Farming Magazine - June, 2012


A Family Fruit Farm in the Fingerlakes

Responding to evolving customer demands
By Tina Wright

From Grisamore Farms' fruit, a creative customer could create fresh fruit pies starting with June strawberries and then cobble through the cherry, raspberry, peach and blueberry seasons of summer and finally bake apple pies straight through autumn. Christine Grisamore and her daughters - Susan Bower, Mary Ann Grisamore and Joanna Cornell - run the 100-acre fruit and vegetable farm in Locke, N.Y., in the Finger Lakes region.

From left to right: Susan Bower, Joanna Cornell and Mary Ann Grisamore are sisters who run Grisamore Farms in Locke, N.Y.
Photos by Tina Wright.

However, when the Grisamores started out, a strawberry pie was the only choice. Their father, the late Paul Grisamore, started to diversify in 1972 after Hurricane Agnes flooded their strawberry crop. As the first u-pick farm in the area, they found a market for the blueberries and apples they planted in the 1970s. Today, they have 7 acres of strawberries, 7 acres of raspberries, 5 acres of sweet and sour cherries, 28 acres of blueberries, 15 acres of apples and 7 acres on which they raise pumpkins and gourds. The apple orchard, the blueberry patch and the greenhouse are the main profit centers. Now, with a greenhouse, garden center and retail store, they continue to adapt to the changing desires of their customers.

Jesse Ingall and Rachel Bower, the next generation of Grisamore family farmers, pot geraniums in March for greenhouse sales.

People still like apple picking

When asked if the apples are different now at Grisamore's than they were back in the early years, the sister farmers almost exclaim at once, "Yes!" They are phasing out the big, old-fashioned trees that tower overhead. Joanna, the field manager, says, "We've got to get rid of our standard size trees." They are switching over to trellis trees that require less (and easier) pruning and fewer chemicals. Apple production has improved, and the color of the apples themselves is better.

Susan, marketing manager, also points out, "People like picking apples, and it's easier for the customers to pick them." They plant new apple trees every year; usually 300 to 500 trees, although in 2010 they planted over 1,200 new apple trees.

People want newer varieties like Granny Smiths, Galas and Sansas, however, some oldies in the orchard are still goodies. "Cortlands are still king," Joanna says, "That's always the best, most popular. If they were all Cortlands, it would be fine with me, because they don't get scab." Other apple varieties are McIntosh, Macoun, Red Delicious, Yellow Delicious, Empire, Crispins and Ida Reds.

Jackie Millich (right) and Jaime Owens from Florida are learning how to pick apples at Grisamore's from their young friend Arianna Smith.

Joanna credits their crop consultant for advice on everything from soil testing and fruit varieties that work best in their system to the best timing for spraying and which chemicals to use. Chemicals for fruit production are getting safer and more efficient. One special concern is keeping the pollinators happy and out of harm's way. Cornell University in nearby Ithaca has been using their orchards for bee-pollination studies in 2011 and 2012.

Mary Ann, the financial manager, estimates that the farm grosses about $100,000 a year for apples and apple cider. Good weather can draw u-pick customers, who will pick up to 65 percent of the crop. Bad weather makes Susan's marketing work a little more challenging as she sells apples and cider to area grocery stores. Sales to large grocery stores like Wegman's in Ithaca can vary while the smaller locally-owned grocery stores are more supportive. "The little stores are nice to deal with," says Susan. They sell apple cider at GreenStar, a natural food cooperative grocery in Ithaca, the Modern Market in Moravia and Clark's Grocery in Dryden.

They've noticed that young people have gotten into apple sauce making and canning, so the u-pick market is holding steady. The farmers note, however, that people don't pick the volume they once did. Older folks used to really load up. Susan mentions a couple that used to pick 15 bushels of apples and then divvy the bounty among their family members. Recently, people are combining a little agritourism with their apple picking. Grisamore's farm store is the center for an animal petting menagerie, hay rides and fun things for children to do in the fall season of apples and pumpkins.

The growing season starts inside

The modern greenhouse is 156 feet by 105 feet, and it was humming by late February this year - later than in years past, though. Grisamore Farms is buying bigger pre-started plants, "using someone else's fuel to start plants," as Susan puts it. She adds, "We try to start later all the time because of the price of gas and fuel oil."

On an unseasonably warm day in March, Jesse Ingall and Rachel Bower, the next generation of farmers in the Grisamore family, are running the Bouldin and Lawson potting machine (nicknamed Rosie) and getting newly-started geraniums out on the greenhouse floor.

They sell around 3,000 hanging begonias, 6,000 geraniums and a plethora of fuchsias, along with other flowers and a line of vegetable and herb seedlings. Usually the farm sells plants until the end of June. Strawberry u-pickers often check out the plant sale prices then. The sisters would like to get more shrubs, trees and garden center products to keep greenhouse sales going until the fall season when they market around 3,000 mums.

Major investment in the blueberry patch

Mary Ann says that their blueberry patch was at one time a minor player in their fruit crop season; now, it's on its way to becoming the star of the show. She says, "When we first had blueberries, people didn't pick them much. Strawberries were always their favorite. Then, all of a sudden it was blueberries."

Grisamore's blueberry patch in autumn.

The little blue-purple fruits are now known to be loaded with antioxidants, which have made them a huge health food choice. With the added benefit of Vitamin C, dietary fiber, ease of picking and freezing, plus a long harvest season, it's no wonder that blueberries are outshining the short-season strawberry these days. Blue Crop, Elliot and Blue Ray varieties at Grisamore's have permanent drip irrigation. Temporary pipes are used to water strawberries and raspberries. Any crop on the farm can be irrigated if necessary from four farm ponds and a creek.

Grisamore Farms farm store decorated for Halloween.

They are buying a $200,000 BEI blueberry harvester for the 2012 season in their 28-acre patch. Joanna says, "We've been pruning our way into having a harvester. We're trying to get them (bushes) all upright." The sisters admit the harvester's cost makes for some sleepless nights, but they feel the investment will be worthwhile.

"It's hard to get people to pick," says Susan Bower. They estimate a cost of about $16,000 in labor to pick blueberries. A typical harvest is around 36,000 quarts total with u-pickers sometimes picking up to half that amount.

People enjoy Grisamore Farms in October

Change Never Stops

At one time, Grisamore Farms had 30 acres of strawberries, now they have seven. They use to keep the farm store open through the holiday season, selling Christmas trees and wreaths and other holiday items. Last year, they decided to run through Halloween and then just stay open for the first few weekends in November. With lots of competition in the area for Christmas trees, it was time to start the winter vacation a little bit earlier.

Of course, "vacation" is a relative term. Joanna and employee Roger Gardner start pruning apple trees just before Christmas and try to finish before Valentine's Day - and wouldn't you know it, that's just about time to get back in the greenhouse.

The author is a freelance contributor based in Brooktondale, N.Y.