Apple Grower Of The Year Known For Progressive Approach To Apple Growing And Leadership
It takes a great deal of innovation, organization, and commitment in order for midsize growers to not only survive today’s apple market but also to be successful in it. You’ll find each of these attributes among the people involved in LynOaken Farms Inc. in Lyndonville, NY. Located almost exactly between Rochester and Niagara Falls, about three miles south of Lake Ontario, LynOaken Farms first opened in the early 1920s.
Since then, it has been passed down through three generations to where it stands today as one of New York’s most successful apple growing operations.
At the heart of LynOaken Farms is one of its namesakes, Darrel Oakes, American and Western Fruit Grower’s 2004 Apple Grower of the Year. Oakes’ progressive approach to apple growing and marketing, and his leadership in fruit associations at both the state and international level, have earned him recognition from his peers and have benefited the entire apple industry.
However, Oakes is quick to shift praise to the collective group of owners who are responsible for the success of LynOaken Farms.
“One of the reasons we’ve been able to survive these tough times is because we’ve had people who are really tied to the family and the land that we operate,” explains Oakes.
Among the 10 people involved in the family corporation that runs the farm are Oakes, his wife Linda, his sister Wendy Wilson (who recently joined the business after a career in the import/export market), and his cousin, Jeff Oakes. In addition, Darrel’s son Jonathan and his nephew, Jerod Thurber, are both involved with the company, along with two other long-time employees, brothers Johnny and Leonard Harris.
Oakes’ grandfather started the farm, and his grandmother still plays an advisory role. For many years, his father Jim ran the business, and he is responsible both for the growth and success of the company and for the strong influence he had on Darrel Oakes’ life.
“He was very forward-thinking and encouraged us to get out and learn, but he also gave us latitude to make mistakes as we were growing into the business,” says Oakes of his father, who passed away in 1998.
For example, Jim Oakes was very innovative in semi-dwarfing rootstocks, dating back to their early days in the 1950s, and was one of the first growers in his area to plant dwarf trees.
Down On The Fann
LynOaken Farms includes about 230 acres of apples, as well as 60 acres of tart cherries and small acreages of fresh-market peaches, sweet cherries, and the farm’s latest experiment, winegrapes. The crop is mostly designated for the fresh wholesale market, and approximately 90% of production goes through two of the major packers in the area, HH Dobbins and Co. and Lake Ontario Fruit.
In recent years, LynOaken Farms has worked on developing a direct store retail program, but by and large, the farm remains a wholesale operation.
“Because of this, we have to be very efficient at what we do in today’s market and get as many bushels as possible of high-quality fruit,” says Oakes.
After graduating from Penn State University with a horticulture degree in 1974, Oakes went back to the farm where he had grown up. He jumped right into the business with a few acres of high-density plantings, primarily on M.9. Today, much of the farm’s acreage is on M.9, averaging about 500 to 600 trees per acre with spacings of 6-feet-by-12-feet or 6-feet-by-14-feet.
Top varieties include Empire, Jonagold, McIntosh, Gala, Crispin, Delicious, and newer varieties such as Honeycrisp and Ginger Gold.
Oakes is willing to take chances in the orchard. In the late ’90s, he admits they were perhaps overly aggressive in planting about 100 acres of trees at a time when the market was in a downturn. Although there is no planting taking place this year, Oakes says the farm is aiming to rotate about 5 to 10 acres of trees each year in order to keep up with consumer varietal preference and updates in strains.
Oakes credits many factors in the success of LynOaken Farms, including the supportive family situation when it comes to running the business. In many cases, family members have gone out into the world, gained valuable experience in business, marketing, and other non-agriculture-related ventures, and come back with new perspectives. In fact, Oakes points out that this supportive and knowledgeable infrastructure has given him the chance to take part in opportunities that other growers may not have.
“There are a lot of other very capable people in the fruit industry that haven’t had the time to step away from their operation,” says Oakes. “That’s one thing I’ve been lucky to be able to do.”
