Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, Massachusetts, grows them all: apples, peaches, cherries, plums, pears, grapes, apricots, nectarines, quince, and pluots.
By diversifying and expanding crops, the farm is able to provide its retail customers with fruit from the first apricots and cherries in July to the last apples the following February.
Cherries were the first fruit Webster K. Clark, M.D., planted on the Pioneer Valley dairy farm he purchased in 1915 and named Clarkdale Fruit Farms. After planting eight acres of cherries, he planted apple trees. Between the apple trees, he planted faster-growing peach trees, and between those, he planted strawberries. Now, Tom and Ben – the third and fourth generation of Clarks – are growing 50 acres of fruit, including many heirlooms. Although it remains one farm, Tom and Ben have retained “farms” in their business name to honor first generation founder Webster.
Advantages of diverse crops
Primarily a retail farm operation, Clarkdale Fruit Farms is open from July to late February or early March. The farmstand is open daily from August 1 through December 24 and weekends until late February. From August through November, Clarkdale Fruit Farms adds a retail outlet, the weekly Greenfield Farmers’ Market. Clarkdale Fruit Farms’ only wholesale is to select grocery stores, schools and restaurants within a 10-mile radius, although this was not always the case. From 1930 when founder Webster Clark built the first on-farm cold storage (chilled by ammonia) and through the 1960s, Clarkdale Fruit Farms’ apples were packed in wooden boxes and shipped to New York City, Providence and Boston. The farm found itself with so many apples that they began a small “pick-your-own” operation that became the basis of today’s focus on retail.
About three-fourths of the farm’s business is out of the retail stand. “Retail, eliminating the middlemen, is the only way to make any money selling fruit,” Tom Clark said. Retailing locally also allows for the Clarks to know their customers, greet them by name and offer them fresh, tree-ripened fruit.
Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley is near the northern limit for reliable peach production. Most peach cultivars require chilling and spending nearly 500 hours in temperatures from 32 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures below 5 to 13 degrees Fahrenheit generally kill the following season’s flower buds. Buds become less cold tolerant in late winter. Peach trees tend to flower relatively early, and spring frost can be an issue. Blossoms are damaged or killed in temperatures below about 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Trees themselves can usually tolerate temperatures to around 5 to 13 degrees Fahrenheit. Summer heat between 68 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit is required to mature peach crops.
All of Clarkdale Fruit Farms’ peaches are grown on the farm’s most recent orchard, a drumlin (a long oval, rounded hill of unstratified glacial drift) above the rest of the farm. Here, peach trees grow above the cold air that settles in the valley below. Peaches begin fruiting in their third year and have a short shelf life. Clarkdale grows approximately 50 different cultivars with maturation times extending more than two months. Their peach trees generally yield fruit over a 15-year lifespan.
Yellow-fleshed, more acidic peaches have historically been favored by North Americans, while low-acid white-fleshed peaches are preferred in China (where peaches were first cultivated) and neighboring Asian countries. Clarkdale Fruit Farms grows classic and newer varieties of both white and yellow peaches.
“Many of our apples are heirlooms, similar to those planted by my great-grandfather Webster Clark a hundred years ago and still producing,” Ben Clark said. “Like most of our apples, they are versatile, good for eating out of hand or used in cooking or cider making.”
Of all the heirloom apples, both noted, Rhode Island Greenings seem to be in great demand.
“People from all over the country find them listed on our website and ask us to ship them. We invite them to visit the farm,” Tom Clark said, adding that Clarkdale does ship small quantities via USPS.
Among local customers, Honeycrisp apples are currently quite popular.
“They are very hard to grow,” Tom Clark said. “They tend toward becoming biennial, and they tend toward disease.” A relatively new variety, Honeycrisps have just come off their 17-year plant patent.
For “pick-your-own” customers, Clarkdale Fruit Farms offers the perennially favorite McIntosh, Cortland and Empire as well as a few other varieties. Heirlooms are picked by the farm’s workers. For a list of the farm’s many apple varieties, see http://clarkdalefruitfarms.com/fruits.
