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Lyman Orchards Keeps Up with Changing Times
Farming Is a basis for success in ever-evolving business plan

The Lyman family settled in Middlefield in 1741, purchasing 30 acres for the family farmstead. The farm, like most others in the 17th Century was primarily a self-sufficient operation, supplying the Lyman family with what it needed to survive. That continued for about 150 years, with the addition of a small dairy herd supplying some income for the family.

Today, Lyman Orchards is the ninth-oldest family-owned business in the country. They’ve survived and prospered by anticipating change and evolving to meet new opportunities, with agriculture and management of the land a focus of everything they do.

John Lyman, the executive vice president of the family corporation, represents the eighth generation of Lymans to run the business. (CONTINUED BELOW)

John Lyman III

Lyman Orchards


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A peach of a modern company

Our first serious entry into fruit growing was with peaches back in the 1890s. That was our first commercial crop. J.H. Hale from Glastonbury introduced peach growing to the state and convinced a whole bunch of crazy people that peaches could be grown in Connecticut.  And we were one of them.

At the turn of the century, we had 500 acres of peaches and Connecticut was the second largest peach-producing state, behind Georgia. That was going along all fine and good until the winter of 1917-18, where frost went four feet into the ground and basically killed every peach tree in the state.

Most peach growers at that time shifted over, including ourselves, to apple trees, which were more hardy. So we got into the apple business pretty seriously. At the same time, we had a dairy through the first half of the 1900s. About the 1960s, we began to phase out the dairy and at that point we had a lot of open space and through lots of different connections, we ended up looking at building a golf course and decided to do it.

We incorporated in 1949. Prior to that, it was basically a family-owned, single family owner type set-up. At that time my grandfather had two brothers and three sisters. They created the corporation, equal shares among the six. Now we’re at 175 family shareholders.

Being incorporated, we have a board of directors. Currently, there’s four family members on the board and there are seven non-family members. Our outside management team is made up primarily of non-family members, so we’ve kind of evolved in a modern business sense as well through the corporate structure.

Agri-tourism Is the key

By the 1970s, we were well into the transition to direct marketing. At the same time, we were getting into the retail market. The farm stand started off at the end of our packinghouse. Did that through the 60s, outgrew that, opened the market building in 1972, and this has continued to kind of change and evolve over the years.

Our main thrust was to sell most of our apples through wholesale markets. The wholesale markets have changed dramatically and the apple business has become a global market, extremely competitive. To survive, we’ve had to become more direct marketers. So we’ve looked for ways to sell more of our fruit to our customers. We got into pick-your-own in the late 60s. Obviously we push a lot through the store. Recently, our pies have really taken off and we’ve been wholesaling pies around the northeast.

Pick-your-own was our first foray into what I would call agritourism -- the customers coming out onto the farm and participating in activities, in this case picking, and that has grown dramatically for us. We do a lot of special events, festivals, whatever, here at the store. We do workshops, whether it be baking workshops, how-to canning, that kind of thing, so people participate in something that’s maybe not something they do all the time at home, and recently the corn maze has become a big piece for us.

Today Lyman Orchards is a very diversified business. We’re basically in the orchard business. We grow apples, peaches, pears, small fruits, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and pumpkins. We also have a retail market and we have a bakery that supports the store. We also have a wholesale pie business that’s been growing dramatically in the last couple of years and we have two 18-hole championship golf courses. And we also have our old homestead, which we rent for space for parties, weddings.

Our focus is to try to promote Connecticut-grown, absolutely. I think local grown is a strong natural draw to the customer. I think it just is. The challenge is have we made our message clear enough? Have we done our distribution and how we market ourselves to really promote the local angle well enough? I would say we probably haven’t done a near enough good job on that, so I would say that that’s our opportunity.

We’re transitioning from primarily production orientation to more consumer-driven. We’re serving guests, so we have to become more in tune to the hospitality industry. I think sometimes the reaction is a little snickering, sort of saying, “your trees are for show.” No, they’re not really. They’re there, producing our products that really are the show. It’s the end products that people are coming for, but you need the production. As we all get comfortable with it, we begin to realize that, you know, there’s substance behind the agritourism, it’s just the emphasis is different.

A love of farming survives

Our common theme is really open space management, utilizing our open space, whether it be on the golf course, whether it be the growing of fruit, whether it be our fields that we have our events in here at the store, our corn maze, the agritourism piece.