Location also plays an important role, both in terms of geography and in relationship building. For example, Oakes says the well-drained soil and climate in Western New York are ideal for growing high-quality fruit. Rainfall is adequate, and the region is well protected by the lake, which does not freeze. In addition, because of its proximity to Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, Oakes and LynOaken Farms have collaborated on several projects with Cornell Extension agents Steve Hoying, Terence Robinson, and others.
“I consider them excellent colleagues, and we’ve been able to come up with ideas and trials at our farm to observe what works and what doesn’t,” he says.
A Strong Influence Today
With his years of experience, Oakes has been asked to serve on numerous boards, beginning with the Advisory Committee of the Lake Ontario Fruit Extension team. From 1989 to 1997, Oakes served on the board of directors for the International Dwarf Fruit Tree Association, including two years as president.
“I was very honored to be a part of that organization,” says Oakes. “It broadened my scope and allowed us to bring many ideas into our operation from other areas around the world.”
In recent years, Oakes has shifted gears somewhat to focus on the state level. His recent involvement with the New York Apple Association helped pave the way for the group’s export efforts in Cuba and its handling of marketing orders.
When he’s not involved in association duties, Oakes jumps full-speed into activity both in and out of the orchard. With the help of his sister, he is carrying on an Apple Depot marketing effort first developed by his father. Through the program, Oakes and his sister install coolers in stores and specialty markets with LynOaken-branded products.
“We have about 15 to 18 outlets in Western New York, with the potential to expand,” notes Oakes.
In addition, Oakes and his family developed an over-the-row sprayer that, while not as efficient in the apple orchards as had been hoped, could be used in LynOaken’s newly planted vineyard. One technique that has worked very well is the use of sleds in harvesting. Instead of spending a couple thousand dollars on a bin trailer that could bruise the fruit, the Oakes family built sleds that can haul crates on a flat level. Today the farm provides these sleds to other growers around the area.
What about when he’s not in the orchard?
For the past several years, Oakes has been heavily involved in local education, including serving for nine years running on the local Board of Cooperative Educational Services. He also sings in a church choir, and recently entered the world of musical theatre. In fact, he just closed a production of Fiddler On The Roof.
“It’s intense, but it does help take your mind off other issues,” says Oakes.
Thoughts On Today’s Apple Industry
Although Darrel Oakes freely admits he does not offer direct advice (it’s hard to blame him when you’re trying to compete as a mid-sized operation in a tough market), he will discuss his own concerns about today’s market, and what his farm has done. The biggest challenge today, says Oakes, is to remain efficient enough to keep the costs of production per bushel low enough to compete. This is difficult when you don’t have the efficiencies of scale of a large, vertically integrated operation, but are too large to rely solely on retail or direct marketing. One solution for
LynOaken Farms has been a focus on uniformity in orchard design and production. The purpose of this configuration is to allow for maximum efficiency at harvest time and make it easier for pickers to harvest several rows at once.
More thoughts from Oakes on the apple industry today:
- On pricing:
“There still seems to be a lot of pressure from the retail arena to maintain fairly low pricing for growers, which puts pressure on them to be as efficient as possible.”
- On marketing new varieties:
These varieties need to be managed in a way that keeps the value up for both the retailer and the grower. An apple like Honeycrisp, while difficult to grow, can be a hit with consumers. In addition, the market structure for potential club varieties, such as Jazz, is still unknown. There is some momentum for them, but because they often exclude a majority of growers and growing areas. “I’m concerned about whether they will be successful or not,” says Oakes.
Words Of Support
Darrel Oakes was nominated by several individuals to be the 2004 Apple Grower of the Year, including two industry leaders he has worked closely with in recent years. Each of them had praise for Oakes’ efforts on behalf of the industry.
“Darrel has been a leader in the production of high-quality fruit utilizing highdensity orchards for over a decade,” says George Lamont, executive director, New York State Horticultural Society and 1997 Apple Grower of the Year.
“In today’s competitive fruit growing and marketing industry, I usually separate people into two groups: Those that see the industry as a brick wall and choose to take bricks away in order to build their own wall, and those that see the benefits of adding more bricks to the wall to make it taller and stronger. Darrel has become a master mason of his craft, and continues to add bricks to the wall,” says James Allen, president, New York Apple Association.