On Top of the World at Apex Orchards
How lucky are we to live here in Western Massachusetts? With such an abundance of local food at our fingertips, there is never a shortage of resources with which we can nourish our minds and bodies. These natural riches also provide us with a wonderful opportunity to support those in our communities who provide in these ways all year long. While each and every season has a unique character and plenty of specialty foods to help define it, autumn is a particularly special time for us New Englanders. We always have plenty to look forward to after the sweltering heat of summer, like the crisp, cooler weather, the changing of the leaves… and of course, the local fall harvest. Perhaps one of the most iconic of those autumn crops? Apples, apples, apples!
Apex Orchards is one of those quintessential Massachusetts landmarks and a must-visit for all who live in or pass through the area. Its breathtaking views are complemented sweetly (and tartly) by rows upon acres of apple trees, peach trees, blueberry fields, and sunflower patches to name a few. On any given day, the sounds of essential native birds and insects give insight into a distinct, radiant ecosystem all can enjoy; a refuge cultivated by the farmers who maintain its lands, and together relished by the various cycles of life taking place within its boundaries. During the fall harvest, this atmosphere of freedom and repose transitions into an exciting rush of people buzzing, kids laughing, and all enjoying the fruits of the season.
We recently visited and spoke with the orchard’s co-owners and managers, Courtney Basil and Tim Smith. Much like the orchard’s lush hills and the good food growing there, they helped us nurture an even greater understanding of the orchard and why we’re so fortunate to have such an extraordinary venue and natural habitat nestled in the hills above our little Valley.
Click play to watch the full story of our journey!
(Image: Facebook/Apex Orchards)
Q: Can you describe the history of Apex Orchards leading up to today?
TIM: This farm has been in the family since 1828. Originally, it was a general-purpose farm but over the years we got more specialized in fruit. Now, we’re mainly a retail operation selling fruit locally to customers directly and to stores like River Valley Co-op.
Q: What is behind the name “Apex Orchards” and from where does it originate?
TIM: There’s a two-fold possible answer to this—one, my great grandfather was Austin Lafayette Peck. So, “A-Peck’s” was sort of an abbreviation for that. Also, Apex Orchards is at the apex of the hill here—so that’s the main reason we decided to call it that!
Q: How has the farm changed and developed over the years?
COURTNEY: This store was built in 2016. Initially, we were down at our warehouse location down the street from here. It was a combination of our warehouse where we packed orders for stores like River Valley, but there was also a retail front to it, too. Also, our pick-your-own was down there, as well. We’ve been doing pick-your-own since before I was here—so about 20-plus years. When we moved from down the street and built the new farm store, we planted seven acres of pick-your-own apples. We’re also working on pick-your-own blueberries, and new this year we have pick-your-own sunflowers.
Q: How big is the orchard and what varieties of fruits do you grow?
TIM: The farm is 375 acres, in total. We grow about 35 acres of fruit. Currently, those are apples, peaches, nectarines, European pears, Asian pears, and blueberries. We provide peaches, apples, and sometimes pears to the co-op.
Q: What are a few of your favorite things about being an orchardist?
TIM: I just love the variety. There’s something different every day, always. It’s just constantly changing, and there’s always challenges that go along with that. We just strive to make everything work right and keep everything moving along smoothly.
COURTNEY: The orchard is so diverse. We do farming, retail, wholesale. We do all of our own marketing. So, there are constant challenges that come up and it’s exciting to be able to master those and come up with creative ideas to make the orchard more inviting and exciting while contributing more to our community.
Q: We've been working together for a long time! How has your relationship with the co-op brought you closer to local communities?
TIM: We started out with the co-op when they first opened in Northampton. It’s been a great collaborative effort for us. We love dealing with the co-op. They take a lot of fruit and are just a real pleasure to deal with.
Q: Growing an orchard is a year-round job. What is that process like?
TIM: It’s a never-ending sort of cycle. We are in the harvest season right now, but we’re still always planning ahead for the next season—or even three-to-four years down the road. We finish the apple harvest after the first week of November. Then, we have fruit in storage through the winter that we will sell to customers like River Valley Co-op.
We’re also starting on next year’s crop. We’ll be out there pruning by the first of January. That will continue on until probably March. From there, we’ll move on to springtime work and getting the orchard ready for pollination. Once it’s pollinated, we’ll move on to growing that crop and bring it to harvest next year. We also do fertilization—and irrigation, which was a big one this year due to the drought.
(Image: Facebook/Apex Orchards)
Q: Do you grow the same varieties of apples every year or do they change?
COURTNEY: We’re actually in the midst of planning for new varieties. It can take several years to plan and prepare the orchard. We have to order the trees and get them budded and sent to us. Then, we actually have to put them in the ground. That takes a couple of years before they can start producing fruit for us. Right now, we’re looking at two new varieties—Sweet Tango and Wild Twist. We have been growing the same varieties of apples for a long time, with the addition of a few new ones here and there.
Q: In what ways do you care for and try to improve the land year after year?
TIM: It is a continuous kind of thing. This year, we were focused on putting in some more irrigation where we didn’t have it. We also do some wildlife management in the forest and on our own around the orchard. We have bluebird and kestrel boxes around the farm. That’s an important part of the cycle—trying to keep the mouse population down. Mice can be so detrimental to the orchard because they will dig down, burrow around the roots, and sort of girdle the whole tree. It is possible for them to take out a good chunk of the orchard, so we have kestrel boxes and barn owl boxes to try and encourage natural predation.
(Image: Facebook/Apex Orchards)
Q: What are your plans for Apex Orchards over the next five-to-ten years?
COURTNEY: Tim will be retiring in the next few years! (laughs) But, I’m sure he will continue farming until he can farm no longer. We’re excited to add our new varieties in the next couple of years, and expanding our new pick-your-own blueberries and sunflower fields.
TIM: It’s going to be a continuation of some of the things we’ve started already. I think the size of the orchard is probably going to be dictated by what we can sell locally. We are very focused on selling locally and we don’t want to get into that bigger, worldwide apple market again. We are perfectly happy selling to local folks through retail and places like River Valley Co-op—they are a very important part of our business, as well.