Growing Magazine - January, 2013
Serving the Public
Carter Mountain Orchard finds success with commercial sales and agritourism
Carter Mountain Orchard serves the public. This family-operated orchard in Albemarle County, Va., has offered its products domestically since the early 1970s and internationally since the 1980s. The land was purchased by the Chiles family in 1985, and has been an apple orchard since about 1912.
Customers pay for apples and other goodies in the country store at Carter Mountain Orchard.
Photos by Rocky Womack.
One of the mainstay crops at Carter Mountain Orchard is apples; customers can pick their own or buy them at the country store.
"We have several orchards around the county," says Cynthia Chiles, who manages Carter Mountain Orchard's retail operation. "We're first and foremost a commercial operation, so we have a packinghouse with a packing line and cold storage. We do a lot of exporting of our fruit, as well as shipping all over the country, so most of our fruit is grown for commercial purposes for wholesale. We are growers, packers, shippers - we run our own trucks."
In 2012, Carter Mountain Orchard became a Century Farm, and the Chileses intend for it to remain a family operation for another 100 years. Three generations are currently involved with the orchard: Chiles' parents, Henry and Ruth Chiles; her sister, Sarah Chiles; her brother, Huff Chiles, and his wife, Judy, and their children, Elizabeth, Allyson and Henry.
The family also offers a pick-your-own orchard that consists of apples, peaches (added in the 1990s), pumpkins and wine grapes. They also grow sweet cherries and strawberries, which are offered at the on-farm retail store.
The Chiles family farms a few hundred acres, and their mainstay crops are apples and peaches.
Carter Mountain Orchard's mountaintop location provides visitors with a view they can't get just anywhere. Being adjacent to the grounds of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello brings in visitors, as does being near historic Michie Tavern.
"We feel like the apples grown up here on the mountain have a really good flavor to them," Chiles says. "We think that makes them a little bit different too."
Some of the 15 apple varieties grown at Carter Mountain include Gala, Albemarle Pippin, Ginger Gold, Golden and Red Delicious, Fuji, Stayman/Winesap, York, Mutsu, Pink Lady, Jonagold, Jonathan, Lodi, Rome, Granny Smith and Virginia Gold.
They also grow white and yellow-fleshed peaches, doughnut peaches, and white and yellow-fleshed nectarines.
Huff is in charge of production, and he employs workers to prune, thin, pick and pack the fruit.
A lot of the fruit is sold commercially to local grocery stores and grocery store chains. Some fruit also goes to the military. The rest is shipped overseas to Central America, Europe and the Middle East.
The pick-your-own operation has grown over the years to include agritourism. For about 35 years, customers have come from Charlottesville, Richmond, Hampton, northern Virginia and surrounding areas.
"This is a real treat for them, to see their food being grown and to actually pick [it] themselves if they want to," Chiles says. "The fact that we can offer that experience to people is probably one of the things I love the most about it. We love seeing the families that come back to see us every year and tell us that their parents were bringing them here when they were kids, and now they're bringing their own families here. We've been part of people's tradition, memories and Christmas card photos."
The retail operation represents about 25 percent of sales and is a growing sector of the business, Chiles says. The typical customer is a young family. "We often see multigenerational families come in here," she says. "They bring their grandparents. They bring their dogs. They bring their children. They want to expose their children to an educational and fun activity that they can do together that doesn't involve computers and video games and that type of technology. They just want to get unplugged for a few hours and do something that they can't do at home."
Chiles adds, "We're also seeing our customer base ... I don't want to say shift, but we're seeing more empty nesters, more folks whose kids have moved on. They're out now doing fun things."
Seasonal and full-time employees tend the orchards and operate Aunt Sarah's Bakery (added in 1995) and Grandma's Country Store. Each year, the orchard welcomes 8,000 to 10,000 schoolchildren during field trips. Weddings and other private events are also held at the orchard.
Cynthia Chiles of Carter Mountain Orchard says her family wants to sell apples commercially and also provide an agritourism experience for visitors to the orchard.
Besides the pick-your-own experience, visitors can enjoy homemade apple, peach and pumpkin cider doughnuts; fresh apple and peach cider; apple pies; apple caramel cookies and other pastries; and hand-dipped ice cream. Part of the bakery, the Mountain Grill offers hot dogs, burgers, barbecue, fries, salads and more to orchard visitors. "We built a commercial kitchen a few years ago to try to satisfy the people that are here and wanted to eat lunch while they're here," Chiles explains.
She says Carter Mountain Orchard does not produce the cider or apple butter. The family sends the fruit out to be processed.
Grapes have been grown on the property for about 15 years. In the last few years, a wine tasting room and wine shop were added, and wine tastings are now held at the orchard. Carter Mountain Orchard has partnered with Prince Michel Vineyard & Winery in Madison County, Va., with Prince Michel producing wine from Carter Mountain grapes. Besides its own wines, Prince Michel produces four wines under the Carter Mountain Orchard label: chardonnay, cabernet franc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon.
They continually work on improving the experience for visitors.
A few years ago, the Chiles family installed a computerized point-of-sale cash register system, which assisted with reporting and tracking inventory, and helped manage the staff's time better. They also started accepting credit cards and took group reservations online. In addition, they incorporated social media into the advertising package.
"Those things attract our customers to us," Chiles says, "but once they're here they want to enjoy a farm experience ... so we are trying to stay up with the times without compromising the farm and who we are."
Pumpkins are a curious attraction for babies at Carter Mountain Orchard.
They have added on to the barn several times, expanding the retail area as well as storage space. About five years ago, a commercial kitchen and the wine tasting operation were added.
Cynthia Chiles says her family-owned orchard offers 15 varieties of apples, including Fuji.
The school field trip program was revamped about seven years ago to line up with the state's standards of learning. "Our teachers were telling us that they needed to be able to justify the field trip to their administration, so we wanted to be a part of that," Chiles says. "Some of it is in response to customer demand; some of it is just capital improvements, or things we see that we needed to do in order to accommodate the growing numbers that we're seeing each year."
For example, actual restrooms were installed about 15 years ago in response to customer demand. Previously, they relied on portable toilets.
All those improvements are done to attract more customers and provide them with the best experience possible - and increase profits. "I would say the best way we can increase our profits is to just increase our volume of customers, and in order to increase our volume of customers, we have to make these other improvements that allow us to do that and give them the experience they came here for," Chiles says. "I would say that increasing profits is almost impossible without increasing volume."
Carter Mountain Orchard continues to grow. Chiles would like to host more private events, such as weddings and corporate activities, at the orchard. "In this area, that is a hot commodity," she says.
If she could do it over again, would she do anything differently? Chiles responds: "I'm sure there are little things, but the feedback from our customers says we're doing something good here. We're constantly trying to improve, tweak and serve our customers, give them what they're looking for without becoming too commercial or becoming an amusement park, which I think can happen sometimes. We're trying not to cross that line."
Carter Mountain Orchard is open from mid-April to early December. For more information, visit www.cartermountainorchard.com or call 434-977-1833.
Rocky Womack has written about agriculture and business for more than 25 years and currently serves as a contributing writer and correspondent for agriculture and business magazines, domestically and internationally.