Kolibas family keeps Stoneyfield Orchard moving ahead

Harry Schnieber came to Stoneyfield Orchard in Belvidere, N.J., in 1947. He farmed until his death at age 96 in March 2010. Stoneyfield Orchard and Schnieber were true community assets. In addition to farming, Schnieber taught vocational agriculture at the local high school for four decades. His 35 acres of land – approximately 7 of which are planted with a diverse, productive orchard – have hosted generations of families that came to pick fruit. Schnieber’s legacy was rooted in his orchard and in making agriculture come alive for Belvidere High School students.

Jeff and Katherine Kolibas in their new year-round farm store at Stoneyfield Orchard.

Families can continue to enjoy the pick-your-own orchards, now under ownership of new farmers Jeff and Katherine Kolibas. The couple purchased the property, all of which is enrolled permanently in the Farmland Preservation program, just in time for the 2010 growing season. They don’t regret the spontaneous decision.

“Everything fell right into place. It was meant to be,” Jeff said.

With no experience, Jeff, who is a self-employed electrician, and Katherine, a project manager for an environmental company, were determined to see the orchard continue. Their intentions of keeping the farm operating as a small, low-key, pick-your-own operation while adding a few enhancements of their own were welcomed in the community.

For the Kolibas family, the orchard represents a chance to work toward Jeff’s ultimate goal of farming full-time in the near future. They realize that during the next few years, they will be working on a learning curve, juggling the full-time needs of the orchard with the obligations of their respective careers. The challenge, thus far, has been rewarding.

Orchard management

The lower orchard on a cold January day in the middle of pruning.

Faced with an orchard full of ripening fruit, eager customers, a few small commercial accounts and no real game plan, the Kolibas’ education began immediately. They read everything they could about orchard management, contacted Rutgers Cooperative Extension for assistance, and connected with the extension’s fruit integrated pest management program.

“There are a lot of resources available to somebody who wants to take over an orchard,” Katherine said.

The couple is concerned about excessive chemical use, and while they realize that going organic is not realistic for commercial production of tree fruit grown in the northwestern New Jersey climate, they did want to minimize the use of chemicals. The IPM program appealed to them because it operates by recommending “the minimal stuff to control everything,” Jeff said, not only saving money, but also limiting any environmental impact.

“It isn’t just the cost of the chemicals,” Katherine said. “We don’t want to overdo it.”

Using the Rutgers IPM program allowed these new farmers to produce a quality crop of tree fruit. The program’s scouts set up traps, took samples and determined what chemical interventions to take, how much product to use, and when to use it. During their first season, a nearby farmer applied any needed chemical inputs.

While they plan to continue with the IPM program, they also are learning to identify issues on their own. This season, fungal disease was a major concern, due to prolonged periods of wet weather. So far, they have not had to use any pesticides, though, as insect populations have been under control, Jeff noted.

Their “on-the-go” education has admittedly come with its share of mistakes. During the 2010 season, the couple wasn’t sure when some of the fruit was really ripe. Opting one day to leave the fruit hanging on a group of trees, they returned the next day to find it all on the ground. They are also learning how to properly store apples for the winter, and learning the ins and outs of pruning.

The orchard was in need of corrective pruning, as Schnieber was not able to attend to it as diligently as he had during the preceding years. A crew was hired to revitalize the trees. The cost was more than anticipated, and an expense the family hopes to avoid in the future. Jeff and Katherine, along with one part-time helper, are now pruning the trees themselves. They have spoken to several experienced tree fruit farmers in order to learn, and are currently doing winter pruning.

Jeff, his father Joe and daughter Amanda display their apples in the new farm store at Stoneyfield Orchard.

Learning to properly store their apples also required some trial and error. There is a large storage cooler – inherited from Schnieber – in the basement of the home, allowing sales year-round. Learning when to harvest, as well as how to cool, wash and pack the apples for winter storage, was one lesson the couple had to grasp quickly.

The apples are sold year-round in the farm store. Some of the apples are custom pressed by a nearby cider mill, using ultraviolet pasteurization, allowing them to sell their own cider. The farm store was a new addition and is connected to the home, making it easy for the family to run the store without hiring additional help. Schnieber did not have an enclosed stand, but set up a vendor tent at the orchard, offering fruit and other seasonal items. Adding an enclosed retail space allows the couple to offer a variety of additional goods year-round.

Orchard demographics

Planted in two different fields, the orchard is home to 589 apple trees, some that were originally planted over 150 years ago and are still bearing fruit, thanks to Schnieber’s years of attention. Most trees are standard size, but pruned to a height that is lower than typical. Apple production is targeted at about 850 bushels per season.

