Best’s Fruit Farm thrives in changing times

Bob Best Jr. heading back from the orchard with peaches.
Photos courtesy of Kim Best.

Forty-eight acres, consisting of gently sloping, north-facing hillsides, are home to Best’s Fruit Farm, a third-generation orchard. Today, Bob Best Sr., his wife Ruth and adult children, Kim and Bob Jr., keep the farm running.

Established in 1942, the orchard has stood the test of time, changing its marketing, embracing new techniques and varieties and adapting to the myriad of changes in New Jersey’s fruit industry. They have survived to mourn the loss of the once-cohesive farming community and to lament the decline of many other local farms.

“I’d hate to be the end of the line,” Best Jr. says, but he concedes that the fourth generation of Bests have little interest in farming, and the fifth generation is still in the toddler stage.

“The cost of trying to start a farm is prohibitive,” Best Jr. says. He holds out hope that a young farming couple will eventually show interest in the farm and can work out a purchasing plan to keep the orchard running.

Growing apples and making cider

Thirty varieties of apple trees, from heirlooms to new releases, produce approximately 14,000 bushels of fruit each season. There are 30 acres planted in apples, about 4,000 trees. Unlike other nearby orchards, which cater to the pick-your-own crowd or don’t store apples, every apple at Best’s Fruit Farm is picked and put to use. If it can’t be sold fresh, it is stored for winter sale. If it is bruised or too small, oddly shaped or has cosmetic damage, it can be processed. There is no excess or wasted fruit.

The on-site cider mill uses ultraviolet pasteurization and produces approximately 40,000 gallons of cider each year. The family makes cider most of the year, beginning in early September until early summer. They have to pasteurize the cider to sell it wholesale in New Jersey, where unpasteurized cider can only be sold directly from the farm, and in limited quantities.

Cider is a value-added product, and losing cider markets would ultimately be more detrimental than spending the money for the needed equipment, Best Jr. says. Each year, it seems there is more paperwork and more regulations and required upgrades.

Apple orchard management

The Bests practice integrated pest management (IPM) under the guidance of Rutgers Cooperative Extension, but do most of the scouting themselves. When needed, the trees get sprayed with fungicides and pesticides. Timing of sprays is important. Chemical thinning of the trees is also performed.

Bob Best Sr. with newly planted trees.

Most of Best’s apple trees are the semi-dwarf variety, but they are continually replanting. More fully dwarfed trees are being favored for a higher yield per acre. As older trees become less productive, they are cut down and the ground is replanted. About 5 acres of apple trees are usually in the process of being replanted at any given time. Most of the trees are planted in rows with 20-foot centers, and 10 to 15 feet between trees. Sod is grown between the rows, while herbicide strips are used in the rows, under the trees.

“We rotate for effectiveness,” Best Jr. says of the herbicides, and they have not had any problems with resistance. They pay attention to the emergent weeds and to applying chemicals appropriately.

“Our ground is so fertile,” Best Jr. says. They rarely add any nitrogen, and always test the soil before any fertilizer applications. During the first three years, newly planted apple trees might need a bit of phosphorus or potassium, but that is it.

Best Jr. is proud of the farm’s pruning technique. Their detailed pruning routine has been tweaked over the years to produce strong branches, bearing healthy fruits in high volume. They do the pruning themselves, devoting a lot of time and energy to this aspect of the orchard.

“Improper pruning affects crops. It’s a very difficult job. I can’t hire a crew to prune these trees properly,” Best Jr. explains.

With the exception of 7 acres of trees, the apples are not irrigated. In the past 10 years, they have never used the trickle irrigation system.

Peaches

The peaches are irrigated with moveable, 3-inch aluminum piping. They need extra watering at times, especially just before picking. Eight hundred peach trees are planted in rows with 20-foot centers. They harrow between the rows and use herbicide strips under the trees. The peach orchard consists of 8 acres on the highest, relatively flat ground. There has never been an issue with spring frosts, Best Jr. says, as the high-ground planting helps reduce that probability.

Best Jr. exclusively picks the peaches. While there are extra hands, primarily friends and relatives, during the fall apple-picking season, no one else harvests the peaches.

“I can pick peaches four times faster than anyone else,” Best Jr. says. “Twelve months of my work is ruined” if the fruit is improperly handled.

Peaches are picked two days shy of soft-ripe, which helps to get perfect peaches—not overripe or hard, and not bruised from picking. Eighty percent of the peaches from Best’s Fruit Farm are sold retail, with the other 20 percent going wholesale to local farmstands.

