Originally published in Business Digest, November 1998

Adams' Apples

by Julia Lynam

For someone who set out to be a math teacher, John Adams sure owns a lot of apple trees! Slowly, over nearly 30 years, the Adams' 900-tree apple orchard in Williston grew from a small utility planting into a $350,000-a-year business with a lively pick-your-own operation.

Adams' Farm Market stands at the junction of Mountain View and Old Stage roads in the Williston hinterland -- worlds away from the Taft Corners development of monolithic national chain stores that most people associate with the town. It's a bright and welcoming place, and very definitely a family affair. John's wife, Peggy; their daughter, Kim Antonioli; and her 9-month-old daughter, Kyla, can usually be found in the shop, meeting and greeting customers. "It's a family place -- people relate to us as a family," John says. "We have a lot of regular customers and Peggy knows them well enough to talk to them about their families and their vacations."

Their older son, Scott, a business graduate of UVM, also plays a major role in the business, leading the marketing and advertising effort. "Farmer John" and "Farmer Scott" feature regularly on South Burlington radio station WJOY, giving reports straight from the farm about what's in season and what's coming up. "We've tried other radio stations," Scott explains, "and found that WJOY brings results because their format is family-friendly and fits with our own image."

The Adams' younger son, Steven, a senior at the University of New Hampshire, is also part of the team, helping in the field. He's planning to branch out from the family business when he graduates next summer.

John & Peggy Adams John and Peggy Adams of Adams' Farm Market plan to establish greenhouses to grow early- and late-season vegetables. Expanding Vermont's short growing season is important in offering fresh produce to entice customers to pass by supermarkets in favor of the Williston market. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

At peak, the business employs up to 15 seasonal workers, but by the end of the apple season in September they're back to just family.

John and Peggy moved to South Burlington from their hometown of Manchester, N.H., in 1968 when John took a job at IBM in Essex Junction. His career at IBM has waxed and waned, taking him through computer programming and management to his job in the manufacturing plant. Back in 1969, looking to the future, the couple bought a 5- acre hayfield in Williston with magnificent views of Mount Mansfield and Camel's Hump, with the intention of someday building a house there. They started planting trees in 1972. "When you have a big piece of property with nothing behind you, you think, 'What shall we put in?'" John says. The answer was to plant a few apple trees, and, inadvertently, to plant the seed of an idea as well.

"Then we went apple picking at a local orchard and found that we had to climb up difficult ladders to get a few apples," John continues. "We thought it would be a good idea to have a family friendly place, so we came up with the crazy idea of planting a whole orchard." The orchard, which flanks their house on Old Stage Road, is a place where, John says, "In early September you can sit down on the grass and pick a bushel of apples." That's because the trees of Macintoshes, Empires, Northern Spies, Red Rome Beauties and 14 other varieties have been careful selected and pruned to carry their fruit on low branches.

Pretty soon after they started selling apples and other produce from their orchard barn, they realized that the business was going to grow. They began planning for a shop that was eventually built on a site just half a mile away in 1994. The grand opening, John explains, was performed at 8:30 a.m. on May 27 by Gov. Howard Dean on his way to Montpelier. "I called him and said, 'Hey, on your way to work you're going to go past this really neat place that's like your office -- a showcase of Vermont products. Could you stop in and open it?' And he did!"

Gov. Dean remembers the occasion well: "It's an extraordinary family business," he says, "that's been very successful, because a lot of family members have worked very hard. This really is the essence of Vermont."

The Vermont products in the shop include maple syrup, of course, and also mustard, relish, jelly, Spring Hill pasta from Shaftesbury and local bread from the Lilydale Bakery in South Burlington. There are big displays of seasonal items for Halloween and Christmas with carefully selected Vermont gift items including hand-made wooden toys from Williston, scented cookie-cutter candles from Mendon and "cow" incense from Pawlet, as well as gift items from further afield. Cooler storage for 800 bushels ensures a steady supply of Adams' apples well into the winter. They're open right through Christmas Eve, offering an unusual Christmas shopping opportunity, then shutting down for the winter to re-open in May.

While many of the apples, pumpkins, squash and other produce sold in the shop come from the Adams' land, they quickly discovered that to keep a constant stock of varieties they needed to work closely with other local growers. From the very early days they sold vegetables grown by a neighbor, and began looking around for other suppliers.

