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Sustainable improvements, more volume at Fowler Farms

By
JD LaTorre

Favorable microclimate, proximity to the market and new investment put Fowler Farms in a particularly advantageous position for the upcoming Eastern apple season. “Our microclimate allows us to produce apples with consistency of supply and flavor year-in and year-out,” said Austin Fowler, sixth-generation owner and vice president of sales and marketing for the Wolcott, NY-based company. “We feel we grow fruit with excellent flavor more consistently than many other areas who struggle with that.”

Fowler reported this season’s crop looks good so far. “The weather and growing conditions have been favorable,” he said. “We may be about a week ahead of normal for first harvesting, probably around the fifth of September. We expect to be up over last year as far as volume goes.”

Fowler believes the company’s natural ability and commitment to sustainable production is more important than ever. “The sustainable, local model really speaks to consumers and retailers,” he said. “In the past, people could say it’s important but now people actually have to pay for it and they’re getting a clear understanding how much diesel fuel is burned by shipping apples across the country. With inflationary concerns at a high, our proximity to the major marketplace really makes sense. A vast majority of the U.S. population is in the East and especially the Northeast. And that’s where we are, so, it’s very meaningful and beneficial.”

Local is increasingly important in the marketplace, noted Fowler, and tends to stand up stronger than even organic. “But if you have local and organic, that’s a golden ticket,” he said. “So we’re working toward that goal. We have a small amount of organic production and are one of the only commercial organic apple growers on the East Coast. We’re learning more about what varieties work best in organic production for us. We see potential and growth for us and we’re continuing to grow the program.”   

To support the company’s organic growth, Fowler hired a full-time organic crop manager. “In the past we handled organic as part of our ongoing program but we realized it needs to be its own department,” said Fowler. “We created a new position and hired Mark Anjo as organic production lead. He has a good academic background in horticulture and a strong background in organics. The program is exciting and we’re proud of it.”

The company has also built new storage and is employing dynamic Controlled Atmosphere. “Instead of just putting the fruit in CA and using the typical mix, we actually measure the feedback of a small sample of fruit to give us an understanding of what is going on,” explained Fowler. “We can then adjust the CA environment better to store the fruit for longer. In the past it was just sort of a generic recipe, but now we’re doing it dynamically based on our analysis.”

Fowler has also made moves to become more efficient and sustainable in packaging. “We’re currently working on a new box which will likely offer a 15 to 20 percent reduction in corrugated but be stronger and more inexpensive to buy,” said Fowler. “It’s thinking ‘inside-the-box’ to find ways that are better for the environment. We’re examining all the routes to look at how to better ship, save a bit of money and help the environment.”

Yet the company also values tradition. “Macintosh is a variety we still do well with,” said Fowler. “Instead of trying to be new and different, we’ve gone back to an heirloom-type package to reflect the traditional feel of the Macintosh.”

Fowler Farms balances its traditional values and successes with a continual push in R&D. “We were raised from a young age to do things the right way and value hard work,” said Fowler. “We also combine that with the understanding of how things change. Technology changes and evolves, hopefully for a positive result and that’s our goal. We’re constantly looking at what to do, especially to make our business more sustainable. We don’t advertise or market it because it’s just what we do. We’re just a farm that wants to do things right for the greater good, and for all our employees and customers.”

The company continues to innovate and invest for the future. “We’re in the process of staking out a new cold storage CA facility beginning this fall,” said Fowler. “We currently have intentions of investing in some more robotics and equipment for bags and boxes. We also acquired about a 900-acre abandoned orchard from a developer right on the shores of Lake Ontario. We’ve spent the last year clearing it and prepping it to plant next season.”

 

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