Doing it right at Barnard’s Orchards and Greenhouses

Today, all Lewis Barnard has to offer a few late weekday stragglers at Barnard’s Orchards and Greenhouses in Kennett Square, Pa., is blueberries. Past an 80-foot-tall white pine tree that his great-grandfather Milton planted in the 1860s, the blueberries are carefully packaged and sitting on a table, self-serve style, though each patron still wants to chat with Lewis, if they can find him.

Uncle Sam, age 94, works the greenhouses every day.

Barnard’s, a long-established 74-acre growing entity in Chester County, is largely a one-man operation. Since Lewis’ father, Richard, passed away at 94 in 2009, there’s just himself and a 94-year-old uncle, Sam, who continues to work every day in the greenhouses. One greenhouse that dates to 1907 measures 40 feet wide by 160 feet long and is constructed of a cypress frame with some of the original glass panels remaining. There’s also one full-time employee, along with several part-time schoolkids and local ladies who lend a hand as needed.

Primarily, and traditionally, an orchard, fall is Barnard’s peak season, and a time for pick-your-own apples and pumpkins. They’ve tried pick-your-own peaches, too, but Lewis, a fourth-generation producer, says there just isn’t enough management to help folks select the best peaches, “so we pick them and sell them,” he says. Barnard’s apples and peaches are sold wholesale and retail at its farmstand.

The Barnard family established a 40-acre farm here in 1862, adding to it in 1955 when Richard and Samuel (Milton’s grandsons) purchased the additional acreage. Their father, Percy Barnard, turned the former dairy farm into orchards in the early 1900s.

Today, the family business still isn’t as commercial as other orchards and much more low-key, though Lewis, the current owner-manager, recognizes the need to ramp it up a bit to keep pace. However, its land and crops have been well-maintained for over 250 years and have always been a perfect fit within the pristine nature of Newlin (once Newland) Township.

As a kid, Lewis remembers how the “drops” were gathered to make applesauce or apple butter. Today, the excess goes to two facilities to make apple cider – Kauffman’s in Bird in Hand, Lancaster County, and Weaver’s Orchard in Morgantown, Pa. – producing about 5,000 gallons a year.

“All the focus has changed,” he says. “There aren’t the same needs, or perceived needs.” People like to pick their own off the tree, and he admits the latest focus is retail. “There’s been a complete flip,” Lewis says.

An orchard diversifies

For decades, Barnard’s only grew apples and peaches. Some of its Jonathan apple trees are 55 years old and still producing. However, Lewis has gradually made his acreage much more diversified, all with small enough plots that he can keep his farmstand stocked without overproducing so much that he can’t sell out.

Barnard’s Orchards and Greenhouses’ earliest summer eating apple, Ginger Gold.

At Barnard’s, there’s also 8 acres of sweet corn, and the family grows tomatoes in the greenhouses. Lewis has also planted fingerling potatoes, acorn squash, cantaloupe, green onions and lima beans (if the stinkbugs will allow it). He grew cherries, but says, “They came and went; the birds liked them better than we did.” There are cut flowers, too, like snapdragons and freesia, which are grown in the greenhouses during the winter, and zinnia production outside during the summer months.

Lewis says the summer crop of customers is entirely different from the rest of the year, and he’s still trying to answer the question whether he can be diversified or not. Still, he continues to assert that he doesn’t have all the answers.

“I have vegetables, but I wouldn’t call myself a vegetable grower,” he says. “With the orchards and fruit, I just pretend.”

The mainstay crops

Barnard’s grows 20 to 30 varieties of apples because of the retail demand. The Stayman (reddish green) was always popular because of its tender, juicy flavor, but Fuji has far surpassed it in popularity. Red Delicious isn’t as popular as it once was.

“Everything’s changed,” Lewis says. “It used to be that it couldn’t be considered an apple unless it was red, but now red is almost the color no one wants. Red Delicious still has its place, but there are some good Red Delicious being grown and some not-so-good Red Delicious. The new focus is on the inside, the flavor, and not just whether it’s red.”

Deer fence is used extensively to protect the orchards and crops from damage.

He’s been creative even with apple varieties, trying Honeycrisp, though it’s a challenge to grow, to get into crop every year, and to maintain its quality, but it sells well, and in an ever-more-popular retail market, Lewis needs to meet demand with supply.

Barnard’s is primarily an orchard, but he says he “fills in” with other produce, though he’s not sure he can afford to keep the greenhouses growing all winter with the price of fuel, while still keeping prices fair and having all the produce people ask for. “If they ask, I’ll see if we can try it,” Lewis says. “It’s fun trying new things.”

There are 20 bearing acres of apples, 3 acres of peaches, a half-acre of pears, three-tenths of an acre of blueberries (netted to keep the birds out), blackberries, raspberries and pumpkins.

The deer problem

Without a doubt, Barnard’s biggest challenge is deer management. Never a problem in previous generations, when raccoons, groundhogs and skunks were the mammals of concern, Lewis now has to contend with the issue. “Back then, there wasn’t the population,” he says. “We’ve squeezed [the deer] onto the land that’s left [which includes a nearby 1,000-acre county park].”

This past year, Barnard’s got serious and invested in 3,900 feet of 7-foot-high tensile hot-wire fencing as a deterrent, and still Lewis says his system isn’t deer-proof.

“I’ve seen them jump it [mostly to get from the inside out], and we’re not all enclosed, so they travel the pattern, a crescent shape, and find the end,” he says. “But we spent a lot of money on it, money I would have liked to spend on something else. For example, it’s put us behind in replacement plantings [in the orchard], and for the new trees we have put in, they’ve been totally browsed. What the deer haven’t battered, the stinkbugs have, and so we’re seeing the injury from that.”

In other sections, he still has a single strand of hot wire with peanut butter-baited tins along the line because that was what was in the budget at the time. However, that system works better for smaller sections of growing plots.

Lewis says, “The browse line is clear as day. They’ve stripped our Pink Ladies, and they love Ginger Gold, yet they won’t touch the McIntosh. We’ve changed where we can, but the deer are affecting how we can change. We can grow, but I don’t have the time to police it all.”

He’s only ever left the family orchard for his years studying horticulture at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa. Now, a second cousin helps him, but since Lewis never married and has no children, he says he doesn’t know what will happen after him, but he’d rather not leave it all to the deer herds.

“I’d like to think someone in the family will do it, but if I don’t leave it in shape for the next generation and keep planting trees and having them produce and putting up more deer fencing, then will it be viable?” he asks. “If not, then there’s no reason for the next generation to be interested. Every day I go at it as if we’re going to keep it going.”

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. He writes from Quakertown, Pa., about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.