Valley Bounty: The Phoenix farm adapts

  • Young apple trees at Phoenix Fruit Farm’s orchard in Belchertown. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Phoenix Fruit Farm road sign for a country story. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Phoenix Fruit Farm “pick your own” road sign. PAUL SHOUL

  • Phoenix Fruit Farm owner Elly Vaughan at her orchard in Belchertown. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • The interior of Phoenix Fruit Farm’s Country Store in Belchertown. PAUL SHOUL

  • An up-close look at apples at the Phoenix Fruit Farm in Belchertown. PAUL SHOUL

For the Gazette
Published: 10/1/2021 1:25:33 PM

At Phoenix Fruit Farm in Belchertown, owner Elly Vaughan is reimagining how a mid-size orchard like hers — one of hundreds in the hills of western Massachusetts — can sustain itself and contribute to a thriving local community.

The metaphor of a phoenix, with its symbolism of rebirth, is an apt one for the story of this farm. But while the phoenix of myth rises from the ashes as a young version of its former self, under Vaughan’s guidance, Phoenix Fruit Farm is becoming something new and different. As the world around us changes, she sees how farms like hers must adapt, too.

When Vaughan bought the farm in 2015, she found herself with almost 50 acres of land filled with hundreds of mostly apple trees and a handful of buildings, many of which were well past their prime. “Most of the trees were declining, and the orchard hadn’t been replanted much at all in 20 years,” she says.

Vaughan also quickly realized the farm’s previous business model was equally antiquated.

“Before, it was built around a mid-sized wholesale operation,” she says. But as more and more cheap apples were grown elsewhere, “many orchards like this either got bigger and more mechanized or went under around the late ’90s.”

To breathe new life into the farm, Vaughan drew on her yearslong experience managing farms in the Valley and perspective gained farming around the globe. The work before her: replacing aging trees with young stock while rethinking what to grow and how to connect people to their food. In crafting a new business model, two strategies rose to the top: diversifying and connecting with customers directly.

Up in the hills off Sabin Street, Phoenix Fruit Farm’s orchards are being overhauled. Over half of the old apple trees, once numbering more than 4,000, have been removed. These are being replaced with a growing diversity of new trees and vegetable crops.

“We’ve planted peaches, nectarines, pears, table grapes, strawberries and asparagus,” says Vaughan, along with annual crops including pumpkins, cucumbers, squash and soon winter greens, the latter three grown in the farm’s new high tunnel greenhouse.

In shifting to direct sales, most of this bounty finds its way to customers at the farm’s own store, at local farmers markets, or as customers come to enjoy pick-your-own apples and peaches. Soon, Vaughan hopes to add pick-your-own strawberries, pumpkins and cut flowers to give customers more opportunities to visit throughout the season.

She also hopes to make more value-added products. “Right now we have three items; an apple butter, a peach-habanero salsa, and our signature Phoenix Breath Peach Hot Sauce,” she explains. These products are a great outlet for imperfect produce that isn’t sold whole, a business strategy that Vaughn says “can be a financial game-changer for small farms.”

Many of the changes Vaughan has pursued proved to be more complex than anticipated. Phoenix Fruit Farm’s Country Store, built on Mill Valley Road in 2019, might take the cake.

“I built the store because I needed a retail outlet for my apples, but it’s almost a whole other entity now,” Vaughan says with a laugh. As more products were added to entice more visitors, it’s become a comprehensive local grocery store now open year-round. They sell everything Phoenix Fruit Farm grows and makes, along with prepared foods, household goods, and dozens of other local products — meat, dairy, eggs, produce and more.

The store’s foray into prepared foods started with Vaughan’s fixation on making cider doughnuts. When it became clear that the equipment needed wouldn’t justify just making doughnuts, “I decided to go all in on making prepared food — sandwiches, muffins, side dishes, cold salads, pies, quiches, all that stuff,” Vaughan says. “And it’s become one of the biggest sales categories in the store.”

As it cements itself as a consistent year-round outlet for groceries, Vaughan has realized the Country Store’s role in ensuring food access in that region. “We accept SNAP (the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and HIP (the state’s Healthy Incentives Program, which provides instant rebates on SNAP benefits spent on local produce),” she explains, “which gives folks in those programs the opportunity to access high-quality food and local produce from all over the Valley.”

That’s one immediate way Phoenix Fruit Farm supports the community and a strong local food economy. But Vaughan is also thinking bigger, and further into the future.

“So much of the work building and maintaining local food systems is ignored by broader society,” she says. “It’s silent labor done every day by farmers and people who take it upon themselves to get involved.”

“Small farms that sell directly are one of the most efficient ways to get high quality food into the community,” Vaughan continues, “and I don’t think enough is done to compensate farmers for doing that work.”

Vaughan has been awarded some support for the store and orchard’s transformation from competitive public grants. Some farmers look down on making use of grant funding, she says, but in her eyes, “It’s not about us, here and now. It’s about using all the tools at our disposal to makes sure we leave behind a farm that someone else can continue to farm when we’re gone.”

“I think in the long term, it’s a smart move on the state’s behalf to invest in local farms in this way. The things I’ve used these grants for [building renovations, a new well, land rehabilitation, etc.], they’re not just investments in my farm now, but in this farmland for generations of farmers to come.”

Phoenix Fruit Farm’s produce and specialty products are sold at their Country Store in Belchertown, open every day. They can also be found at the Belchertown Farmers Market (which is open through Oct. 3, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.) and the Farmers Market at Forest Park in Springfield (Tuesdays 12:30-6 p.m. through October).

Meanwhile, the orchard on Sabin Street is open for pick-your-own apples Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Oct. 17, barring inclement weather (customers can call 413-213-1414 to confirm the orchard is open). Cash, credit and SNAP are all accepted forms of payment.

Jacob Nelson is xommunications xoordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about local farms and pick-your-own opportunities near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.


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