Both freestone and clingstone, yellow and white peaches are grown. There are a few acres of nectarines, consisting of about 50 trees, but they are only a small proportion of the orchard’s bounty.

Bob Best Jr. with his granddaughters.

“Peaches are a short season, and you really can’t get peaches from anywhere else that approximate what we have,” Best Jr. says. “No one variety is our best seller, per se, but we have gone to almost all Flamin’ Fury series peaches because they are consistent throughout the season.”

“They are high color, great flavor, low fuzz, as far as the retail end,” Kim says.

Marketing

The retail market is managed by Kim. Best Sr., despite health issues that limit his mobility, performs all of the orchard spraying as well as the pruning of the peach trees. He helps make the cider, and the knowledge he has of the orchard is invaluable and extensive.

From 1988 to 2008, the Bests ran a larger farm market complete with milk and dairy products, off-season and tropical fruit and specialty products. They had a commercial kitchen, where Kim and Ruth made pies. They have now moved retail sales back to the original on-farm store, which also originally housed the grading and storage facilities. This move was a result of the loss in equity value of their land when New Jersey implemented the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act in 2004.

The current stand sells their products, which include sweet corn and tomatoes, along with a selection of eggplant, peppers and other vegetables they grow in small amounts to satisfy the needs of their loyal customers. They feature other local produce and products, including eggs and jams from nearby farms, but also stock some nonlocal products to meet the demand for fresh produce in the winter.

“When we built the larger retail store, it was what people were looking for at the time, and it was the right thing to do,” Kim says. “Now customers have reverted back to the farm and they appreciate where their food is coming from.”

The family grows flowers to capture the attention of consumers outside of the summer and fall apple and peach seasons. Because the farmstand is open year-round, they have added 3 acres of Christmas trees on slopes too steep to drive the orchard equipment. This managed tree crop also helps with erosion prevention.

From wholesale to direct-market selling

Bob Sr. and Ruth run a seasonal booth at a local farmers’ market. They recently began participating in this type of direct marketing, having given it up years ago and focused on wholesale sales as brokers replaced actual growers in area farmers’ markets. This particular market attracted their attention because it is a growers-only market and vendors must farm within a 25-mile radius of the market.

The family primarily sold wholesale fruit, via a cooperative, directly to grocery stores for many years. Best Sr. says they used to put as many apples into storage as possible so they would have them available for market during the winter when the demand would generate a higher price.

Today, the 8,000-bushel-capacity cold storage unit is fully utilized, but it is more the result of higher yields and smaller-volume sales than anything else. The goal now is to “sell as much on the fresh market” as possible, Best Sr. says, because the wholesale markets for apples have dried up. With large growers and packers from New York, Pennsylvania and Washington supplying the major regional supermarket chains, the smaller growers from New Jersey have been pushed out of supermarket sales.

“The biggest problem for us with supermarkets is that they want a consistent amount of product,” Best Jr. says. “And we are just not big enough.”

The Bests have the capability to grade and pack for wholesale, although most of their wholesale sales today are made directly to other local farmers who do not grow tree fruits, but want to offer them at their farm stores. A local school food service provider purchases apples from September to April. About 50 bushels every few weeks are picked up by the company, which does its own distribution.

The buy local trend has caused some produce managers at nearby chain supermarkets to source a small percentage of local fruit outside of their main contracts, and the Bests have tried to tap this market. However, even this is limited by the requirements of the price lookup (PLU) codes, or bar codes for bagged product, which is cost-prohibitive for the small increase in the amount of product they could potentially wholesale.

Apples meant to be kept in storage after December are dipped in diphenylamine solution to prevent storage scald. Although they don’t have controlled atmosphere storage, the DPA dip, along with a working knowledge of which apples store best, prevents major losses.

The Bests do not wax their apples, which prevents them from using a central warehouse, as most require waxing.

The new and the old

Over the past few decades, other local farmers have begun using nonlocal apples from regional distributors at their farm stores. Best Sr. does not understand how farmers expect to survive if they no longer work together, especially since there are now so few compared to a generation ago.

There have been some new farmers who have purchased orchards from other area growers, but most have no training and a limited knowledge of fruit trees and farming. While the family is generous with its time and knowledge and wants to encourage new farmers, they do wish that people entering farming had a more realistic outlook on the demands.

“You can’t jump in or out of tree fruit production every seven years,” Best Jr. says.

It’s tough, but farming is in the family’s blood. Best’s Fruit Farm has survived change by adapting to the times, yet staying focused on doing what they do best.

“I’ve been doing this my whole life,” Best Jr. adds. “My father was here his whole life. We’ve been around for a while.”

The author is a new freelance contributor based in New Jersey.