Preserving a choice variety

Photos by Jack Petree.
Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, at nearly 3,000 feet, Cover’s Apple Ranch is a historicorchard focusing on agritourism to survive the vagaries of change.

Perched in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains at nearly 3,000 feet, Cover’s Apple Ranch successfully grows and markets apples and pears where scores of other regional orchards have succumbed to development and other pressures. As an innovative agritourism enterprise, the ranch may be best known for its “mile-high apple pie,” but the apple orchard’s ability to continue a profitable business in a challenging location is perhaps its most notable feature.

Jesse Cover, general manager of the ranch, says agritourism is not only a way to address the need to provide profitability for the Cover family orchard, it also allows visitors, some of whom may never have set foot on a farm, to learn about the importance of agriculture.

California’s Tuolumne County, where Cover’s Apple Ranch is located, boasted as many as 40 commercial orchards in the early 1900s. Due to changing circumstances, less than a handful remain. Jesse Cover, general manager, explains that the region’s orchards have followed the availability of water for irrigation. “In the early 1900s, irrigation was first available here because of the gold mines, so this is where the orchards were first established. When water also became available in California’s more temperate Central Valley, farmers preferred the lower elevations because of the decreased frost danger and the rock-free soil found in the valley. Consequently, most orchards here have now been parceled up for development.”

The 89-acre ranch has changed ownership a number of times and, in fact, was previously owned by Cover’s uncle in the 1960s. Each change in ownership brought changes in the management and marketing of the produce harvested from the 26 acres of orchard, including development of retail and tourism- related facilities and associated marketing practices. When Cover’s Apple Ranch went up for sale in 1998, Cover and his extended family took steps to acquire and preserve it with the belief that, despite the challenges of the location, the ranch and orchard could be a profitable business.

Carving a slice out of the pie and inviting the public

When the Cover family, including Jesse’s five brothers, their father Joe, Jesse and all their wives, purchased Cover’s Apple Ranch, they knew they could not compete with wholesale producers in the valley, who enjoy a longer growing season, closer proximity to markets and easier access to transportation corridors. They agreed to build upon the agritourism and direct marketing strategies implemented by the orchard’s previous owners. Instead of bringing apples to the people, the Covers had to bring people to their apples.

A small train, a farm animal petting zoo and other enhancements ensure the young enjoy Cover’s as much as their parents do, enhancing the likelihood of multiple visits.

Although 6 miles out of the way for most travelers (the ranch is near one of the major routes to Yosemite National Park), Cover’s Apple Ranch has developed products and attractions to make a visit worthwhile. Not typical of most orchards, it features a bakery, deli, a half-mile train ride, a tree house-style playground, and a century-old barn with animals where visitors can mingle. Picnic tables are available for those wanting to enjoy an outdoor lunch. The good food and wholesome family fun attract customers, who also purchase the fruit harvested at the ranch.

Cover estimates, “About one-third of our harvest is sold in the form [of] baked goods, and the balance is sold directly as either fresh fruit or cider to the estimated 35,000 guests the ranch hosts each year. Each year visitors to the ranch consume as many as 7,500 bushels of apples and 375 bushels of pears from the orchard.” To further increase the variety of offerings, fruits and berries are purchased from other growers. The ranch also grows much of the corn, tomatoes and other vegetables consumed in the restaurant on its own 1.5-acre garden.

Cover says that about a third of their business comes from local residents. It is common for the bakery to sell 2,500 pies around Thanksgiving, and Cover estimates they sell 500 of the famous “mile-high apple pies” per year, each one filled with 12 cups of fresh apples.

Public education

Apart from striving to be a fiscally profitable operation, Cover’s Apple Ranch plays an important role in providing education about farming operations. Cover asserts, “Many people have little understanding about what is involved in growing apples or any other agricultural products. At the ranch, people enjoy the fruit of our labors and by learning about our labors gain an appreciation for what it takes to grow food.”

Each year, hundreds of elementary school students visit Cover’s Apple Ranch on field trips, some traveling over two hours from as far away as the coast near San Francisco. Guided educational tours are provided through the orchard, bakery and other facilities. Children also ride the train, feed the animals in the barnyard and enjoy a fresh-baked cookie before returning home with an enhanced understanding of what it takes to get apples to the grocery store.

Valued trees and a unique crop

Most of the trees at Cover’s orchard were planted during an orchard boom in the 1920s. Since purchasing the orchard, efforts have been made to revitalize trees that weren’t in top health. Nine varieties of apples ripen in stages and are harvested from late July to November. Sequential harvesting and the ranch’s 12,800-cubic-foot cold storage is an important part of the operation. By the time each wave of produce is ripe for harvest, cold storage space is available because the prior crop has been converted to baked goods or sold as fresh fruit or cider.

Although the trees are old, Cover says they continue to produce premium fruit. Cover’s grows a diverse selection of apple varieties not readily available elsewhere, including Paragon, Stamen Winesap, Arkansas Black and Early Blaze. In addition, the orchard produces Red Delicious and Golden Delicious. Cover notes, “Other people want more common varieties, so we purchase some from the valley growers to have on hand for these folks.” As older trees die, new trees are planted to maintain production levels.

Logs that might otherwise go wasted, milled on a Wood-Mizer thin-kerf sawmill that can be run by one person, yielded lumber for building the ranch’s cooling shed and other facilities, meaning a reduction in atmospheric carbon is released as well as significant savings, allowing for enhanced profit.

Cover says that increasing amounts of people want produce directly from the grower. This has been helpful to businesses like his, as people enjoy seeing where their fruit is grown. Buying produce direct gives customers a sense of connection to the process. Although Cover’s Apple Ranch seeks to produce their fruit as “organically” as possible, Cover says, “Severe insect damage ruins the crop if no pesticide is used. Consequently, we use products that are as mild as possible while still being effective.”

Rebuild or be ruined

Just two years after purchasing the ranch, the Cover family’s resolve and commitment to the venture was tested when fire destroyed most of the commercial buildings. The relatively small, 26-acre orchard was not big enough to draw significant interest from big wholesale brokerages and the relatively short growing season ensured that there would be some years when crop failure due to frost was almost a certainty. The only way Cover’s Ranch could remain operational as an orchard, and keep it from being divided up for development, was to rebuild the infrastructure needed to maintain and grow the operation. Although rebuilding would be costly, elements were in place that made rebuilding a possibility.

For decades prior to purchasing the Cover’s Ranch, Joe and his six sons made their living offering specialty tree and logging services, and many family members still do. When the need arose to rebuild the commercial buildings destroyed by the fire, cull logs from the tree service business were available and Cover used his portable Wood-Mizer thin-kerf band sawmill to manufacture the needed lumber. He says, “Reconstruction was accomplished at a fraction of the cost because I could saw high-quality lumber from logs that would otherwise have been wasted or used for firewood.”

Agritourism: a choice with a future

Today, the decision to rebuild is reaping benefits and Cover’s Apple Ranch stands as a tribute to the family’s determination and dedication to keep the orchard in production. Using agritourism as a means to profitably market their produce directly to consumers, the Covers have kept one more family farm in existence. Cover says the future looks bright for the Apple Ranch. He suggests that Cover’s Apple Ranch may provide a model for other family farms to follow, allowing them to avoid loss to development.

The author is a freelance contributor based in Washington state.