Rogers Orchards Produces Generations of Apple Farmers
By Jeff Otterbein
Take care of the family.
Take care of the land.
Eight generations of the Rogers family have done that.
“This is not a forced march back to the farm,” says John Rogers ’67, retired president of Rogers Orchards, Inc., in Southington, Conn. “My dad [Frank ’42] did other things before coming back, and I did other things before coming back. And Greg, Peter, Jeff, and Martha certainly did other things before coming back.”
But there is something about that farm, that land, that takes root in you.
John fully retired in 2019 so he gets to spend more time with his wife of nearly 50 years, Nancy. Inside John’s head there is so much knowledge about the business that can be tapped anytime. He’s just up the road from the Shuttle Meadow Farm location on Long Bottom Road, one of two retail locations.
John and Nancy’s son Peter ’98 and their son-in-law Greg Parzych ’95 are the co-presidents of Rogers Orchards. Peter’s specialty is the financial side; he also is the CEO. Greg’s specialty is the growing side. Greg is married to John and Nancy’s daughter Martha ’95 who also works for the family business as the assistant treasurer and secretary. John and Nancy’s son Jeff recently stepped in to start a new venture, making hard cider.
“My father, myself, and those involved in the business now all have bought into this idea that we are just stewards of the land,” John says as he stands near some of the more than 100,000 apple trees at Rogers Orchards. “And our intent is to pass it on to the next generation. We have eight grandchildren — that’s the ninth generation — and we hope someday one or more of those will come back and make this their life’s work. That is the vision we all have.”
It’s hard to think that it will not happen. As they say, the apple does not fall far from the tree. Each generation has learned from the previous one. John’s father, Frank, died in 2008. Martha and Greg had come back in 2007, and Peter joined them in 2008.
“Seeing that gave my father so much pleasure and appreciation for his life’s work,” John says. “And I had joy and pride and satisfaction when I stepped down on a full-time basis knowing that I had passed down the farm in the black as it was given to me by my dad for the next generation to take it and run with as they saw fit. And I knew that when I retired, the family had the same focus as I had, and their grandfather had. I can’t say enough about how proud and thankful Nancy and I are that they are committed to the success and sustainability of the farm for the next generation.”
Frank worked for an insurance company in Hartford, John taught in Massachusetts, Greg and Martha taught at The Forman School in Litchfield, Conn., and Peter and Jeff worked in New York, but they all came back.
“I remember John’s father, Frank, telling a story about when he worked in Hartford at an insurance company and someone from the company came up to him and said, ‘You have a chance to go back and have your own family business. You’d be a fool not to think of it,’” Nancy recalls.
John jumps in for a second. “My father worked two jobs,” John says. “He also opened a frozen food business in West Hartford when freezers just became a thing and frozen food was big back in the ’40s.”
That is the type of foresight still seen in the family.
Greg could see down the road, too. Before he and Martha taught at The Forman School, he had worked in environmental consulting. He had not yet found his place. Now he has.
“I was always interested in agriculture and was interested in the orchard because it is a lot of science,” Greg says. “It is like a giant lab classroom — but the stakes are higher.”
Says Martha, “We came back after our first child was born. You start thinking more long range. We thought about where we wanted to raise our family.”
“We have always had a connection to the farm, but it was a natural cycle for all of us to explore other things,” he says. “And to come back in a way that was right for all of us.”
And to do what is right for all of them.
“I like the challenge of growing and changing the business model in a way that we can pass it down a little healthier, a little stronger for whoever takes it over next,” Peter says. “I think that challenge and that long-term thinking has always been at the core — bad pun, sorry — of what we have done for over 200 years.”
Now there is the latest addition: hard cider, Jeff’s venture.
“The idea to contribute to the family business was always something on my mind,” Jeff says, “and I recognized the potential of a value-added extra product. Hard cider is a part of the business we can grow.”
Jeff was introduced to making hard cider when he was a teacher at The Lycée Français, an independent bilingual French school in New York. He started experimenting at home in Brooklyn, New York.
Staying One Step Ahead
Farms do not get to the next generation without foresight, and Rogers Orchards now produces about $10 million in revenue a year.
When Frank came back to the farm in 1948, the business was in the red. The city of New Britain told him it needed some of his land to build a reservoir. He said no, but the land was claimed by eminent domain.
