Like the core of an apple is at the center of the fruit, family is the core of Springhill Fruit Farm owned by Jeff and Laura Burrer of Shiloh. Named for the fresh water river that feeds the 24-acre Richland County orchard, Springhill Fruit Farm was originally acquired by the Burrer family in 1968.
“My dad and mom, Kenneth and Mary Jane Burrer, purchased the orchard from a man named Ray Weaver,” Jeff said. “Ray stayed here for a year and helped my dad learn the ins and outs of an orchard. Prior to that, my dad was a small grain farmer.”
Kenneth and Mary Jane raised their five children on the orchard. Out of all the children, it was Jeff that showed the most interest in the orchard. He began running the orchard in 1998 and in 2004, Jeff and his wife Laura purchased Springhill Fruit Farm. Since then, it has really been a family effort to grow and maintain the operation. All three of Jeff and Laura’s children worked on the farm growing up and they still continue to help as adults.
“It was such a great place to raise our children,” Laura said. “We get to be with each other and spend a lot of time together, especially in the fall. We can’t imagine not doing this.”
Originally when Jeff and Laura purchased Springhill Fruit Farm, they thought it would be more of a side job. They both had full time jobs off the farm, but the orchard continued to increase in business every year. Jeff is now retired from the Shelby Fire Department where he worked for 21 years and Laura is working part time as a registered nurse.
“We are super fortunate that our kids all have jobs that allow them to still spend their days off here at the farm helping us,” Laura said.
Their son, Ben, is also a full time firefighter, their daughter Mandy is an occupational therapy assistant, and their youngest daughter, Megan, is a flight attendant.
“We also feel blessed that our kids are so interested in the farm too and that this is a priority to them,” Laura said. “There is a group of employees that return every year that also become a part of the family. We have an Amish family that helps us every year too.”
Although the orchard itself cannot grow in acreage, the Burrers have been focusing on maximizing their productivity on what land they do have. Every other year, they plant about 1,500 new trees to replace older trees.
“We are planting semi-dwarf, smaller trees so that we can fit 600 to 800 trees in an area instead of just a couple hundred trees. These big trees here are sometimes 30 to 40 years old and are starting to max out on their production so it’s important for us to keep adding new trees to the orchard,” Jeff said. “Listening to our customers is really important — that’s how we decide what types of trees to plant. Our most popular apple is yellow delicious, so we have enough trees to make about 2,000 bushels of yellow delicious apples. We also planted around 50 new plum trees a few years ago that should be in full production in the next year or two.”
The Burrer family built a new pole barn in 2010 that houses the retail store, a 2,500-bushel apple cooler and a work area for sorting and grading apples. They currently grow 27 different varieties of apples, five varieties of peaches, three varieties of plums and three varieties of pears. They also grow nectarines, pumpkins, squash and offer sweet cider made from their apples.
“This past growing season has been great for us despite some setbacks. We are expecting a 10,000-bushel crop of apples this year,” Jeff said. “We had a lot of rain in the spring so that caused issues for fruit growers across the whole state with having to battle scab and other diseases. We are fortunate to have had limited insect issues this year though.”
Burrer uses integrated pest management systems on the orchard. They set insect traps that are checked every week to monitor populations of harmful bugs. They also promote predatory insects, such
as spiders, in the orchard to limit insecticide sprayings.
“A huge problem we had this year was that we got some major hail in the middle of May. It was a wind driven hail so it was falling almost sideways,” Jeff said. “When we started picking our earlier varieties of apples, only 15% to 20% of what we were picking were good apples. When the hail came in May, the fruit were approximately 3/8 inch in diameter, so the small nicks and cuts on the fruit then grew into some giant holes as the apples got bigger.”
The later ripening apples are significantly better than the earlier varieties.
“As we are getting later into the season, we only had about 50% of the crop being damaged,” he said. “We just had a lot of cider apples this year and second-grade apples.”
The Burrers were pleasantly surprised to see that the peaches faired the best.
“We had a very large peach crop this year that were not as affected by the hail damage, so that’s pretty exciting,” Jeff said. “We are having a big apple crop too this year, so if you’re going to have major issues like we did this year, it kind of balances itself out. “
The Burrer family sells the majority of their produce in their retail store. Less than 25% of their crops are sold wholesale to local grocery stores and farm markets.
“Our farm has a lot of return customers every year and they look forward to coming out and getting fresh apples,” Laura said. “We do a lot of our marketing through Facebook and then every year we send out about 400 letters in the mail letting people know our tentative picking dates for all the apple varieties. Really though, most of our customers hear about us from word of mouth, which is nice because it means that people are talking about us and have good things to say.”
Springhill Fruit Farm also values giving back to the community.
“Community is very important to us and we try to help out as many local organizations as possible. We donate a lot of apples and cider to different church organizations and FFA chapters,” Laura said. “We also donate a lot of apples to local food pantries. People really like to get fresh fruit.”
The harvest schedule is rigorous and it has to be timely to maximize the quality of the crop.
“Yeah it’s definitely fresh,” Jeff said. “Essentially, our crops own us. If an apple variety is ripe and needs picked, I only have a few days to get that type of apple picked. Peaches are even more finicky, sometimes I only have a one- to two-day window to pick them. It requires a lot of work and sometimes I have to cancel plans, but when the fruit is ready, it’s ready.”
Springhill Fruit Farm is open from Mid-August through Thanksgiving annually.
“I think it’s important for people to support their local orchards when they get the chance,” Jeff said. “Whether you’re in Ashtabula County or Hamilton County, if you have an orchard in your area you should visit them to buy apples and fruit. Ohio is not an easy place to grow fruit in, so the support means a lot to local farmers.”