Fruitful Business: Clarkdale Fruit Farms Weather 100 Years of Change

Oct 26 2015
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The Recorder, October 26, 2015 by Tom Relihan.

DEERFIELD — If you find yourself stopping in at Deerfield’s Clarkdale Fruit Farms on Upper Road this fall to snag a peck or two of crisp McIntosh apples or a bottle of farm-fresh cider, take a moment to examine some of the old wooden crates stacked near the orchard’s farm stand.

Those weathered boxes have seen more history and use than almost any other piece of equipment on the farm — about a century’s worth — according to the farm’s current owners, Tom Clark and his son, Ben.

They’re the same crates that Tom Clark’s grandfather Webster Kimball Clark, the country doctor who founded the orchard 100 years ago, used to ship his fruit along back roads from Franklin County to New York City, before the advent of the interstate highway system. They’ve seen two world wars and 17 U.S. presidents, the fall of world superpowers and the rise of the age of the Internet.

A century ago, while walking along the crest of a small knoll just across the street from where those crates now sit, there was no way Webster Kimball Clark could have foreseen the staying power of the dozen or so acres of cherry and apple trees he’d plant shortly after purchasing the orchard’s first piece of land.

Taking root in Deerfield
Initially, he’d bought the property from one of his patients with the intention of building a house and moving there from Bernardston. The purchase left him with a 10-acre pasture that had formerly been used as a dairy farm. He decided to plant cherry, apple and pear trees there around 1914, shortly after the birth of Tom Clark’s father: Frederick Griswold Clark.

As more land came up for sale nearby, Webster Clark bought that up, too, and planted more trees.

“Throughout his life, he had always had an entrepreneurial spirit and, being a doctor, he had some income to hire some people and try different things,” said Tom Clark of his grandfather’s green thumb. “He had this real steep hill, so he tried to plant grapes once, too, like he’d seen when he went to Europe in college. In Italy, there’s all these steep slopes they plant grapes on, so he tried that.”

Webster Kimball Clark’s grape operation didn’t last more than five years, Tom Clark said — the slope was too steep to properly tend — but the other fruit trees were a different story.

“We still have a couple of his original pear trees and one apple tree he planted that’s over 100 years old — they’re greening apples,” Tom Clark said.

In the early part of the century, Webster Clark ran the farm as a commercial operation as opposed to the primarily retail operation that it’s evolved into today.

“Most people had apple trees at their own houses at that time, so people did pick-your-own at home,” Tom Clark said. “(My grandfather) didn’t do as much retail fruit, so he would pack the apples up and ship them to New York, where they weren’t as easy to get. It’s crazy to realize that in the ’30s and ’40s, they’d drive a truck that held probably no more than 75 bushels of apples to the city without interstates.”

In the late 1930s, Tom Clark said, his grandfather branched out into peach farming and the orchard continued to grow, eventually starting one of the area’s first large scale Pick-Your-Own fruit operations.

“That’s when people started buying two or three bushels of peaches and canning them,” said Ben. “We’ve still got some customers who say they remember coming as a kid and filling up the car with peaches to go home and preserve them.”

The next generation
When Tom Clark’s father, Frederick, reached college age, he wasn’t sure what to study. So, he went with what he knew and earned a degree from the Massachusetts Agricultural College in pomology, the science of growing fruit. Despite that, Frederick Clark didn’t go to work on the family farm right away, opting instead to take a job running the coal business in Shelburne Falls.

“He really didn’t want to go to work for his father here at the farm,” Tom said. “It was the height of the Great Depression, too, so he wanted to do other things.”

Frederick Clark found work in the coal industry of Shelburne Falls and stayed with it all the way through World War II before finally taking over the orchard in the late 1940s.

“My grandfather was getting old enough and retiring from medicine, so he wanted to sell the farm and he offered it to my father first,” Tom said. Frederick Clark accepted, and took over full ownership upon Webster Clark’s death six years later.

Gradually, under his leadership and pressure from growing national competition, the farm shifted from its commercial focus more toward retail and installed its first cider mill in 1959.

“It was about that time that the farm stand began picking up as more of a way to sell things direct to the consumer,” Tom Clark said, noting that heavy tourism along Route 2 on Columbus Day and during the apple season drove much of that side of business. “We would deliver locally, too, and we always sold to grocery stores in Greenfield and private schools.”

Gradually, the emergence of technology like refrigerated shipping introduced more competition from apples grown as far away as the West Coast or the southern states, which allowed consumers to obtain fresh apples in March while apples available locally were half a year old by then. That made it more difficult to sell the farm’s fruit wholesale.

