Apples, bakeries and more at Tabora Farm and Orchard

There are quite a few orchards and bakeries, too,but Tabora Farm and Orchard in Chalfont, Pa.,is banking on the lure of being one of a handfulof producers that grow apples, for example,which are baked into pies and sold at its farmers’ market.

Tabora also makes those apples into ice cream and applesauce, and imports apples from upstate New York to make wine.

A live music and public event at Tabora Farm and Orchard in Chalfont, Pa.

For third-year owners Patricia and Caleb Torrice, it all begins in their fields, and in gradually improving those fields, the orchard and their yields. It isn’t cheap to invest in improving and buying apple trees, but by next spring, they will have almost completely overhauled the orchard.

The Torrices have a scratch bakery, full-service deli, country store, gift basket business and a fresh fruit and vegetable farm. Over 164 items are made from scratch daily and sold at a fair price. Tabora has a flair for families, highlighted by the Torrices’ four young children. There’s a year-round calendar of events, including Tabora’s Apple Festival, September 24-25.

Starting next year, Caleb will begin removing two or three rows of apple trees per year from the orchard and replanting with high-density trees, which should yield three and four times the current harvest. It should also boost interest with a more vast variety.

Currently, Tabora produces Tydeman, a nice early cross, and tons of Red Delicious, Golden Delicious and McIntosh, though the cold-weather apple grows much better in New York or Canada. He’ll keep the McIntosh for its saucy texture with pie, especially when combined with other apple varieties.

New on the docket for next year will be Granny Smith, Braeburn, Pink Lady, Fuji, Galas and hearty Cortlands, which are also great for pie. “I’d like to see 20 varieties here,” Torrice says. “The apple industry has become a global marketplace, and we’re fighting for shelf space, but even with Washington state and New York.”

Early roots

Torrice knows upstate New York. When he was 9, his family moved from Boston. He grew up a “farm boy” in Oswego. Patricia is from Bay Shore, N.Y. They met on Long Island.

Torrice’s family had a 165-acre family-owned and operated orchard and farm in the Finger Lakes region. “It’s what piqued my interest in agriculture,” he says.

It also paved his career path. During a farm visit from a Cornell University extension agent when Torrice was 9, he told the agent that in 10 years he was going to go to Cornell and take his job. Eleven years later, Torrice had graduated from Cornell with a fruit science degree and he did have the agent’s job. He’d also been through LEAD New York, a professional development program run through Cornell.

Tabora Farm and Orchard in Chalfont, Pa.

As central New York’s fruit specialist, he traveled the state and studied the difference between wholesale growers at the mercy of the marketplace and retail growers who had their own farmers’ markets. “It really opened my eyes to the many facets of agriculture,” he says. “I saw that the guys with the farmers’ markets or stands were happy. They could even go on vacation. It was a no-brainer which direction I wanted to pursue.

“I still feel bad for the wholesale orchards [which still includes 90 acres of his parents’ farm, Fruit Valley Orchard, that’s in fruit production; his dad still makes a trip down with a special delivery once a week]. They have zero control of the end product, which is determined by grocery stores and large packers. It’s like a dairy farmer and his wholesale milk, except dairy farmers are longer accustomed to taking it on the chin.”

At first, when Torrice left his job at Cornell, he and a friend were going to start a combined garden center and orchard in Putnam County, N.Y. Then, a squabble over a required purchase of additional land as an entrance and egress for equipment squashed the deal. “Now what?” he thought.

For five years, he was able to run a farm market on Long Island. After marrying Patricia, and having two of their four children, “one dark night” – New Year’s Day night three years ago – on his family farm convinced them they had to move forward. They launched an Internet search for orchards for sale. Tabora was the first they found. “Of course, they wanted millions and millions for it, but all that night, I couldn’t sleep trying to figure out how to make this swing,” he says.

Patricia had a steady teaching job on Long Island. “She was supporting me,” Torrice admits. She was content. They were living in a corner house with a white picket fence. “But from that (New Year’s Day) forward, I said I was not staying on Long Island,” Torrice says.

In November 2010, Tabora expanded and added a winery.

How did they make it work? It’s still a work in progress, but in many ways they’re living the American dream, or at least Torrice’s. “We obviously have a huge mortgage, and we work our tails off,” he says.

“It’ll be our dream now when the mortgage is paid off,” Patricia says.