Many crops, different pests and diseases
With so many different fruits, Clarkdale could be a veritable banquet for a number of different pests and diseases. By paying careful attention and treating trees when certain defined thresholds are reached, Tom and Ben keep pests and diseases in check. They are always on the lookout for
- Oriental fruit moth in apples, peaches and pears
- Plum curculio in stone fruit and also in apples and pears
- Pear psylla only in pears
- Apple maggot flies only in apples
- Peachtree borers only in peaches
They also watch for invasive insects such as the spotted wing drosophila. This insect lays eggs in ripening fruit so that the larvae hatch when the fruit is ripe. A red cup filled with a vinegar mixture lures them to a trap where they can be counted and evaluated for treatment. Another invasive creature is the brown marmorated stink bug from Asia, which is moving northward from the mid-Atlantic states. Green and brown stink bugs can be treated and controlled, but the same treatment does not work for the brown marmorated stink bug. USDA, Tom Clark said, is working to find a predator insect for all marmorated stinkbugs.
With ongoing help from UMass Extension and an independent pest consultant, Clarkdale Fruit Farms has adopted and expanded Integrated Pest Management (IPM) throughout the farm. Various kinds of insect traps are in place to aid in discovering certain pest thresholds. When thresholds are reached, trees are treated. To attract apple maggots and evaluate the threat for treatment, sticky red globes are hung in apple trees. Around 1977, Clarkdale Fruit Farms worked with the late UMass Professor Dr. Ronald Prokopy to develop and utilize this now familiar tool originally made of wooden croquet balls painted red.
Increasing apple production
In the farms’ beginning, Webster Clark planted locally available trees. These days, Tom and Ben order new trees from large nurseries that grow them to order. The Clarks specify both rootstock and grafted variety. The currently preferred rootstock is Geneva, developed for dwarfing, fire blight resistance and resistance to replanting problems such as viruses and nematodes in the soil. Fire blight is a particularly deadly problem since – unlike apple scab, which affects fruit – fire blight enters the tree through fully opened blossoms or cuts in the bark and kills the tree.
In recent years, Clarkdale Fruit Farms has dramatically increased apple production. On land that once yielded 600 bushels per acre, 1,000 bushels are now the norm. Much of this has been the result of more intensive planting. The first apple trees at Clarkdale Fruit Farms were larger and were planted in a 40-square-foot plot. Over the years, smaller trees have been planted closer together. Six years ago in conjunction with the state extension agent and with the aid of a federal grant, the Clarks began experimenting with high-density planting. Full-dwarfing root stock trees are planted three feet apart in rows spaced every 12 feet. Tall, skinny trees whose energy goes into developing fruit rather than into structure are supported by poles and wires. The trees grow to a maximum of 10 feet. With limited high density planting, the farm continues to utilize ladders, but this new arrangement would allow for semi-mechanized picking. Rather than climbing ladders, workers could stand on a platform and pick trees on either side as another worker drives the equipment down the rows.
Cider and Cider Days
Apple cider is Clarkdale Fruit Farms’ value-added product and the focus of an annual Pioneer Valley event. This year the 21st annual Franklin County Cider Days will be held in early November. Ben has served on Cider Days’ organizing committee since 2008. For the event, Clarkdale Fruit Farms makes some special blends of sweet cider, offering tastings of it and heirloom apple varieties to its many visitors.
Cider is pressed one bushel at a time beginning in early October and continuing throughout the winter just as it has been for more than 50 years. Cider is treated with ultraviolet light in order to retain flavor while making it safe for all ages to drink. Yearly yields are in the 8,000-10,000 gallon range. Sometimes extra cider is frozen to be thawed and offered for sale the following summer. In addition to apple cider, the Clarks press pear cider for Cider Days as well as for Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
Clarkdale fruit farms continue
The new generation of Clarks understands the importance of keeping their operation within the family. “A family business needs a new generation every 20 to 25 years,” Tom Clark said. Both he and Ben returned to the farm after other careers – Tom as a fine artist and metal sculptor, Ben as a theater technician. Both say they were not pressured to stay on the farm, and Ben and his wife plan to raise their two-year-old son and a new baby due in January in the same easy way hoping that they, too, will choose to return to provide the community with the farm’s signature items: heirloom apples, peaches and cider.
ALL PHOTOS BY KATHLEEN HATT UNLESS OTHERWISE MENTIONED