“On that end, we were such a small entity that we couldn’t compete with anything bigger that wanted to buy in trailer-load quantities. Washington became the number-one apple-producing state, growing 50 percent of all the apples in the country” he said. “It got harder to compete later in the season. Years ago, people would hang on to apples to sell them until April, and if they were McIintosh you had a pretty ripe apple. All of sudden, you turn around and you’d get a brand new Granny Smith apple (from the south). We didn’t have the scale.”

About a decade later, Tom Clark returned to the farm after earning a fine arts degree in metalworking from Syracuse University and began working with his father while fighting conscription into the Vietnam War. Eventually the war subsided, and though he hadn’t intended on returning to the farm after college and didn’t exactly get along with his father, Tom Clark stayed. His wife, Becky, whom he’d met at Syracuse, joined him soon after.

“He voted for Richard Nixon and thought he was great,” Tom Clark said of his father. “I was one of the few who voted for (Eugene) McCarthy. I was a bearded hippie, a liberal, and he was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, but we got along over time. Gradually, I began to take over ownership.”

Over the next three decades, the farm continued to grow. Frederick Clark and his neighbor teamed up to acquire a dairy farm and house adjacent to the orchard after its barn burned down, using the land to expand the orchard.

“One of the best things my father did was buy the adjacent farm. They paid, say $25,000 for it and sold the house for $19,000. So they’d acquired 100 acres and it only cost them $6,000,” Tom said. Eventually, the Clarks bought out the neighbor’s share and formed a corporation in 1976, Tom Clark said.

Frederick Clark died in 2005 and Ben Clark returned to the family farm the next year, leaving a theatrical lighting career in Boston and Providence, R.I.

“When my grandfather passed, it really got me thinking about what the future of the farm was. I grew up here, had always lived here, and I had talked to my parents about it, but there was never any pressure to come back,” Ben Clark said.

Tom Clark said that was because he considered it important for any family business to let the next generation spread their wings and decide if carrying the torch was the right move for them.

“I wanted him to, but I didn’t do it. It’s better if they experience a different part of life and then come back. You bring things with you that you’d learned somewhere else,” Tom Clark said.

Ben Clark said having those experiences ensured he didn’t feel like he’d missed out on anything due to being stuck on the farm his whole life. “I think I appreciate it more, especially after being in the city, because you see the difference in quality of life,” he said.

With Ben Clark’s arrival came a new focus on harnessing the Internet and the emerging phenomenon of social media websites to move the farm into the digital age.

“When I came back, we didn’t have a website at the time and we didn’t do credit cards or anything like that,” Ben Clark said. “That’s something I think I really helped bring along.”

The farm also began to focus more on local retail through participation in farmers markets and involvement with organizations like Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture and the Buy Local movement.

“Where we are, here, we were sort of leading the country in terms of Buy Local movements,” Ben Clark said. “It was something we were already doing, but it certainly helped to make people more aware of where their food is coming from and knowing the farmers. It was a really visible campaign.”

Today, the Clarks own over 250 acres of land, but only about 50 acres of it is actively farmed, Ben Clark said. The family has also shifted to self-distributing almost all of its product.

“It really couldn’t be much bigger. It’s enough for my father, myself and a few others to manage,” Ben Clark said. “It’s an economy of scale that works. We’re able to sell about two-thirds right out of the store here, and the rest is almost all sold within a 10-mile radius.”

Over the years, the Clarks have also further diversified their crop to ensure the business’s sustainability. Currently, the farm produces about 100 different varieties of fruit, including about 50 distinct types of apple, from popular varieties like McIntosh, honeycrisp and macoun to smaller, specialty crops of Cox’s Orange Pippin and Spitzenburg. Growing other fruit like cherries, apricots, peaches and plums allows the farm to extend its season into the summer months.

“The importance of diversifying is just trying to not have everything in one basket,” Ben Clark said. “This year we had a huge crop, but last year we had one of our smallest crops. One year peaches will carry us more and another year it’ll be apples.”

Throughout the season, they and their small crew of local laborers hit the fields to prune and balance the trees, perform pest management and wildlife control, and, finally, pick the crop for sale. They also press cider weekly from pear season through February or March, depending on the size of the year’s crop. Ben Clark said the farm turns out between 8,000 and 10,000 gallons annually, on average.

Recently, the Clarks have begun planting a smaller, more efficient species of apple tree that allows them to plant up to 1,000 trees on a single acre while still producing the same amount of apples as their larger cousins, Ben Clark said. A single tree will typically produce between 50 and 60 apples.

And those trees, he hopes, will carry the farm even further into the future. For his part, Ben Clark said he plans to continue farming the orchards for the rest of his life, and perhaps someday he and his wife Lori’s 3-year-old son, Emerson, or a second son due to arrive in January, will take up the mantle of a fifth generation of Clarkdale Farmers.

But, he said, “no pressure.”



May 2024