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New owners get an education at Ferrisburgh orchard

FERRISBURGH — It’s been a season of firsts for new orchardists and new orchard owners Rob Rogers and Stephanie Lowe, both 41.
A year ago they purchased Woodman Hill Orchard — a pick-your-own operation in Ferrisburgh with close to 300 fruit trees planted on three acres of a 10-acre property southeast of Vergennes — and started learning. This fall the couple has been reaping the first harvests of their labors — not just Red Romes and Liberties, Macintoshes and Macouns, but something more. At the center of the couple’s new business is a love of apples and the fall ritual of pick your own.
“I grew up picking apples all the time. I have an October birthday. I have an apple pie every year for my birthday instead of cake. I love apples,” said Lowe.
However else they grow the business, she said, “We always want to do a pick-your-own because … that’s the joy of fall in Vermont: getting folks into an orchard and picking.”
At Woodman Hill, Rogers is literally the boy next door. He and Lowe bought the property from Rogers’ longtime neighbors growing up, David and Claudia Ambrose. As a kid, Rogers remembers David Ambrose as someone who kept 100 beehives, commuted to the Atlantic coast to do commercial fishing, flew planes, had worked at IBM, and was an “‘amazing woodworker.” The Ambroses planted the orchard in the early 2000s as what Rogers calls something of a “post-retirement” business venture and ran it for several years before moving fulltime to Florida.
Early posts on the Woodman Hill Facebook page capture some of the enthusiasm Ambrose brought to apple tending and the popularity of the orchard with families and you-pick crowds at the height of business in 2013 and 2014. One of Ambrose’s last posts in September 2015 explains that medical issues had kept him from adequately tending his beloved orchard. Still, he noted:
“We do have some good organic apples for the adventurous who do not mind battling high grass.”
Lowe and Rogers learned the orchard was for sale around Memorial Day in 2016. Both have full-time jobs. Lowe works in human resources at Seventh Generation in Burlington; Rogers does production planning and scheduling for Lake Champlain Chocolates in Williston.
At first, said Lowe, “we joked around about owning the orchard — ‘Wouldn’t that be fun; we could run a pick-your-own on the weekends.’”
Added Rogers, “The imagination runs wild in this situation, so there comes a kind of a tipping point.”
By the Fourth of July that year, the couple decided to visit the orchard and take a serious look. By August, they made an offer. By October, Ambrose was taking them through the orchard for a hands-on lesson in pruning. By November they had signed on the dotted line and began spending evenings, weekends and “spare time” cleaning up the orchard, which had lain untended since Ambrose’s illness.
Rogers’ parents, still next door, often came over to pitch in.
“Rob’s dad would park the four-wheeler, and we’d be like ‘OK, it’s time for us to head out there.’ We’re on our hands and knees. It’s damp and wet and rotten — a lot of (the apples) by November are rotten — and we’re picking through, smelling like apple cider and tossing them in the bucket,” said Lowe.
Given when the couple bought the property, most of 2016’s apples ended up in the compost pile.
So the first order of business has been rehabilitation.
Rogers spent a good part of last winter pruning. They enrolled together in a Cornell University-University of Vermont class in tree fruit production, co-taught by UVM apple expert Terry Bradshaw. The course covered everything from business plans “all the way through the entire life cycle of an apple and was geared towards both people who were thinking about starting an orchard as well as folks like Rob and me, who had just suddenly landed in the middle of one and needed to do something,” said Lowe.
They learned how to tell a brown marmorated stink bug from a plum curculio, joined the Vermont Tree Fruit Growers professional association, met other growers, had experts visit the orchard and began working with a variety of statewide resources.
This year, former customers have been glad to see that Woodman Hill Orchard is back, open on weekends for pick-your-own and pre-picked apples.
“We’ve had folks beginning to rediscover us. Most folks come by to say ‘I’m so glad you’re open again’ because they remember this place from when Dave and Claudia were running it,” Lowe said.
They’ve also connected with Shacksbury Cider and have been bringing cider apples by the bushel to Shacksbury’s Vergennes location. This year there have been a lot of cider apples, said Lowe and Rogers.
Given the steep learning curve the couple faced last year, they didn’t spray. This left the apples “au naturel” and provided an interesting experiment in survival of the fittest. The apples all taste great, said Lowe, but most didn’t look the way consumers want their apples to look: Perfect. However, several varieties proved they could grow spray free — even in a wet summer that even the most experienced of Addison County orchardists found particularly challenging.
“The Liberty and the Red Romes, they’re the ones doing nicely this year,” said Lowe. Rogers observed that the Redfrees also did well.
While Lowe and Rogers aren’t yet walking away from their day jobs, each has found a new kind of satisfaction in running the Woodman Hill pocket orchard.
Having worked behind a desk for most of their careers, both love being outside and working with their hands.
“I also found that I love being able to be part of a local food movement,” said Lowe. “It feels really cool to have our neighbors stop by and to provide them food.”
Lowe also admits that while she knows the weather can make or break farmers, it’s “a little exciting … the interaction you have to have with weather and all these things you can’t control. You can’t plan everything. You have to kind of roll with it and make decisions all the time. We’re still learning a ton.”
For Rogers “it’s a self-reliance, even if it’s supplementing a person’s income. It’s that sense that you’re doing it all yourself, and it’s the land that’s producing what you’re selling. It’s a good feeling.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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