Apples, Cider Donuts, and Local Agriculture: Celebrating 50 Years with Hackett’s Orchard
The Places that Make South Hero Home
South Hero’s apple orchards hold a special place in the hearts of many Islanders, young and old. As children growing up in the Islands, fall trips to Hackett’s Orchard and Allenholm Farm to pick apples were sacred- the orchards seemed to sit outside of time, trees heavily loaded with crisp sweet-tart apples and the smell of cider donuts. From picking apples in the fall and seeing young calves in the fields in spring, to swimming lessons at White’s Beach and skating at the Sandbar, there are special places that make South Hero home for us.
Ron and Celia Hackett, who’ve owned Hackett’s Orchard since 1967, have introduced generations of children to apple picking. Hearing their stories over the years, from when they first arrived at the orchard, and “didn’t know one apple from another,” to the day they sold their first pie, was very special for us, and we hope you will enjoy reading some of their story here.
Ron and Celia both grew up in the Northeast Kingdom. Ron’s father owned a dairy farm, a small sugar bush, and a potato farm in Albany, VT. At one time Ron anticipated taking over the potato farm, but life took him in a different direction. He married Celia and began a career with Bell Telephone Company, where he worked on the dial conversion of Vermont towns (allowing phone users to dial a number directly, rather than through an operator). They lived on a “postage stamp” lot with their two young daughters, Deb and Jill, in Essex Junction. As the girls grew, the home felt smaller and smaller; they wanted to get out of the suburbs. When they learned that the Larrow orchard in South Hero was for sale, they decided to make a change. They bought the property in March of 1967 and got to work.
The first year was hard. Ron had helped in the orchard a few days the previous fall, but they were otherwise untrained. They had a heavy bloom in the spring, which would usually be thinned with a chemical spray so that the trees produce big red apples. But as Ron says, their first spray salesman didn’t have faith in Ron’s ability to do anything properly. So he recommended not spraying and Ron didn’t know any better. As a result, they had a tremendous crop of small green apples, not a one as big as three inches, and few turned red.
Learning As They Went
They kept working and learning. A new spray salesman came along and took Ron under his wing. He helped with the spray schedule and taught them to monitor for scab and insects. He and the UVM Extension’s tree fruit specialists were important mentors. Ron worked for the phone company for the first 19 years, spending weekends and evenings in the orchard. He took all of his vacation time during picking season. They picked the apples into bushel boxes scatted throughout the orchard. Ron would come home and take the tractor to collect the boxes, often working until dark. They hand graded one bushel at a time on a table in the shop. Ron gives Celia credit for keeping things together; driving tractors, caring for the pickers, grading the apples, raising their kids, looking after the house- she did it all.
Wholesale to Retail
In the 1960s, most apples at that time were sold by route; orchardists like Ray Allen and Alan Kinney would go door-to-door selling apples all day. Ron and Celia sold most of their apples wholesale at general stores. They also sold apples to Carpenter’s Apple Cider in Colchester, at 25 cents a bushel, and would buy cider back. They later bought cider from Ray Allen, and then in the early seventies Ron bought a press and began making cider at the orchard. When they did sell apples by retail, it was all by the bushel- folks buying storage apples or fruit for making pies and applesauce. Ron and Celia would set up a long line of pallets, separated into fancy and utility apples of each variety. Customers would go down the line asking for what they wanted, and Ron and Celia would load up bushel baskets.
In 1990 they built the kitchen and began making pies. Ron and Celia built their farm store up and worked to start Applefest, and many people discovered the South Street orchards. They were still only picking a couple thousand bushels a year, so in 1984 they planted 4 more acres. They bought some land from Ray Allen to expand the orchard, and suddenly their sales were all retail. When they sold their first pie, Celia couldn’t believe it. “No one buys pies! I don’t buy pies, my mother never bought a pie,” she thought. But they had the pie out on the table and a man came in and said, “I’ll buy it.” She was floored, she said, that “someone bought a pie!” They went on to sell 60,000 pies by 2008. It still bothers some people that they gave up making pies. But Celia says that the apple crisps they sell now have gone over very well.
They began doing Pick-Your-Own in the 1980s. It’s a lot of work to manage, but an important part of their customers’ experience. Ron says that when he goes down to the orchard on a weekend afternoon in the fall, all he hears is talking and laughing. Celia remembers a customer who pick apples at the orchard, wrote a song about it, and came back to play it for them. And now they have second, third, even fourth generation pickers coming to the orchard.
Looking to the Future
They do have concerns for the future. They think about what the changing environment will mean for the orchard. New diseases and pests keep them on their feet. Climate change, and increasing variability of temperature and rainfall are hard on the trees, which need steady warming and sun for good bloom and pollination. Violent summer storms, which often bring hail, damage the trees and fruit. They can’t irrigate easily, which will be a challenge for the dwarf trees they are planting.
To Ron and Celia, it never seemed like they were making major changes, but over 50 years the small changes added up. National pressures such as changes in food safety regulations have led to many small shifts. They’ve shifted from mostly selling wholesale to all retail. The farm store has brought visitors from across the country, as well as generations of school children to the farm- where they learn about farming, and leave with a special connection to the orchard and South Hero.
Celebrating 50 Years of Growing Apples and Feeding a CommunityRon and Celia’s stories of their years at Hackett’s Orchard made me realize that even the places and things that I think of a constant, are changing and adapting all the time. Ron and Celia have embraced change, while remaining true to a few core values at the heart of their business. They believe in working hard, providing the community with the very highest quality product, safety for their workers and customers, in generosity, kindness, family, educating the next generation. Because of their hard work and that of farmers like them throughout the community- the orchards of South Street have come to feel like part of the very bedrock of South Hero.
Many thanks to Ron and Celia Hackett for sharing these stories with us, and for their hard work over the last 50 years. And many thanks to all of the hard-working farmers that feed us, teach us, and make South Hero home.
written by Emily Alger, February 2017