Third generation sees bright future at Frecon Fruit Farms

In talking about working on the “hilliest orchard” in the state, Henry Frecon says, “We farm on it because we have it, not because it would be my first choice.”
Photos by Joshua Smith.

There’s an upside and a downside to the rolling hills of Berks County, Pennsylvania. where the Frecon family orchard and farm is transitioning into a third-generation operation.

Once called “the apple basket” of the East, these slopes are seemingly a perfect setting. Apples do well here above Boyertown. Seldom does anyone worry about frost. The apples get good color and air movement.

However, these hills are steep to work on. This might be what Henry L. Frecon, the president and general manager of Frecon Fruit Farms, Inc., the wholesale growing operation, calls the “hilliest orchard” in the state. “We farm on it because we have it, not because it would be my first choice,” he says.

While the hilly terrain is tough on the producer, Frecon says it’s also tough on stone-bearing fruit, which typically does better on flat terrain. The highest points stress their trees, and soil erosion gravitates down to lower blocks on any given slope.

None of the challenge, however, has ever halted the Frecons’ ever-diversifying and successful production efforts. Henry took over for his father in 1969. His sister Teri is secretary, treasurer and comptroller. Mary Therese, Henry’s wife, first came on as a sales clerk at the original retail outlet, the first for fruit in Boyertown. Henry’s brother Richard, who runs another business—Frecon Orchards, Inc., an orchard supply house—built the new store in 1970. “What you see now is what we made grow with good staff and family,” Mary Therese (or Torrie) says.

Now, their four children—Hank, Laura, Steve and Jenny—have committed to the orchard and farm’s future. In 2007, Steve, Hank and partner Chris Adukaitis (a longtime friend and farm employee) bought Frecon Orchards Outlet from Henry and Torrie and changed the name to Frecon Farms, an ancillary business that covers the farmstand store, the pick-your-own events, the farmers’ markets and the agritainment they’re introducing.

With his children’s interest, Henry, who remains the grower, says, “I know there’s a reason to keep planting. Otherwise, at my age (62), I’d have already stopped.”

Maintaining the stock

On the main 117-acre orchard and another 55 acres immediately above the retail store, Henry grows 56 acres of apples (including 10 varieties), 36 acres of peaches, four acres of pumpkins, three acres of pears, one acre of plums, two acres of cherries (they sold out of every single sweet and sour cherry they grew this past season), .5 acre of blueberries and .25 acre of raspberries. Seasonally, he hires 12, then 18 for harvest, in addition to the family.

Not an ultra high-density orchard, Frecon plants dwarf varieties in medium-density plots of between 150 and 200 trees per acre. Most are freestanding and started on tree stakes. He’s still planting 300 to 500 two-year-old trees a year (all bought from local nurseries). It takes about five years to bear fruit.

In rotating and replacing trees in this model systematic orchard, it’s often the apple trees that consume the most time. Normally, he replaces a batch of trees when he’s no longer fond of the variety, or else the tree has reached its life span. With dwarf apple trees that’s about 20 years, but maybe 15 years for a peach tree, though most peach trees in those hills are lost after about eight years.

When removed, the soil is sown with Dwarf Essex rapeseed cover when plowed under to rid it of nematodes and some other soil parasites. After a fallow year, new stock is planted, but on a rotating basis. He never plants the same fruit twice, back-to-back in the same block.

For picking, Frecon staggers the crop. Peaches are first picked at the end of June, and apples about August 15 into the first week of November. Sweet cherries were ripe right before Memorial Day.

Peaches are spot-picked as they ripen. The crew goes over a peach tree for four pickings before it’s clean. Apples ripen more uniformly. They’re spot-picked early on, but by the fall, a special contracted crew is picking 1,000 bushels a day.

At the end of the season, the extra apples go into cold storage, and they’re sold through Christmas. In all, Frecon’s orchard yields about 28,000 bushels of apples a year. Some are made into juice apples, selling to Ziegler’s and Mott’s. Some are dried, others canned. Dead apple wood is sold.

