JOHNSTOWN – Todd Rogers was just 10 years old when his father, Don, purchased what would become the Rogers Family Orchard in 1970.
Todd started working the farm and hasn’t stopped. His two brothers and a sister went off to college, but he wasn’t interested. He preferred farming.
Rogers learned from his father and took some classes at Cornell University. He also learned from some of the vendors from whom he buys supplies.
“Between those three things, we are as good as we can get,” he said. “If you want to learn, there are lots of ways to do it.”
In 1992, he and his wife, Sandra, purchased the 50-acre farm at 260 County Highway 131 in Johnstown from his dad.
“Originally when we bought the farm there were about 500 trees,” he said. Now, there are 4,000 on 20 acres. Over the past decade, Rogers has planted 3,000 young trees.
[ngg src=”galleries” ids=”61″ display=”basic_imagebrowser”]The orchard is still home to some of the old standard apple trees that were planted from 1942 to 1946. These types of trees can grow to be 30 to 40 feet tall. Rogers still cares for them, but he does not plant those large trees any longer because they are too hard to harvest.
After Christmas each year, Rogers and his son, Mitchell, who has been working alongside his father since he was a boy, start pruning the orchard’s thousands of trees, a job that takes months. After the pruning, the brush has to be picked up and carted off. Rogers also sells apples to local schools all winter.
Rogers said the most challenging part of his job is keeping the trees alive and healthy.
“Between the wet, cold, hail and fire blight, you really have to pay attention to apple trees,” he said.
Fire blight is a disease that can kill a tree. The disease often starts in the wake of hail or heavy rain when a tree might receive a wound that allows the deadly Erwinia amylovora bacterium to enter. The disease’s nickname comes from the rapidity with which it can spread.
“Four to five years ago, fire blight was all across the Northeast,” Rogers said. “It can, if you do not pay attention, wipe out the whole orchard.”
Through the years, Rogers has added other crops in addition to apples, including blueberries, plums, tomatoes, squash, sweet corn, pumpkins and other seasonal vegetables, which he sells in the orchard’s store. He also carries a variety of other local goods such as meats and cheeses.
And since 1992, when he purchased his own cider press, the farm has been producing its own apple cider, which is a customer favorite along with homemade cider donuts.
During the orchard’s busy fall season, Rogers employs roughly 20 people. In the winter and spring, that number drops to three or four.
A THIRD GENERATION
Before he attended Fulton-Montgomery Community College and the State University of New York at Cobleskill to study agriculture business, Mitchell Rogers wasn’t sure he wanted to go into farming.
“Going to college, I really made my mind up,” he said. “I love to do it. I love everything about it.”
Using what he learned at school, Mitchell came up with a plan to grow the business by adding a hard cidery five years ago.
“Without the business background, I would not have been able to design that and get that started,” he said.
Some of the orchard’s older trees are good for cider, and Mitchell and his father planted particular varieties of trees just for hard cider. Now he makes about 1,500 gallons of hard cider a year, which he sells at Rogers’ Cideryard and to some local restaurants.
People can come to the cidery to enjoy several different flavors of hard cider, including traditional apple, ginger, strawberry-jalapeño, blueberry and peach.
“We also make a wild variety where we go up into the neighboring land and forage for wild apples, and make hard cider from those,” Mitchell said.
The cidery also serves a variety of local craft beers and a rotating food menu, including items such as the “mac attack burger,” white chicken chili, grass-fed burgers and their own pork hot dogs with homemade meat sauce, among other entrees.
Todd Rogers enjoys operating the orchard largely because he likes being self-employed.
“One of the benefits of being your own boss is that I do not have to punch a clock per se, but when things have to be done, you have to be there,” he said.
Mitchell shares his father’s appreciation for self-employment.
“I love everything about farming and I love working for ourselves,” he said. “It’s just a whole different environment than working for a boss.”
At 62, Todd Rogers is looking forward to retiring in a few years, and Mitchell will take over the farm as the third-generation owner.
“I’m ready to do a little more fishing,” Todd Rogers quipped.