While some towns have seen an increase in small farming operations to meet a growing desire for local quality food, in what is often a second occupation for their owners, both Mack’s Moose Hill Orchards and Sunnycrest Farms have been steadfast sites for local people for decades – even centuries, in the case of Mack’s.
Aside from the weather, which is the perennial challenge for those who work the land, with changing times farms seek to meet the needs of their customers to keep afloat agriculture’s historically small bottom line. Challenges include keeping customers coming back when they could easily go to the grocery store instead, new rules and regulations and finding a niche in the marketplace.
And while modernity impacts much of what local farms do, from global markets to the need for websites and social media presence, what keeps them going is still basic and old-fashioned: good, quality food and a farm’s natural ambience.
Years ago both Sunnycrest and Mack’s moved away from wholesaling their produce, once a big part of both businesses, and now rely almost exclusively on retail farm stand sales and U-Pick operations. Both have seen success with extending their retail season, but with different tacks.
Sunnycrest has extended its season by planting crops other than their staple apples, from blueberries to cherries, grapes, raspberries and strawberries, and even Christmas trees.
Sunnycrest owner Dan Hicks said they once relied heavily on wholesaling, running four operations throughout New Hampshire. But when apples became a global commodity that quickly became unsustainable.
So in response they downscaled and now focus on stocking their farm stand on High Range Road and providing a great pick-your-own experience for an ever-expanding variety of produce. They’ve also brought in new crops like northern kiwis.
“More diversity on the farm has worked for Sunnycrest,” said Hicks, noting that local farms generally seek a niche that works for their customer base.
Mack’s Apples manager Mike Cross said the margin was too slim for wholesaling, and in response they downsized their orchards and expanded retail sales, also building up their U-Pick efforts.
Mack’s has raised berry crops in the past but these days a focus on producing superior apples while maintaining a welcoming experience at their busy farm stand on Mammoth Road are working well.
Cross said that important for Mack’s success is setting itself apart from grocery stores, providing a quality apple that hasn’t seen any trucking and has been cared for from tree to farm stand. Cross joked that he often cringes in the grocery store to see the stockers handle the apples. “We know how to handle apples better than they do,” he said.
Cross praised his crew in that regard, with Mack’s great success in keeping workers year after year. Owner Andy Mack Sr. also noted how important a quality crew has been for the orchard.
Meanwhile, an interest in locally grown foods has benefitted both orchards.
Hicks noted that people’s interest in locally grown produce has increased, and a new part of the job is educating customers on how the crops are grown and why local is better. Hicks joked that it can be an eye-opening experience when his customers learn about how the apples in their bags have made it through multiple frosts, the threat of hail and high winds.
But so far this year the weather has cooperated. Fruits have come along well and with recently dropping temperatures the weather has prompted people to visit the apple orchards, noted both Hicks and Cross.
Both stands also offer locally made products, and Sunnycrest has seen great success with its bakery and often sells out.
Mack’s offers an ice cream stand during the summer to help extend its season in the same way additional produce would, and typically there’s a line waiting for cones. It also grows loads of pumpkins, pears, a variety of winter squash, some row crops and hay.
Cross said people like to come by because of the atmosphere at the stand, and can watch the activity at the small pond next door.
Mack’s knows how to store apples, having done it for decades, and while the fall is the busiest time of the year, they remind customers that they have apples throughout the winter. In a good year they’ll have the fruit until the beginning of May. This year’s crop will likely last until March, explained Cross.
“Apples are the draw,” said Cross. Mack’s was one of the first local orchards to focus strongly on the retail and U-Pick aspects of the business.
That effort began in the 1960s with Andy Mack, who positioned the farm to focus on retail.
Mack is a man of vision and that served the farm well, Cross said, noting it has also been helped by an easy to reach location.
But retail focus success rides on just a few weekends in the fall. Mack said that plenty of people come by on fall weekends when the weather is good, but should one of those weekends get washed out, it hits the business hard.
“It almost guarantees a loss for the year,” said Mack.
Aside from the everyday challenges, new rules and regulations can throw a wrench in the works for farmers. Cross noted some concern with new rules coming down the pike with the passage of the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act. As the law stands, the cost of implementation would cut heavily into a small bottom line.
The act was signed into law in 2011 but is not finalized.
Cross said the law may cause problems for his farm in regard to its packing houses. While Mack’s may seem like a big farm, able to absorb additional operational costs, it isn’t, said Cross. To abide by the new rules would require taking out loans because at the end of the year, there isn’t much left to put back into the business.
On its own accord, Mack’s has invested in modernizing its cold storage facility, something that’s running between $200,000 and $300,000.
Too often those writing the laws aren’t familiar with farming, said Cross. “They don’t often think about how these things they dream up will affect us in real life,” he said.
What’s in store for the future for the orchards?
Hicks is looking to pass on the farm to his children, who are taking an interest in the operation these days.
Sunnycrest had its origins in 1943 with Hicks’ grandfather, and one of the reasons he keeps farming is to keep the business healthy enough to usher in the next generation, he said.
“It’s history. It’s part of me and it’s very important to keep the farm going,” said Hicks. He added that while selling the place could put him in the Florida Keys for the rest of his life, there were more important things.
Mack has a long view, with an appreciation for 282 years of his farm’s history. He said that while the farm’s acreage is largely preserved in agriculture easements, what will happen depends on the community’s needs and the desires of future operators.
“In the next 100 years some will succeed and some will fail,” said Mack.
Mack noted that he could see the farm becoming more diverse, with more vegetables and even animals, and a site where people could learn about what it takes to grow food and care for animals. He added that he’d like to see it serving the purpose of an old-fashioned general farm.
Mack focuses a lot on the community aspect of his farm. The community has appreciated Mack’s as open space for recreation, for food, and as a place that offers their first job for many residents.
“We’ve farmed for 282 years in Londonderry,” said Mack. “For the most part it has always been a response to local need.”
The orchard is a partnership with the community, said Mack, and a guiding principle for the farm.
Mack who has put most of his land under easements, also spoke about the importance for Londonderry to preserve its farmland.
“The community will be glad in 10, 50 years from now that it has preserved every piece of farmland that it could,” Mack said.
There have been times when finances were tight and the potential to sell the farm for a golf course was on the horizon, he recalled. But he asked his children, and they were unanimous in the desire to see the farm stay a farm.
“Tradition of course is a factor. But a factor is that we’re appreciated,” said Mack, asking how many businesses exist in which the public is thankful for what is done.