The couple has planted some new trees, filling in gaps in the fields. They’ve opted not to go with the trend toward dwarfing rootstock or intensive planting. They and their pick-your-own customers prefer the larger tree canopy, and the experience of an old-fashioned orchard. Another thing that won’t change is the size of the orchard. In keeping the orchard manageable for two or three people means expansion isn’t an option.

Apple varieties include heritage apples and newer varieties. Some less common varieties include Gravenstein, Baldwin, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Northern Spy and Esopus Spitzenberg. Others, such as Ida Red, Jonathan, Winesap, McCoun, Granny Smith and Empire help make this a diverse orchard, with 29 apple varieties. The lower orchard is home to most of the apple trees. It’s the easiest to reach, located across from the farm store, and most accessible to customers. The upper orchard, with 93 apple trees, is where the peach and other fruit trees are located. Customers can drive down the orchard roads to the area where they wish to pick.

Like many pick-your-own orchards, Stoneyfield does have some customers who opt to pick varieties before they are ripe. Customers are given a map of the trees, with the varieties listed, and told which types are currently ripe and ready for picking. Other than that, the customers are free to roam around the orchard. Some folks want a specific variety and are determined to pick it whether or not it is ripe. They have not experienced any issues with being “picked out” before the season has really begun, as has been common with larger agritourism-centered orchards in the area. They also have not experienced excessive loss of fruit due to improper picking, customers who pick apples without purchasing them, or any damage to the trees. They believe this is due to their focus on remaining a small, intimate family farm, one where nature, not entertainment, takes center stage.

The couple has had mostly positive interactions with customers, who seem to respect the orchard, Katherine said. The low-key atmosphere attracts a quieter crowd and keeps the focus on the fruit. Many families travel to spend the day here, and even eat meals out in the orchard, picking bushels of fruit to preserve. Visitors are welcome to pet the family’s rabbits, chase the chickens, and gawk at the handful of cows grazing in the farm’s pastures.

Three hundred peach trees, as well as 50 pear trees – including Anjou, Seckel and Bartlett – are particularly popular. Many of the pears are sold to a small distributor, who sources produce for New York City restaurants. A dozen or so sour cherry trees, plus another dozen of several types of plums, including sugar plums and several European plum varieties, round out the diversity of the orchard. Demand for this fruit is strong.

“We sell every peach,” Jeff said. While some of the crop is destined for a local bakery, most is picked by customers.

The farm has 100 feet of Concord grapevines. The grapes will soon be joined by black raspberries, which will be planted this spring. While the family does not wish to expand the orchard into the current cornfields or pasture, they do want to add other pick-your-own crops to extend the season and to add to the availability during the existing harvest. Under consideration are lima beans and sweet peas, which customers have requested.

Farm store

The store offers fruit, eggs, local honey, Pennsylvania maple syrup, apple cider, jams and an array of produce. Much of the produce is grown on the farm in an oversized vegetable garden containing everything from broccoli and winter squash to tomatoes and herbs. In the off-season, they purchase produce to sell on a small scale. Apple wood, which many customers purchase for smoking meats, is also harvested from the orchard.

Open year-round, the farm store doesn’t have official hours from January until Easter, but is open by chance or by stopping and knocking on the door. If anyone is home and available, the store will be open upon request. Their daughter, Kimberly, as well as Jeff’s father, Joe, are fixtures in the store. Kimberly also serves as an orchard guide.

Old photos document activity at Stoneyfield Orchard several decades ago. Today, with the exception of a year-round farm store in lieu of the outdoor vendor, the orchard, including the sign, is much the same with new farm owners Jeff and Katherine Kolibas.

The Kolibas family’s mission is to continue the farm as is, with a small retail and wholesale operation, and a pick-your-own customer base. They are not attempting to compete with larger operations nearby. They want to keep the farm focused on quiet, nature-based experiences, where families can harvest their food together, enjoying the rural environment. Schnieber’s old friends stop by to check in on things, and the neighbors have expressed gratitude that the family isn’t trying to change things on the farm.

“People appreciate the fact that we are just family-run … that little, roadside, quiet thing,” Katherine said. “People appreciating what we have here and getting to talk to them is what we enjoy most.”

Acquiring an established orchard with little notice and no experience may not be the best way for new farmers to start out. Though it has been daunting, it has also been a positive and rewarding experience.

“I always wanted to farm,” Jeff said. “I love farming.”

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey.