4th Generation Fruit Farmers Talk Economics
Originally Posted: Thursday, September 5, 2013
Klein’s Kill Fruit Farm feels more like an office on Wall Street bustling with movement and sales, than a fourth generation regional family farm! In September and October it’s all about bringing fruit to the public to meet the needs of the fresh and value—added marketplace. So the window is short and the pace is fast.
Meet the Hudson Valley “Fruit Mafia” — the legacy of Antonio Bartolotta — entrepreneurial, honest, warm, generous people that work hard to maintain family values and compete in the big business of fruit production and sales in New York state with their business — Klein’s Kill Fruit Farms Corporation of A. Bartolotta & Sons in Germantown.
Six brothers (Benny, Tony, Russell, Al, Phillip and Robert, who range in age from 86 to 74 years old) and a brother—in—law, (Armand Conte) made this business a wholesale success story buying and selling apples that are an economic driving force in New York state today. Their family business is one of the largest in the region, growing apples and feeding folks at supermarkets and restaurants with ready—paks pre—sliced for kids.
The family that farms together stays together and when I visited Russell Bartolotta Jr. at the farm there were 100 employees busy harvesting and I left in the know about fruit economics and what it takes to make that peach perfect.
That’s the thing about perfect fruit — it’s rare, Russ Jr. told me. “It’s all about timing and the variables that can put you out of business in a flash,” he said. That’s why on this family farm: “It’s a fascinating business. Never a dull moment. No matter what, there is always one ‘girl’ you will have to worry about — even when you grow, ship and market yourself — and that’s the wrath of Mother Nature.”
Russ Jr. explained further, “The Northeast apple business has been hell for the last 13 years. Between hail and frost, if you cannot afford to implement different technologies as an investment you won’t make it in farming as a mid—size farmer in fruit. But if you can, and Mother Nature cooperates, it’s a really great way of life.”
Luckily, we live in New York state which means we are the second biggest producers of fruit in the country, only second to Washington State. And as nicknames go — we live up to our Big Apple reputation. At Klein’s Kill Fruit Farms, the apples are so perfect you won’t want to eat just one a day and the sweet juicy peach juice that drips down your face after one bite brings a joy that far surpasses the typical supermarket experience with fruit.
My mission? Bringing awareness back to the farm and highlighting the hard work of these families for food choices that restore your common sense, make you demand food that is fresh, nutritious and supports your local community to foster economic development while re—establishing a foundation of values and wellness that are pure goodness.
It’s simple really — the responsibility is in our hands — us — the people — to demand local food and relay this message to the farm by buying local. Our food choices create a better supply and in the business of commodity fruit make a big impact for a 600—acre family farm.
“It’s a lesson in economics this business — basic supply and demand principles that make opening day of the harvest season my favorite day of the year,” Russ Jr. told me with smiling eyes and an impressive business acumen that keeps this family is in the big business of fruit — with even bigger plans for growth.
This family doesn’t only have longevity — but legacy, too. With an Italian heritage (and spirit!) descending from Sicily, in 1904 Antonio Bartolotta came to Ellis Island and worked on the railroads his first few years in NYC until he arrived in Columbia County in 1912.
In the fall of 1912, he was working for a farmer named George Van Dyke on the farm of Russell Cooper, who could trace his ancestry to the blue—blooded Livingston family, the most powerful family in the area during the colonial era and beyond.
“Antonio fell in love with the farmer’s daughter, “ said Robert Egan, one of Antonio’s grandsons. In 1913, Antonio married Jessie Cooper and had 13 children (that produced 43 grandchildren and 55 great—grandchildren) who mostly live in the area today around Linlithgo, a hamlet of Germantown.
In the spring of 1921, Antonio and Jesse Bartolotta bought their first farm and called it the Home Farm where the Home Stead was, which was 225 acres. They renamed the farm Klein’s Kill Fruit Farm because of the Klein’s Kill creek, a tributary to the Hudson River. The word “kill” means creek in Dutch — original settlers to agriculture in Columbia County.
“This isn’t something you do unless you have passion and love it — better to grow up in it than learn on your own,” Russ Jr. told me. Hard working and four generations later they have a formula to sustain profitability that is at work and working.
Buying and selling apples as a vertically integrated business, this family farm sells coast to coast with the Bartey Brand growing annually as big retailers look to connect consumers to the family farm for better nutrient dense food choices.
Russ Jr. graduated from the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge in agriculture and ran the family farm stand in Rhinebeck until 1999. In 2000, he took over operations on the farm and encouraged his son Zachary as a teenager to foster a love for fruit farming, too.
Zach is in his second year at UMASS Amherst following in his father’s footsteps. His daughter Allie is also studying agriculture from the business point of view and their cousin Adam works at the farm helping coordinate food safety measures for GAP certification. It’s all about raising your replacement.
Russ Jr. told me, “I love this business because it’s never boring, lots of action in watching the market and managing variables. It’s like buying and selling stocks but we are not at the mercy of others as we grow, pack, store, sell and market our own products.”
Each year the family plants new trees in spring (April), grows crops (April — through July) when peaches, nectarines and plums harvest until mid September. Early apples and pears harvest mid—August through October and once the plants go dormant in November through the winter they begin trimming and prepping for the following year.
The original farm harvested many currants and grapes, as well as gooseberries, sour cherries, peaches and apples in varieties that have long gone to rest: “Black Twig, Baldwin, Northern Spy and Rhode Island green,” Russ Sr. described the old time apples.
The new hopeful is the early apple called Zestar, a great eating apple (tastes like honey crisp mixed with macoun) but hasn’t yet replaced the favorites of Russ Jr. (Empire), Russ Sr. (Macoun), Al (Cortland) and Robert (Gala).
It seems very simple and antiquated but with modern technologies it’s very much an informed science — Russ Jr. consults with various experts (including President Russ Sr. and the brothers who come to the office daily as directors) for advice, data and weather updates (from Cornell University online) to better indicate what’s ahead and manage maximum output of the fruits of their labor.
With new technologies and retailers no longer refrigerating apples — the business moves fast and you have to stay informed planting higher density, higher yield trees to maximize output and be ahead of the curve, which is why at Klein’s Kill 15 to 20,000 new trees are planted each season replacing old trees then used for firewood.
With higher density — new trees yield more fruit and costs are lower. “It’s a world market now which means I’m out hunting for new business every day. What happens in Europe or South American affects our nation and the apple business is a great economics course,” Russ Jr. tells me passionately while perusing the World Apple Report and noting that, “China grows four times the amount of apples but 78 percent are Fuji — but since they don’t have the right root stock or storage they cannot diversify the crop, so we as an industry must be on the cutting edge.”
When did we swap convenience for nutrition?
Somehow on the way to the supermarket we lost our good food way, but it is not too late for change once you learn about the big business of conventional fruit farms and the benefits of choosing local bounty that the Bartolotta family makes possible.
“Because of modern influences people don’t cook as much and society is growing more and more toward convenience. In the 90s there was no such thing as packaged sliced apples — since 2004 this business has ballooned giving the consumer healthy food choices. People will eat healthy but want it brought to them,” Russ Jr. explained.
“It’s a fascinating business — never a dull moment,” he tells me. If Mother Nature cooperates, “it’s a really great way to live.”
You can live a great long life too — just ask — who makes my food? And don’t be cheap! If you are cheap with your food your are cheating your health. An apple a day really does keep the doctor away. So be picky and get pickin’ family farmed apples this fall. Your own family will thank you — and the Bartolotta’s will too.
Copyright © 2013 Columbia-Greene Media