History of Our Farm
In 1974, Ray and Judy Russell, along with an investment partner, bought the 40-acre parcel of land at 219 Whittier Road from the Decker family. The southern twenty acres contained a healthy, mature orchard of giant (up to twenty feet tall) standard apple trees, mostly Cortland, McIntosh, Macoun, and Red Delicious. Ray and Judy opened the orchard for pick-your-own, as the Whittier Road Fruit Farm.
Each fall, a circus tent was pitched as a market, and customers drove their cars through the orchard. Most of the apples were high up in the tree canopies, and customers used metal basket-poles to get the hard-to-reach fruit. It was fun, but sometimes frustrating. These large trees were on seedling rootstocks, rather than on the dwarfing rootstocks used today. The trees were big and grew vigorously each year. Each tree needed twenty feet of space on all sides. There are still many orchards with old trees on standard rootstocks in our area; you can recognize them by the diagonal planting pattern.
New Dwarf Apple Plantings
Ray Russell, who graduated from Cornell with a degree in horticulture, knew that the future was in dwarfing rootstocks that would keep the trees smaller and more manageable, and he began clearing out the old standard trees. The first planting of dwarf apple trees was in the three acres now known as the Long Block. Empire, Red Delicious and Ida Red trees grafted on the dwarfing rootstock M9 were planted in 1977, along with Crispin grafted on interstem.
The “M” series of dwarfing rootstocks comes from East Malling Research Station in England. M9 rootstock was selected for giving any variety grafted onto it a weaker growing habit. These trees use less energy on producing wood, both above and below ground. This means a higher percentage of the total tree is involved in producing fruit, while the tree is smaller and has a smaller root system than standard-sized trees. These weaker trees require support from a stake or a trellis system. To support his newly planted trees, Ray used a new innovation, the four-wire trellis.
The Short Block followed soon after, with Jonamac, McIntosh and Macoun, also on a trellis, and Northern Spy and Paulared on interstem. At this point, the orchard was about half standard and half dwarf trees. With the new planting systems and new trees came new varieties. More varieties and the ease of picking in the “pedestrian” part of the orchard were reflected in a marked increase in customers. In 1979, the metal barn, our first permanent structure, was erected, and a real market was born with Judy Russell as manager.
The Front and North Blocks were replaced with dwarf trees in the next years, until only Russell-planted apple trees remained. On a two-acre sandy rise, between blocks of apples, an apricot grove was planted. The Russells became sole owners of the orchard in 1979, and the name of the orchard was shortened to Whittier Fruit Farm.
In the 1980s, Red Delicious fell out of favor, and in some cases, trees were found to be unproductive. This became an opportunity to introduce new, exciting varieties like Ginger Gold and Gala. Unfortunately, the Gala rows fell victim to the notorious wind storm of Labor Day, 1998. The eighty mile-per-hour winds of “el derecho” (the straight-ahead) blew the tall, fully laden trees like billowing sails, snapping them like masts at the brittle graft union, just above ground level, and carrying them away like tumbleweeds.
Changing Apple Trends
The next big changes on the farm didn’t happen until the early 1990s, when Mark Russell started managing the orchard. Research and development of dwarf tree fruit systems had advanced since the advent of the four-wire trellis, with a movement towards allowing a tree to maintain a natural conic shape. Mark began planting trees supported by individual stakes, rather than by wire trellises. These trees grow taller, so all the fruit is not accessible to customers, but there’s about the same amount within reach as on trellised trees, and the rest (about a third more) is harvested by farm employees for pre-picked sales in the market. These new plantings included many new varieties—Gala, Fortune, Honeycrisp, Jonagold, Fuji—and better strains of old classics.
A New Store
In 1996 a new market building went up. The store is framed in wood salvaged from a cold storage building in Niagara County. Now there’s space in the store for ice cream sales as well as for apples and other fresh produce.
Cherries, Raspberries and Stone Fruits
Mark introduced more variety into the Whittier plantings by removing some of the old apricot trees in 1998 and beginning to plant raspberries and sweet cherries in that space. We grow three varieties of cherries—Sam, Hedelfingen, and Regina—and eight varieties of raspberries—Prelude, Killarney, Canby, Encore, Caroline, Autumn Britten, Mac Black, and Jewel. A few of the apricot trees remain, along with a mature planting of plums. New varieties of apricot, plum, pluot and aprium were planted in 2004. (Pluots and apriums are plum x apricot hybrids.)
We’ve been lucky through the years to have worked with lots of people from the community. It’s great for us to have as farm and market employees people who have been customers and neighbors for many years.