“My father took the money from the negotiated settlement and used that money to buy a second farm [Sunnymount on the Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike],” John says. “That enabled us to open a second salesroom, and that was great vision because it opened up another way to retail, which is a far better return than wholesaling. It also enabled another u-pick-it operation that catered to towns close to there — Cheshire, Waterbury, Wolcott. That kind of forward thinking was all about growing the business, but also about taking care of the land and making sure you were only enhancing the land and not turning it into houses, giving the next generation to do what he enjoyed doing all his life. That was me and now it’s the kids.”
John looks at those “kids” gathered in the house once lived in by Elijah Rogers, who was born in 1861 and died in 1949. Elijah is John’s great-grandfather. Elijah married Sarah Merriman and they purchased land adjoining the Merriman farm, which started in 1809, the year Abraham Lincoln was born. Nancy has documented the Merriman-Rogers history, producing a book when Rogers Orchards had a bicentennial celebration in 2009. That book also thanked the many people who have worked at Rogers Orchards through the years.
“Elijah is very important to the story,” John says, “because two farms became one.”
Greg and Martha and their three children live in Elijah’s house, which is located on Long Bottom Road not more than an apple’s throw from the orchard.
“The farm is the anchor for the connection to the community, but the kids’ involvement in town has made that connection even stronger,” Martha says. “I’ve always been very proud of what work my family has done here, and more and more appreciative of how unique it is the older I got and wanting to share it with my children.”
She pauses and laughs.
“They’re probably at the stage now that it is embarrassing that dad shows up in a pickup truck,” Martha says. “But they will get it eventually, if they don’t already, and I think they do get it. They are having their turn, slowly, working in the store. For me the farm was a wonderful place to learn about work ethic, and what is important and what is not important, and something we wanted to raise our family around.”
A business such as Rogers Orchards does not reach the next generation without innovation, even if the ideas do not always work. In the 1940s Elijah’s son Harold had the idea of selling apples out of vending machines. “Fruit-O-Matics” were placed in the area, but the idea didn’t work out.
“I’ll tell this story,” Peter jumps in when the Fruit-O-Matic story comes up. “I worked in New York in finance, and the vending machines by the elevators had chips and candy. As I was leaving the investment bank to come back here what was in there … apples and oranges ... he was just ahead of his time.”
Peter’s financial mind is put to effective use in the family business.
“Loomis prepared me in so many different ways, starting with [former teacher] Jim Wilson’s economics class,” Peter says. “The responsibility you have, yet the independence and freedom … it’s your job to get to school on time, do the homework, do your work job, make practice on time, all of which set me on a course to succeed.”
As Peter says, he and Greg form a complementary duo as co-presidents.
“Our approach and strategy [are] to diversify the farm more and try to take the seasonality out of the business,” Peter says. “Over 60 percent of our revenue comes in three months, the end of August to the end of November. People have apples on their mind in the fall, and they want to visit a farm, but there are things we can do as a business to diversify and smooth out the cash flow.”
And there are plenty of things they have done. There’s the weekend u-pick-it season. The farm stores. Gift boxes are shipped. Fruit from Rogers Orchards is in many popular area supermarket chains.
“Our direct store delivery program runs six days a week to over 135 stores, and it is getting longer and longer into the business year,” Peter says. “So that is helping us grow the business and serve the community.”
That is just one way the community is served.
A scholarship honoring Frank Rogers is given each year to a student in the area who is continuing an education in agriculture/ environmental science. Each year Rogers Orchards hosts countless school groups from kindergarteners picking apples to high school environmental classes. Apples, pies, and cider are donated yearly to nonprofits and food shelters throughout the state. Rogers Orchards also is a founding member of a nonprofit outreach group that provides and distributes fresh fruits and vegetables to areas considered food deserts.
The Land is Everything
Near the store on Long Bottom Road are 700 solar panels that provide 102 percent of the farm’s annual average usage, Peter says. Rogers Orchards has EcoApple certification, which represents one of the highest standards of ecological orchard management, using advanced Integrated Pest Management practices that rely on careful monitoring and minimal risk.
“This sticks to our family philosophy of sustainability and keeping a close tab on how we grow our fruit and take care of the greatest asset we have, which is our land,” Peter says.
Rogers Orchards does not exist in a vacuum. John says farmers, especially apple growers, are willing to share information.
