An Antidote to “Get Big or Get Out”

The Story of Wilklow Orchards

Fred Wilklow’s great-great-grandfather established the family orchard in the hills of a town called Pancake Hollow back in 1855; a century later, when Fred was growing up, the farm grew exactly one thing — apples — which the Wilklows sold wholesale to area grocery stores.

But by the time Fred was twenty-seven, food was being trucked long distances and the USDA mantra was “get big or get out.” As prices fell in a race to the bottom, the wholesale market wasn’t covering the Wilklows’ costs, much less yielding a profit. Fred was the fifth generation to farm this land, married with two young children, and losing money on every case of apples he sold.

Orchards all around him were unable to sell their fruit for a fair price, but Fred found a way: the Greenmarket. He applied in 1984 and landed a spot at Brooklyn Borough Hall starting that June. It was about twenty years before Brooklyn became the American capital of the locavore revolution, but even back then Brooklynites knew good apples when they saw them. Which meant Fred could keep farming.

“Growing fruit well isn’t enough,” he said recently. “You have to be able to sell it, too. If you can’t turn your crop back into money, you don’t have anything.”

Farmer Fred Wilklow, a 5th Generation Apple Farmer in the Hudson Valley.

His new city customers didn’t just turn his apples back into money — he saw that they had an appetite for other fruits, too, which led him back to the farm’s more diverse roots. He planted peaches, plums, nectarines, pears, cherries, blueberries, even gooseberries. (Fred later discovered records from 1919 that showed the farm had boasted seven thousand currant bushes back then; he grows them, too, mostly red. His favorite way to eat them is in pancakes, where their tartness is a welcome contrast.)

Fred’s Greenmarket sales not only financed more trees — he was able to invest in infrastructure, too, eventually building a bakery, controlled-atmosphere storage, and greenhouses, growing not just food for his customers, but a business for his family. He bought more land. He even started raising pigs and cows. But most of all, he planted more apple trees, including many varieties, both old and new.

“We specialize in what we do best,” Fred says. The land may be too rocky and sloped to easily plow, but the Ulster County hills are widely renowned for their microclimate, ideal for growing tree fruit.

From tart greenings in late July to the Winesaps, Fujis, and Honeycrisps they pick into November, the Wilklows bring dozens of diverse varieties of apples to the Big Apple. They also welcome New Yorkers to their farm — every October, thousands of people visit Wilklow Orchards for pick-your-own apples, complete with hayrides and hot cider donuts.

And like Fred, who had a young family when he first gave Greenmarket a shot, his children now have young kids of their own and are hitching their future to selling in the city.

Thirty years after their first day at market, Fred has expanded the farm from 40 acres to more than 200, all within 5 miles of the original home farm. Today his four children, all grown, are employed on the farm — tending the trees, making preserves and pies, handling paperwork, even fermenting hard cider. In other words, they’ve come a long way.

“We were a small, mostly apple farm, struggling in the wholesale market. We found Greenmarket and are now extremely diversified,” says Fred, looking back. “Now we grow every kind of fruit, and our farm expanded as our family grew. Greenmarket has done that. It made us a successful farm that’s able to sustain our family. We now have five families living off this farm. And my grandkids are the seventh generation.”

This story is excerpted from The New Greenmarket Cookbook, by Gabrielle Langholtz and available from DA CAPO PRESS/Lifelong Books.

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