Fruit for all seasons

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John Bzdil at Dries Orchards grows a lot – strawberries, blackberries, cherries, peaches, nectarines, pears, grapes and apples. Photo by Sally Colby

by Sally Colby

When Ken and Mary Jo Dries determined it was time for someone to start taking over the business management side of their orchard, their nephew John Bzdil was ready.

Bzdil explained that the family’s interest in growing fruit began with Ken’s father, who cultivated some fruit trees in his yard and sold fruit from a roadside stand. Ken became interested in growing fruit, went to Penn State to study pomology, returned to the area and bought property to begin growing fruit.

Although Dries Orchards was originally established on 80 acres, the family is now growing a variety of fruit on several properties over 200 acres in the rolling hills of Sunbury, PA. Dries intentionally purchased orchard properties in several locations to help spread the risk in the event of hail or other crop-damaging weather.

The season begins with strawberries, which were first planted about 15 years ago. “We start a new patch every few years, trying new varieties and eliminating those that don’t sell well,”
said Bzdil. “We like AC Wendy – it grows well for us. We’ve also grown Malwina, a dark, late-season variety that helps keep the strawberry season going for as long as possible. I might try some U-pick strawberries next season. It requires more staffing and preparation, but it’s popular.” Bzdil added that customers who come for early strawberries are more likely to return for other seasonal fruit.

Next to ripen are black raspberries, which are grown on a string trellis with drip irrigation, followed by sweet and sour cherries. “We put a high tunnel over the sweet cherries to protect them,” said Bzdil, adding that it’s tricky to determine when to cover the cherries. “We could put the cover on earlier and bring cherries to blossom earlier, and it might help with frost protection, but keeping the rain off is the biggest benefit.” In addition to making fruit unsalable, cracks on sweet cherries leave the fruit vulnerable to brown rot.

Bumblebees are at work to pollinate high tunnel sweet cherries along with mason bees from a local beekeeper. Although mason bees won’t replace honeybees, they work well in cooler weather and in the growing conditions in a tunnel. Although birds are always a problem with cherries, even under cover, recorded bird deterrents help keep them at bay.

Because many customers are interested in U-pick sour cherries, a new sour cherry orchard is planned for next year. Customers appreciate being able to pit their cherries on site with Dries’ pitter. The ability to offer pitted cherries also opens up markets for frozen cherries, which are pitted and then frozen in 25-pound tubs for bakeries.

Dries Orchards grows about 25 acres of peaches and nectarines, with varieties ranging from early to mid to late season. Bzdil said peaches are difficult to offer as U-pick because most people aren’t familiar with how fragile peaches are, and how to determine whether they’re ready to pick. “To have peaches that are ripe and transport to market is tough because they bruise so easily,” he said. “Customers can be unhappy, so we try to pick and sell them when they’re a still a little hard.” Pears, including Bartlett, Seckel, Bosc and D’Anjou, are available in late summer.

Grapes, primarily Concord and Niagara, were established in 1968, and although the vines are mature and don’t require a lot of attention, they’re pruned in early spring, fertilized and weeded. Many customers enjoy coming to pick grapes for fresh eating, while others like them for juice or jelly.

The first apples to ripen at Dries Orchards include Lodi, Paula Red, Summer Rambo and Ginger Gold. Other varieties include Gala, Honeycrisp, McIntosh, Red and Yellow Delicious, Cameo, Fuji, Granny Smith and Pink Lady. In addition to selling apples to several major grocery chains, apple orchards are open for U-pick. Bzdil said customers are provided with instructions on where to pick.

Dries Orchards has a full-time field crew to handle pruning, picking and general maintenance. “When we’re busy picking apples, we have to figure out how to get the rest of the grapes in,” said Bzdil. “We’d like to eventually get into more automation to be more efficient.” He added that apples must be picked carefully since many of them are going to fresh markets.

The first automated apple grader for the packing house was installed in 1970. Several other graders had been used prior to the addition of the current computerized grader, which grades mostly for size as line workers grade for color. Dries Orchards makes cider year-round with an old hydraulic press, which Bzdil said works well. However, due to increasing demand from the grocers who purchase Dries Orchards cider, the system will likely be upgraded to meet that demand. Bzdil estimated the volume of cider produced is about 150,000 to 200,000 gallons each year.

Cold storage allows Dries Orchards to store around 75,000 bushels of apples in six different rooms. Dries installed the first controlled atmosphere (CA) room about 20 years ago because they were marketing to local grocery chains. One room is dedicated CA storage, and three other rooms were constructed such that they could easily be converted for CA storage. “When we built the storage, we knew we weren’t going to use them for CA right away,” said Dries. “But we wanted to build them so we had the option.”

As other orchards have experienced, Bzdil noticed more customers asking questions about canning and freezing fruit. He has also seen an increased interest in preserving fruit among young people. Nearby Bucknell University purchases fruit for foodservice, and Bucknell students also visit the orchard for U-pick.

Dries Orchards sells produce at a local farmers market, and the on-farm market features freshly picked fruit, a variety of local in-season vegetables and an assortment of specialty items such as honey, baked goods and custom-made gift baskets. Visit Dries Orchards online at DriesOrchards.com and on Facebook.

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