so much so that a parking attendant was necessary to direct vehicles to the last remaining tucked away spots. Richard Fabrizio said they don't have a foolproof way of knowing exactly how many people come on a daily basis. Many come to pick apples and purchase bags varying in size, while others come to eat at the Cider House Cafe, purchase apples, oversized pumpkins or browse in the large gift shop. Still, others may come just to enjoy the view of the Connecticut River Valley and distant Green Mountains, and the sight of children playing at the playground. Each Wednesday morning, area children also benefit from a free story hour under a large tent.

The orchard sits on pleasant old dairy pasture. Thirty of their 160 acres are in cultivation. The Fabrizios have 3,500 apple trees that produce 18 varieties of apples. Most of them appear to be semi-dwarf trees, which are no taller than eight feet tall, making picking easy for all ages. The most popular variety is the MacIntosh, but Richard likes the Cortland the best. Several customers were raving about the sweet flavored Honey Crisp. They press unpasteurized cider and provide breakfast and lunch at the Cider House Café. One of the most prized items is the cider doughnuts. The farm also has 10,000 Christmas trees.

"It is a hobby that got out of control," explained Ann. It started very simply with the Fabrizios planting a few trees in 1967, and then a couple of years later selling apples on the front lawn of their old farm house, which originally was a dairy farm dating back to the 1800s. The operation started from an honor system based in the family's garage and then they moved across the road in 1983 with the construction of the cider building and a small shop, which was open during the fall harvest season.

Back then, their limited supply of apples and pressed cider was sold through a few area stores. During these years, the orchard was second job for both Richard, who worked for the UNH Cooperative Extension running the 4H program, and, Ann, a teacher at the Bath Village School. The orchard kept their five children busy as well. The mid 1990s saw the current Windy Ridge Orchard take shape with the expansion of trees and buildings–including the construction of a new café that is run by the Fabrizio's daughter, Sheila. Richard and Ann retired respectively in 1995 and 1998.

The Fabrizios have developed a strong destination farm, which aims to create idyllic family experiences. In many ways, it is these experiences, more than apples, which they sell. Richard admitted that even during years when the harvest is off, people still come to enjoy the experience. The key to success in agriculture today, he said, is having a "pulse on the pricing." What he means by that is to be able to control the pricing by selling directly to consumers.

"Agriculture officials used to preach specialize and get big (and sell to big outfits)," he said, "It is the reverse now." That old model, he said, doesn't work anymore because wholesalers, not farmers, control the price. New Hampshire has seen a steady increase in farmer's market, farm stands and pick-your-own orchards, and with that the state has become a leader in direct farm sales to consumers.

Forty percent of Windy Ridge's apple sales are directly to customers. The other 60 percent come from local retail sales in stores, including Macs Market in Franconia and Whitefield, the Littleton Coop, Porfido's Market, P & C in Lincoln and Aldrich Store in Haverhill.

Windy Ridge also benefits from being far from major competitors. The vast majority of the apple orchards and acres of production are located in heavily populated and most southern Rockingham and Hillsboro counties.

It is has been said that growing apples is similar to gambling because there are so many variables–including weather, pests, and disease, not to mention market conditions. There is also the cyclical "high and light" nature of the season, where a good season is typically followed by a poorer one.

"Some of this can be evened out," Richard said, "by good pruning and care." This year's crop is among the best the Fabrizios have seen. It seems that the down economy hasn't hurt the apple market, Ann has noticed that "seconds," which are smaller, cheaper apples that are perfect for making pies and canning, "are selling well." But most people, she says, come because they "want the experience." For many families, she added, coming to Windy Ridge has become a "family tradition."

Martin Lord & Osman
Varney Smith
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