A peach of a
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
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.
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
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
A love of farming
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
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.
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
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
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.