Lots of families enjoy picking their own fruit at nearby farms and, fortunately for Connecticut residents, there are plenty in our area to choose from. According to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, the state is home to more than 80 farms with pick-your-own (PYO) acres. Six of the listed farms are in Middlesex County and 11 are in New Haven County. Most offer such PYO favorites as strawberries and blueberries in the summer and apples and pears in the fall.
Many of these are not just family-owned but multigenerational farms. Averill Farm in Washington Depot has its tenth generation working the orchards. Lyman Orchards in Middlefield has been family owned and operated since 1741 and Shelton’s Beardsley Cider Mill & Orchards has been in the same family since 1849.
Drazen Orchards in Cheshire is also trying to keep that tradition going. Lisa Drazen is the property manager and her brother Eli is the “orchardist,” as she terms it. Although her father, David, bought the farm in 1951, it has been a working farm since the 1800s. They now grow apples, pears, nectarines, peaches and plums. They even have quince, which not many farms grow. The pears are good for picking in September, but the apple season will continue through October.
“My family lives on the orchard,” said Lisa Drazen. “It’s my backyard. It’s where I play. We would never do anything detrimental to it. We love the land.” Loving the land means caring for it responsibly and planting the fruit trees was only a part of the overall farm plan. David Drazen was an early promoter of integrated pest management (IPM) and he convinced surrounding farms to join him in his efforts.
What this means is that, while they may spray for insects, they do so only as necessary. Conventional farms spray on a regular basis with a seasonal schedule in mind. With IPM, the farm will spray based solely on what “bad bugs” they find.
IPM accepts the fact that we live on the same planet with millions of insects. Every bug has its purpose. The concept of good bugs versus bad bugs is relative. IPM’s goal is essentially positive reinforcement. If you create an environment that is conducive to bugs that are beneficial to your crops like honeybees or butterflies, then those bugs will frequent your farm. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have to spray pesticides occasionally. Farms that use IPM are not necessarily organic. Organic farms that utilize IPM do everything the other farms do, they just don’t spray synthetic chemicals.
IPM, along with sustainable growing practices, is how Lyman Orchards cultivates fruit for their Eco-Apple and Eco-Peach programs. Their distribution through Red Tomato, a non-profit organization that promotes sustainable farming practices and fair trade, is hyper-local to area stores so that the vine-to-consumer ratio is as tight as possible by not shipping long distances and increasing their carbon footprint.
With their IPM practices, John Lyman III, executive vice president at Lyman Orchards, said that part of the protocol involves restricted materials to use and a rating process from a third-party organization that gives them a seal of approval. “There is a ‘Do Not Use’ list of pesticides,” he said. “We don’t use any organophosphates.” Organophosphates are the basis for many pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency lists this agent as “toxic to bees, wildlife and humans.”
Wayne Young of High Hill Orchards in Meriden also uses IPM for his orchard. He says using that method plus organic fertilizing and other ecological practices make for a healthy plant so the trees can withstand disease.
However, sometimes pesticides are a necessary evil. “I use organic pesticides,” Young said. “If they don’t work, then I’ll resort to conventional pesticides. Some of the organic materials just don’t work for some diseases.” Susan Averill at Averill Farm agrees. She said they use IPM but sometimes the organic methods aren’t effective. “Here on the east coast, there are certain pests that are not well-controlled using only organic methods,” she explained. “We only spray the main orchard when it is necessary, so every apple isn’t perfect!”
Last year, Averill Farm had a bumper crop of apples along with the pears they have for picking. But this year (2014), with the late bloom after a never-ending winter, the farm’s yield is smaller. It is best to call ahead to your farm of choice for picking availability. There are a few farms that have actually cancelled their apple picking this year.
“The crop is quite light this year,” said Averill. “Probably a combination of having had a bumper crop last season along with cold and very windy conditions over the winter caused many of the buds to dry up and not turn into flowers.”
Keith Bishop, co-CEO, treasurer and winemaker at Bishop Orchards, echoed Averill’s point. Raspberries, blueberries and peaches did very well this summer. But the fall crop for apples is a little shy this season. “Our crop this year is slightly smaller because of two very good crop years the preceding two years,” he reported. “That said, we do have a very good supply for pick your own apples.”
While visiting a PYO farm is a fun activity, the benefits of these farms are more than recreational. According to a 2010 study conducted by the The College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Connecticut, PYO farms bring jobs, producing approximately 20,000 positions statewide. The bucolic scenery of Connecticut’s farms boosts annual tourism. From a land stewardship perspective, these farms are an entire eco-system that “acts as a natural filter” for surface and subsurface water through cropland, woodlands and wetlands. They also provide natural habitats for other wildlife beyond what may or may not be raised on the land.
When planning a pick-your-own excursion, there are a couple expectations. Parents should closely watch their children, especially when they are small. While the outdoors is a lovely place to walk the family pet, they are not allowed on a majority of the state’s farms. Considered a health risk, the Department of Agriculture mandates that pets not enter the orchard area.
To find a PYO farm near you, there are several comprehensive websites that list farms by county. Visit Pick Your Own at PickYourOwn.org, Local Harvest at LocalHarvest.com or the Connecticut Department of Agriculture website.