Frecon Fruit Farms and its hilly orchard, nicknamed “misery hill,” in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

Changes

At the retail store, Henry Frecon says customers used to buy peaches by the basket, but not anymore. They used to want de-fuzzed peaches. “Now, they’d rather have the fuzz,” he says. “That allows us to pick it riper.”

Frecon now sells more directly at farmers’ markets than ever before.

He used to have brokers help move his fruit, but now sells more directly at the farmers’ markets and such. Frecon even does some export of apples to Central America, and over the last couple of years has also done some direct local selling to Redner’s Markets. “We have more control of the market,” Henry says.

In the last two years, the Frecons have added four more farmers’ markets for a total of five, a move the third generation spearheaded. “It makes total sense,” says Josh Smith, Jenny’s longtime boyfriend, who handles Frecon Farm’s marketing while she manages the retail store. “Buyers are buying directly from us. It also allows us to connect with a lot of people who don’t already know about us.”

Smith has a five-year marketing plan in place, to which the community outreach— the festivals and farmers’ markets—is integral. The Frecon name is now attached to more than wholesale growing, though without it, nothing is possible.

The orchard’s youth movement has also started growing hops for a second year, doubling the number of trellises from two to four. “We may have great apples and peaches, but if you can serve people year-round, why the hell not do it?” Smith says.

As for Henry’s take on that front: “We’re seeing if the land we’re growing it on will work,” he says of the experiment. “We’re definitely talking with other hops growers and seeing what they’re doing.”

This year, the farm has also re-released a peach wine. There’s also an apple wine and a pear wine, all produced at Blair Vineyards in Kutztown, Pa.

There are even three versions of a hard cider in the mix: Early Man, Grabby Granny and Hog’s Head, the “knockout,” Smith says. All are set for release this year in conjunction with nearby Sly Fox Brewery. They even plan on kegging it. It’s why Henry has begun growing crab apples, a main ingredient.

In the last two years, the Frecons have added four more farmers’ markets for a total of five.

In another five-year plan, the farm’s barn gets converted into a farm-to-table restaurant; the orchard’s packing house becomes the kitchen. “Hank and Steve are planners,” Smith says. “They’re thinkers—all day long.”

The transition

The brothers do just fine in their full-time technology-oriented jobs, but for the longest time, up until college, the only job Steve ever had was at the orchard. Whether pruning or working in the packaging house, he says, “It gets ingrained in your blood.” In college, he worked at pizza joints and restaurants, but on breaks and during the summers, he was back at the orchard.

The family grows .25 acre of raspberries.

“Put it this way: I bought my first car with money I made from growing pumpkins,” he says. “I paid for my first two years of college on pumpkins and corn.”

Steve, 31, who takes a few moments between moving an irrigation line and mulching a blueberry patch with coffee grinds to get the pH in the soil down, says there’s no comparison between working on Wall Street and talking with a family that’s driven a long distance just to buy your peaches.

“You know, I’ve done both (jobs) now, and I’m not sure everyone would choose farming, but I sure as hell would,” he says. “My colleagues take their commission checks and buy brand new BMWs, but I’m buying a 2001 box truck so I can do more farmers’ markets.”

At first, coaxing dad into the agritainment didn’t go over so well. Then, and now, he continues to maintain he’s a commercial grower. “So, we said, ‘We’ll do that,’” Steve says. “It diversifies our ability to sell. The industry is changing, especially on the East Coast, where it’s hard for family farms to compete. We’ve shown (Henry) the ability to sell a lot more fruit on our own — and it’s more printable to handle sales ourselves. Our parents have begun to buy into it.”

After the interfamily retail store sale, mom stayed on there—so far. “Not much has changed,” Torrie admits. “They have a vision, and they share it. We’ve tried to do it harmoniously. My role is to keep helping with the transition, and then to make less and less appearances. I believe in what they’re doing, and if you believe in agriculture, and you believe in your children, you have to let them take it onward. Now, there’s a future for the farm, or at least we hope there is.”

As for the hilly orchard, the matriarch says her mother-in-law, also a Mary, called it “misery hill,” but she could never understand why—until she saw Henry working the slopes. Then, she thought it would make a “nice water slide.”

It still could be, so maybe that’s where her children get their creativity, but then again the apple never does fall far from the tree.

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.