“And we’re confident we’re going to make it,” Torrice adds. “Every new business has to wait 1,000 days to see if it’s going to make it. We’re getting close (November). Each day would get easier if we’d sit still, but we don’t.”

Bright future

Last November, Tabora expanded and added a winery. Patricia has built a general online presence, including a Facebook account and a regular newsletter.

This spring, the bakery became a 20-hour operation, mostly to satisfy one independent distributor with 250 cases of cookies a week.

Group tours in the fall cater to families, especially for pumpkins.

There’s a full-service deli, gourmet chocolates, gourmet fair trade coffee beans, trail mix snacks, cookies and a coffee bar. Tabora’s honey is gathered by a local beekeeper. Its spices, some 100 of them, spice blends (60 types) and 119 loose teas have arrived. Tabora offers over 30 different varieties of sea salt. They call their own products “home-grown.” Anything bought and brought in is labeled “locally grown.”

Torrice’s love, and expertise, is the fields, and he’s in the process of redoing all 8 tillable acres on the 12-acre Bucks County property. “We need to use every square foot efficiently,” he says.

With high-density planting, there will be 600 to 750 trees per acre in the orchard. “There’s a huge upfront cost for all those trees, but then a long return on that investment,” he says.

Torrice is using Gisela rootstock for the cherries. The peaches are planted in a vertical axis system, and the strawberries are planted in plastic (maybe as many as 10,000 strawberry plants in under 1 acre with high-density planting). There are also upstart plums, which will begin producing two years out like the cherries, seedless blackberries and blueberries. Two acres of assorted vegetables are already prime.

“We want people coming for strawberries, and then having something to pick all the way through to apples in late October,” Torrice says. “Everything has a pick-your-own option.”

Building the business

Tabora was an established farm, orchard and market owned and operated by Jane and Roger Eatherton for 20 years prior to the Torrices. The Eathertons still own a large vineyard operation, Tabora Vineyards, in Dundee, N.Y.

“What we did is took a nice foundation and built a house on it,” Torrice says of the progress they’ve made.

Improving the orchard was the first order of business. Over-pruning turned much of the apple orchard trees into bushes rather than trees. “I knew how I wanted these trees to be,” he says.

The resulting harvest is the best indicator of success: The first full season, the inherited apple trees produced just five bushels of apples from some 700 trees. By year two, there were 1,200 bushels. This year, they’re expecting 2,000 bushels. “We’re growing more apples on the top of the trees than they used to grow on the entire tree,” Torrice says.

Patricia says the harvest has hugely impacted the market’s growing customer base. “People have just been blown away by the apple crop,” she says. “People are just so excited to see all these well-maintained trees.”

Spring flowers at the market.

Since buying the farm, sales have increased 3 percent each year. “People say this market is maxed out,” Torrice says. “I refuse to believe it. Studies say 30,000 cars come past here a day, and I’m not yet getting 30,000 people to come in.”

“Every weekend, we meet someone we haven’t met before,” Patricia says.

They’re also “making customers” by bringing products to four satellite markets. Next year, they may add a fifth market in Brooklyn that Torrice’s father has done for years. Otherwise, on Tuesdays, they’re in Bethlehem, Wednesdays in Jenkintown, and they split on Saturdays: Patricia does Doylestown and Torrice sets up in Lansdale.

Peace Valley Winery, which is literally just down the road, is manufacturing Tabora’s wines, which are mostly fruit-based varieties. Peace Valley grows some grapes for Tabora, too, but its growing sources run from Pittsburgh to the Finger Lakes region, his parents’ place.

Molly Torrice enjoying the bounty of Tabora Farm and Orchard in Chalfont, Pa.

Among 11 unique wines, there’s the Riesling (a nice fruit flavor with a peach/pear bouquet), the Steuben (a red grape developed by Cornell University with almost a strawberry essence), Pear (a soft, buttery, smooth, fruit-filled experience), Sweet Cherry (which tastes like a mixed berry wine, but is sweet cherry and grape only), Plum (“no mystery, no hunting, a rich plum flavor”) and Montmorency Cherry (the most unique wine that starts sweet and slowly develops into a sour cherry flavor).

In all, Tabora has 17 employees, seven full- time, including a bakery manager and a deli manager. The Torrices are “active from sunup to sundown,” but rely on their staff’s experience. The bakery team, for example, has a combined 100 years of experience. “I’d be a fool to tell them what to do,” Torrice says.

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