This year’s summer-in-March might have wreaked havoc in the orchards, but it hasn’t stopped Birtch Farms and Estate Winery from celebrating harvest season with their annual Apple Festival.
“We spent March 21 at the beach in Grand Bend,” recalls Dyann Birtch, who owns and runs the fourth-generation farm with her husband Bob. “We knew it was going to be trouble.”
The extraordinary warm spell followed by several nights of frost virtually wiped out the local apple crop. Dyann expects to harvest around 50 bushels this year compared to the usual 5000.
Luckily, Birtch Farms is a diverse operation well-positioned to withstand any setbacks caused by Mother Nature.
Located just north of Woodstock, the 98-acre farm was bought by Bob’s grandfather in 1947. He grew tomatoes for Heinz, as well as cash crops like corn and beans, adding the first apple trees in 1958.
After buying the property in 1978, Dyann and Bob expanded the apple acreage and decided to get into the retail business, selling their produce at the Waterloo Farmer’s Market and directly from the farm.
They currently grow fifteen different types of apples, including heritage varieties like Northern Spry, Tollman Sweet, Snow Apples and Courtland.
The first Apple Festival — which usually marks the official kick-off to the pick-your-own season — was held in 1993 and has since become one of the region’s most popular fall destinations.
With horse-drawn wagon rides through the orchards, a corn maze, Farmer Bob’s Barnyard Adventure playground, wine tasting, and plenty of freshly-baked goods from the on-site bakery, the September 15 and 16 festival promises plenty of country fun for young and old. And thanks to some apples sourced from Simcoe, there will even be fresh Ontario apples for sale.
Birtch Farm’s pumpkin crop is another popular draw, and wasn’t adversely affected by the unusual spring weather. The five-acre pumpkin patch offers several different varieties, from smooth-skinned ‘wee be little’ minis, to larger types perfect for jack-o-lanterns. This fall favourite is celebrated with an annual Pumpkin Festival, held October 20 and 21.
Birtch Farms also grows squash and decorating crops like ornamental corn and gourds, and is well-known for its award-winning fruit wines.
“We always enjoyed making our own wine,” says Dyann. Encouraged by friends, the couple decided to turn the hobby into a business in 2001.
Today, Birtch Farms offers more than 15 different fruit wines ranging from sweet to dry. “My favourites are the Rhubarb, the Cranberry, and the Oak-Aged McIntosh,” Dyann says. All are made on-site from locally-sourced produce.
The farm’s retail store, bakery, and wine store are located in a charming converted barn, which is open seven days a week from August to Christmas. The store offers a wide selection of local jams, preserves and spices, as well as Birtch Farms’ own Pumpkin Butter and Wine Jellies.
Dyann has seen many changes in her thirty years of farming. “It’s either gone to niche farming, like us, or to professional farming on a huge scale,” she observes. “And those of us who have stayed small definitely have to have a passion for what we do.”
Despite the challenges faced by small-scale family farmers, she believes the local food movement is here to stay. “I see my children’s generation. As they have children, they are really caring about the food they eat. They are going back to finding farms so they know where their food comes from. Food in the grocery store has become so removed,” she comments. “And of course, you don’t find the same taste in something that hasn’t been ripened on the tree or vine.”
Other upcoming special events at Birtch Farms & Estate Winery include the Food & Wine Festival (September 30) and Orchard Afternoons for Booklovers (September 8, 19, 23 & October 13).
Birtch Farms and Estate Winery
R.R. #7, Woodstock, ON, N4S 7W2
Nicole Laidler is a London freelance writer and business communicator. Fall is her favourite season. Visit her at www.spilledink.ca.