“We’re in close contact with our local Connecticut apple growers,” John says. “We can call them, and they can call us when there are questions.”
There are other resources, too, such as the UConn Cooperative Extension Service, which in part works to advance innovative and sustainable agricultural methods, and the Cornell University College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, which created its first agricultural extension program in 1894.
“We stay in touch with what is going on around the world, too,” John says. “Pete has traveled. Nancy and I have been on a fruit tour in New Zealand. Greg and Martha have been to Europe. We also have a Dutch fruit-growing family that I worked for coming out of college and Peter worked for coming out of college, and their family has come and worked with us. That is the kind of thing that has helped us keep on top of changes in the business and make the right decisions.”
Leasing or buying land in Connecticut is expensive, Peter says, so he and Greg have looked for ways to increase production on the land they have.
“We researched intensive planting systems in Europe, brought back a concept of high-density planting to increase yield per acre,” Peter says.
That system is called tall spindle, and it averages about 1,600 trees per acre. Planting regular trees, depending on the variety, provides only about 200 trees per acre. Rogers has converted about 45 percent of its acreage to the tall-spindle system, which has yielded almost two times the harvested fruit per acre. The trees grow on a trellis system.
While the Rogers family can control much of the operation, no one yet has been able to harness the weather, an issue that turns a smile upside down in a hurry. This year’s peach crop will be about one-fifth of a normal year because of the mild winter and then a cold snap in February that wiped out many fruit buds. On May 18, frost and subfreezing temperatures caused statewide damage in the millions of dollars to some crops, though Rogers Orchards saw only minimal damage.
“Something we have always done across the generations is to operate the business in a fiscally conservative way, avoid debt whenever possible, and very much know that farming is risky,” Peter says. “When you think about it, the farm has been through World Wars, depressions, recessions, supply chain issues, economic meltdowns.”
“And the pandemic,” Nancy says.
“Pandemic, right … probably two,” Peter responds.
“You’re right … 1918,” Nancy says.
Rogers Orchards has been around seemingly forever.
“Any business to come out of those events, and then you layer the risk around weather events, makes [the business] truly unique,” Peter says.
This year marks the 50th wedding anniversary for John and Nancy.
“We are very fortunate,” Nancy says. “I immediately saw how great it would be to raise a family here.”
And maintain a piece of family — and Connecticut — history.
Rogers Orchards Facts
Size: 275 acres
Number of apple trees: 101,904
Varieties of apples: 29
Lifespan of an apple tree: About 30 years. They do not die at this age but have a lower yield and smaller fruit.
Oldest apple tree: 60 years old, which means it took root in 1963
Most popular: “Our calling card is a Mac [McIntosh],” says co-president Greg Parzych, “but we also grow a mean Macoun. I think Macoun is most popular if you look at New England. Lately, in the last 10 to 15 years, Honeycrisp is a very popular apple. Pain in the butt to grow, but …”
Total apples: “Apples like to go biennial,” Greg says. “If they have a big crop one year, they have a small crop the next year. You try to address that with different techniques. We produce between 75,000 and 150,000 bushels a year; 2021 was a record year with 148,000 bushels … 100,000 is great. Anything less, we’re looking for apples. Anything more is gravy, so that is what we shoot for.”
Number of peach trees: 4,000 with 15 varieties
Also grown on the farm: nectarines, apricots, pears
Personnel: 40 to 45 salaried employees. With seasonal workers and extra help in the fall for harvesting, packing, and distributing, the total number swells to about 160.
Automated packing line facilities: There are two that leverage camera imaging to assist in sorting fruit by size, color, and external defects. This specialized equipment comes from the Netherlands and has been a strong return on investment, co-president and CEO Peter Rogers says, because the equipment improved quality by reducing human error, cutting back on labor, and increasing packed output per day.
Cold storage: There are four cold storage units and six low-oxygen, long-term storage units. Each room averages about 12,000 bushels or about 250 tons of apples. The inventory ranges from a few thousand to more than 125,000 bushels depending on the time of the year.
Retail locations: The Home Farm is located at the west end of Shuttle Meadow Reservoir in Southington, Conn., on Long Bottom Road. Sunnymount Farm is at the top of Southington Mountain on the Meriden-Waterbury Turnpike. There are pick-your-own options at each on the weekends during growing season.