Alane Hartley and Russel Braen, owners, Park Hill Orchard, Easthampton, MA. ©2015 Lisa Quinones
Russell Braen & Alane Hartley, Park Hill Orchard

What do apples and art have in common? Historically, a lot! Just visit any museum to discover a bounty of apple cameos—from still lifes in bowls or atop tables to orchards spanning the background of canvases depicting gorgeous European country sides.

Art behemoths from Cezanne to Van Gogh have painted apples, so why not incorporate art into modern American orchards? That’s just what one Massachusetts grower, Russell Braen, and his partner, Alane Hartley,  have done. We share their story, as told recently in American Farm Marketer magazine:

How Park Hill Orchard Uses Art To Attract Its Community
By: Carol Miller, American Farm Marketer

Up until eight years ago Russell Braen, who owns Park Hill Orchard, ran a computer company. The kind of company that shared ideas freely, had a coffee house, and had contracts with the government. So, he brings a different kind of perspective to owning an orchard in a small Massachusetts town.

That doesn’t mean his orchard rejects the usual attractions. It has cider slushies, which brought in $20,000 in 2015. And, it sells cider donuts. “Cider donuts are now an expectation – it helps all the orchards. People expect you to have them – even if you don’t,” Braen says.

But he wanted do something more for Easthampton, MA, a town of about 20,000 people and a suburb of Northampton. He loves the vibe of his town and was struck by something he saw across New England that he thought he could foster at home. “Many old New England mill towns risk turning into a bunch of ghost towns now that the factories have closed. A lot of people fixed up the old mills and turned them into art studios and condos,” he says.

He knew he wanted to make Park Hill Orchard a comfortable place for people in his town to gather, to help maintain and build a sense of community. So, he and a few partners started an art show. It’s been so successful that 22,000 people came through the 2015 Art in the Orchard event. It’s now a well-established event and in all the local tourism books.

But, Braen makes sure he brings a small town touch to his art exhibit.

“I talk to each and every person. I shake their hands, I give them apple slices,” he says. “It has to be genuine. And, this is why our growth is so phenomenal.”

The art show gives many their first exposure to a working farm.

“People in towns have very little access to rural land. They’re a little bit of afraid of driving into a farm driveway. Transplants from Boston have a hard time understanding what we do, so we try to be welcoming. The biggest thing is making them feel legitimate and comfortable,” Braen says.

Art in the Orchard is open to the public starting in mid-August and closes for Thanksgiving. “We were going to close on Halloween, but apples were selling well,” Braen says.

The popularity of the art show has helped Braen sell more apples, he says. “New England growers have had bumper crops these last years, some of the biggest since 1970s. And we’ve managed to sell all of ours,” he says. “The thing about apples, if you touch peoples’ lives in some way, break bread with them, and break rules together, maybe through having high quality art in the middle of a farm, they’ll come back every season for the rest of their lives.”

Reprinted with permission from American Farm Marketer.

Photo Credit: ©2015 Lisa Quinones