MIDDLEFIELD, Conn. — Crisp leaves scatter on the ground, the scent of fresh produce wafts through the air, and rows upon rows of freshly fried cider donuts sit on trays. Add two 18-hole golf courses, the best apple pie in the state and a full-service deli, and you get Lyman Orchards.
Founded in 1741, Lyman Orchards has been passed down through eight generations of the Lyman family, at least two members of which were Yale graduates. Originally a small produce-based family farm, the orchard has evolved over the years from an apple grove into an “agritainment” experience center.
John Lyman, the current executive vice president of Lyman Orchards, said that while the orchard’s primary business is still the apples themselves, the business has needed to grow in unconventional ways.
“Our challenge as a business is to look at ourselves from a guest-service perspective,” he said. “We are producers but we are also creating a customer experience.”
He said a major part of that customer experience is something he calls “agritainment,” a term that encompasses certain activities the farm runs including a corn maze, horse-drawn carriage rides and, of course, apple picking.
“People used to pick apples to save money; now it’s an annual ritual for families,” Lyman said. Jim Watson, an employee of Lyman Orchards for more than 25 years and currently its produce manager, said he has noticed the changes as well.
He said he used to dump apples by the bushel to make cider. Now, Lyman Orchards no longer produces its own cider. Instead, the orchard outsources its cider production to Carolson Orchards in Harvard, Mass., because of increased federal regulations: If the orchard wanted to produce its own cider, it would need to build its own cider-producing plant, Lyman said.
But while the orchard may no longer sell its own cider, it does bake its own apple pies — award-winning pies at that. Named Connecticut’s best for over 12 years in a row by Connecticut Magazine, the Lyman apple pie is based off numerous family recipes passed down and perfected over time, Lyman said. Sales of apple pies generate some 20 percent of the orchard’s annual revenue, Lyman said. Since the orchard opened the bakery more than 15 years ago, apple pie sales have been the fastest-growing segment of the entire company, Lyman said.
In order to focus on growing the bakery and expanding its “agritainment” offerings, Lyman has downsized the size of its orchards. In the 1960s, Lyman apple trees filled over 200 acres of land; now it’s about 100 acres. However, Lyman said a more efficient planting system has improved the land’s productivity.
At Lyman Orchards, customers can pick their own apples or buy them at The Apple Barrel, the orchard’s store. The store, with its rough-hewn wooden boards, is piled high with seasonal fruit, and sells more than one million apples every year. The store generates almost 45 percent of the orchard’s revenue and also has a full service deli and bakery. It also sells Old Tyme candy, packets of dried soup and countless apple-related products such as apple butter.
But not only is Lyman dedicated to expanding the family business, he also believes in creating bonds between customer and farmer. Lyman said he works closely with Red Tomato, a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering sustainable agricultural processes, mainly in New England.
Sue Futrell, communications director at Red Tomato, called Lyman dedicated to the cause, saying that Lyman helped develop the eco-apple program, a certification and production protocol for apple growers that emphasizes ecologically sound methods of pest management. Lyman is a “pioneer in developing the most ecological growing processes,” she said.
The Lymans began commercially growing fruit in the 1890s, and Lyman credits his father with instituting the most radical changes in the way the orchard operates such as the bakery and the expansion of The Apple Barrel. That Lyman, a Yale graduate, spent fifty years at the helm of Lyman Orchards, Lyman said.
The orchards remain privately owned, though its board of directors includes a number of non-Lymans. John Lyman said this is a deliberate choice aimed at maintaining a more objective perspective on the business.
Though John Lyman decided to return to the family business, he said his siblings were not as keen; his sister is a journalist and his brother an insurance salesman. His three children are still in school, though they’ve spent summers working at the farm. But he has no major concerns about the farm’s future management.
“We’re much more than just a farm,” he said, “Someone will step up.”