Barney Hodges is a third-generation apple grower who, along with his wife Chris, runs Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall, Vt. Their orchards are just south of Middlebury in the heart of the Champlain Valley.
How did you/your family get started in the apple industry?
My grandfather actually started growing apples in Forest, Va., outside Lynchburg, where I was born. He grew apples and peaches, and raised cattle. My father married a New Englander in the early 60s, and they decided to move to Vermont in 1970. They bought a dairy farm that was going out of business and converted it to an apple orchard. This area has great land—perfect apple country!
Growing up, I watched as Dad planted our farms. I worked the orchards just as a summer job. It wasn’t until after college that I realized what a great opportunity this place was and began to have a great appreciation of it.
I majored in geology, so everything I learned about growing apples was all from Dad. Life is about figuring things out. Not accepting the normal—learning how to do things better, being inquisitive—that is what I got from going to college and was able to bring back to the farm.
What are some of the challenges you face growing apples?
It’s difficult to find your niche in Vermont. It’s not a very populated state—only a little over 600 thousand people—so it’s challenging to get apples to the heavily populate d areas simply because of logistics. Vermont is definitely more out of the way than say, New York, or other apple-producing states.
I returned to the farm just before Dad was contemplating retirement. We began to see a shift in the industry from wholesale to retail sales, which put a lot of farms in this area out of business. I spent about ten years changing the farm from being horizontally integrated to being vertically integrated: We used to grow apples and that was it. So, we bought an apple storage unit, installed an apple packing line, bought trucks to distribute our own apples, and developed relationships with brokers to sell our apples directly to stores.
What keeps Sunrise Orchards successful is that, because of the great land here, we have exceptional apples, and now we can control the quality of those apples all the way through the supply chain.
What else about Sunrise Orchards makes it unique?
Sunrise Orchards has a high level of commitment to food safety, including Integrated Pest Management, or IPM. Back in the early 2000s, we got involved with an organization called Red Tomato®—a nonprofit that’s rooted in fair trade and focuses on marketing fruit and vegetables that are grown regionally, sustainably, and ethically. Red Tomato markets a fruit label called Eco-Fruits—including Eco-Apples—that is 3rd-party certified by the IPM Institute of North America and by a group of local scientists and growers who review our growing processes annually. Those individuals develop measures and methods to limit and control pesticides to improve farm, land, and growing practices—both organic and synthetic pesticides.
Sunrise Orchards is the largest grower in the Red Tomato program, and our farm is fully committed to the Eco-Apple protocol. But, all of us in Red Tomato constantly push the envelope to improve our farming practices and yield the best-tasting, safest produce possible. We’re not afraid of dissent, which means we have a good, positive tension to keep us moving towards improvements.
Tell us more about the farm itself.
Sunrise Orchards is a 220-acre farm. My wife Chris and I run it, and she’s as big a part of everything as I am. Chris handles all the sales for our local deliveries and is a self-trained entomologist. As food safety and IPM become an even-larger part of what we do (and the paperwork we have to do), Chris’ role expands even more. She grew up with no ag background, but she’s got one now!
We raise about 150-thousand bushels annually, on average. We grow McIntosh, Cortland, Empire, Macoun, and Honeycrisp—Vermont can definitely grow a good Honeycrisp! We also produce some Gala, Red Delicious, and Paula Red. In fact, we may be the largest grower of Paula Red in New England. They’re an early-season variety, so Dad planted them years ago to bring in a little cash early in the harvest.
Our orchards are a combination of original, older trees Dad planted in the 1970s and new, high-density acreage where, to maximize production volume and land capacity, trees are pruned and grown on trellises similar to wine grapes. Amazingly, Dad’s choice of trees and style of planting was pretty progressive for the time, so our old acreage is still producing very well and amazingly, even outperforming our new, high density trees!
The growing climate in the Upper Champlain Valley is tough to determine. But, this has been a high-yielding farm that’s allowed us to reinvest in our infrastructure and replanting for a long time now.
Do you have a favorite variety?
I love Macouns at just the right time—there’s nothing better. Picking a hands-down favorite is tough because all of them are good when they’re picked or brought out of storage at just the right time, whether it’s a Mac or a Macoun.
What’s your favorite apple recipe, and is there a story behind it?
Oh, I definitely want to share my favorite recipe—and the story! My favorite recipe is Chris’ apple pie. Chris didn’t grow up on an orchard; she was raised on an island off the coast of Cape Cod—Martha’s Vineyard. Let me just say, my mother and others in my family—and around this whole area—know how to cook a fantastic apple pie. But Chris’ mother made this pie, and Chris brought the recipe over and started baking it—and it even tops my mom’s legendary pies! It’s hard to mass-produce, so we don’t sell it, but it’s so good it’s become famous around here.