So our challenge has been to really kind of move from a mentality that is production-oriented to more of a service-oriented business. We’re still producing as much as we always did -- in some cases producing more of, say, pies, for instance, and maybe less of apples, but it’s still production and it’s still a very serious part of our business.

There have been challenges from the day we started farming. One of the challenges you have is the weather situation, whether it be a hailstorm, hurricane. We went through some very difficult times. The hurricane of 1938, for instance, just about put all of the fruit growers out of business.

I think what has kept us going is a spirit of a love of farming, to be honest with you. I think that’s just kind of passed through the generations. And I think the desire the families have to continue to have an agricultural component of our business. It kind of holds us together. It is unique. It makes us different. But we also realize that we’ve got to be successful, we’ve got to be profitable to be able to continue to be successful in the future.

The value of agriculture

We have a vision statement for our company: “To preserve and enhance the value of our land for current and future generations.” What that really means is the open space and the value of that land as open space, finding ways to use that productively -- agriculture being one, golf course being another. We’ve been growing our events on the store grounds. Since we bring more people here, maybe we need more room for parking or other events that we might draw to here in Middlefield, so there’s no question that the family would like to retain the open space.

And one of our shareholders talked about the fact that it can only become more valuable, If you think of it -- in the dead center of the state, right off of I-91, there’s 1,100 acres that are still open -- it can only get more valuable. Really a Mecca, in a way, to draw people, to experience something that was maybe a long time ago for them, going out on the farm and being able to enjoy a few hours. And tell the kids, “this is how I grew up and this is the kind of community I grew up in.” So I think those are the kinds of things the family sees as having business value in the future.

But I think the desire of the family continues to be to retain the land, use the land productively. Agriculture is a great way to use it productively. At the same time, I think there’s a sense of the fact that if you maintain and utilize it, it appreciates in value. I don’t think there’s a desire to cash it in, but I think it does create an extra value, more value today than certainly it was just two generations ago.

Challenges and opportunities in the future

Obviously Connecticut agriculture has transitioned over the last 20 years. The real strength of the industry is the nursery business, whether it be greenhouses or bedding plants or flowers. But the other element that’s growing is really the value-added component and the niche marketing that’s taking place. I think people would be surprised that the more traditional agriculture in the state -- dairy, tobacco, poultry, for instance -- that’s gone through challenges and it has changed.

The state of agriculture in Connecticut is surprisingly strong. I think that would come as a surprise to a lot of people. I think we’re positioned to kind of go through a renaissance for Connecticut agriculture.

I think we’ve got so many opportunities ahead of us. We’re still in the best market in the world.  It’s a highly populated state, which means it’s got its challenges, but we’ve got our customers right here. They don’t have to drive very far.

We have competition from all over the world coming into these same markets for the reason that they are very strong markets, so we need to continue to protect our turf and expand our influence on our own turf and I think that’s entirely possible. We just have to think more from a marketer’s perspective and less of a producer’s perspective.

We’re marketing ourselves as the destination, so our challenge in the future is to create the kind of activities here that draw people from a long distance, as well as locally. Our sweet spot should be a 50-mile radius, so we should be able to draw people from 150 miles. As central Connecticut, and really all of Connecticut, becomes more hospitality-oriented, it might not be out of the question that people would come from around the world to come to Connecticut to experience all the things that Connecticut has to offer, including agriculture.

Keeping the land, working the land

If you have productive agriculture, thriving agriculture, you’re keeping open space, but the cost to the taxpayer is minimal. I would argue, actually, the benefit to the taxpayer is so much more because you’ve got products to purchase, so the economy is strengthened through strong agriculture. A way of life for Connecticut is maintained in that balance.

There’s no question, we’re more urbanized and we’ll continue to become more urbanized, but a strong agriculture, which maintains the open space that Connecticut citizens have become used to, I think that’s why it’s important.

There is a demand for land. I have talked to a number of young individuals who want to get into farming and can’t afford the land, so our challenge now is to make these acres, which have been preserved as open space, available to these entrepreneurs that want to get into the business.

I think the first step is to keep the land available. The next step has to be how to make the finances work for the new entrepreneurs. This could be a cluster initiative issue to look at, as well as really the state economic development: How do you work with banks, how do you work with communities, how do you work with land trusts to make the connection of those that are willing to take the time and effort and risk to build something, but can’t afford to buy the land or get into a lease that’s going to sink them in the first couple of years.

Copyright 2008 SimonPure Productions, LLC

Working the Land: The Story of Connecticut Agriculture
is a Co-Production of
SimonPure Productions and Connecticut Humanities Council

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