The relationships John has built up with other growers over the years enable him to stay well stocked through the seasons. Norma Norris of the Norris Berry Farm in Monkton, for instance, has been buying from and selling to the Adams for several years. "We work with them quite a bit, buying each others' produce and just plain talking about what's going on," she says. "It's always nice to talk to other people in the same business and find out what's happening with them. They're real good people to work with -- that makes it easy."

It hasn't all been smooth sailing, though, and the Adams become animated when they recall the "disaster years."

"We lost the entire apple crop to frost in '92," Scott recalls. "We had a killing frost Memorial Day weekend, after the apples had already formed. We didn't pick a bushel from the whole orchard. We couldn't do pick-your-own and we had to buy in apples for the store."

1985 was the year Hurricane Hugo hit Vermont, just before the prime Macintosh picking weekend. "I lay in bed and heard apples just drop, drop, drop all night," says Kim. Customers rallied round: Some, hearing the weather forecast, came to help the family pick as much as they could before the gales hit. Others paid full price for drops. "It was very interesting to see how the relationships we'd built up with customers came through," says John.

In other years, early summer hailstorms have scarred the apples, "But even when I pointed out the damage and suggested they might want to pick only unblemished apples, people picked them anyway," says John.

This year's rains made life difficult for squash and pumpkins: "If we'd relied on what we grew ourselves, we wouldn't have enough," says Scott, who found that wet conditions had rotted many of the pumpkins in the field. They harvested what they could as early as possible and stacked them under canvas to keep for Halloween to avoid further losses.

"These tough experiences led to the decision to diversify," according to Kim.

Diversification is indeed the name of the game, and John and Peggy are always on the lookout for new ideas.

Take the pie business, for instance: Two years ago they started stocking home-baked fruit pies -- blackberry, raspberry, rhubarb, apple, mixed "bumbleberry," pumpkin, and even chocolate and peanut butter pies. They're supplied frozen and unbaked, and are baked in the Adams' kitchen. "The pie business exploded this summer," says Scott. "People found out about them and we sold more than 5,000 pies." They've also started supplying the pies wholesale to other farm markets.

The business gift-giving market is another area of quiet expansion. A local orthodontist took 65 pecks of apples for clients. Michael Cannizzaro, owner of Cannizzaro Appraisal Services Inc. of South Burlington, is a regular business customer: "We've been using Adams for three or four years," he says. "We print up fliers, which we send out to thank customers -- who are mostly mortgage lenders -- allowing them to receive a free peck of apples or $5 off a purchase at the shop. It's not really where we're trying to gain business, but it's a thank you and people seem to like it.

"I go out to the Adams store myself a couple of times a year for apples and pumpkins," Cannizzaro continues. "It seems to fit our business. It's a nice family-run store."

A second store on Route 15 in Essex, however, proved unprofitable. "We thought we could grow the revenue better with another outlet, as we don't get a lot of passing traffic here," says John. "But because we weren't growing the produce right there it just didn't have the appeal." So after two-years the Essex store closed.

Traffic is growing closer to home. The continuing development of Williston has mixed effects on the farm market. New housing developments mean more customers, but when Hannafords at Taft Corners opened some years ago, the early season sales fell off. "We did a bit of struggling," John recalls, "although our loyal clientele stayed with us. We got more focused into asking 'What do we do well?'"

People will always come to a farm market for local, native produce, he says, but the Vermont growing season is short and if the produce is non-native many people prefer to buy it at the supermarket with the rest of their shopping.

So they've built on their strengths: local produce, a family- welcoming atmosphere and friendly service. Having tried both spring and apple-time festivals, the Adams focused this year on their high season, with two September weekend festivals featuring family fun -- apple tasting, singers, dancers, hay rides, pony rides and a petting zoo. The new strategy paid off: They drew 8,000 people over the two weekends and, as well as generating lots of business for themselves, raised $700 for the Williston church steeple restoration appeal. "We've found that you can't be just a farmer, you have to be an entertainer, too," John grins.

Still, they feel that they've only scratched the surface of the possibilities and that the ground is fertile for further expansion.

Vermont is a difficult place to grow things," says John. "If you could pick a fresh tomato eight months of the year instead of two, people would come for the native produce. So we're hoping to grow this site," he continues, indicating the land behind the shop, "with greenhouses for early- or late-season vegetables. We could keep tomatoes going right up to Christmas, or maybe all year." They're also looking at entering the mail order business, and they have plans to develop a website.

"And to think all this happened," John muses, "because we bought a bit of land with a wonderful view!"