Our sincere thanks to the Cheshire Herald newspaper, especially the author John Rook, for this snapshot in time of our family history that we proudly share with all of you.
JULY 24, 2008
Norton Brothers Farm Focuses On Fruit
Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment of the "Cheshire's Cornucopia" summer series highlighting local farms and agriculture in Cheshire. Each week, The Cheshire Herald will focus on a different farm in town, giving readers an inside look at typical day in the fields.
By John Rook - Herald Staff
Straight lines of apple trees trail down the side of the hill at 466 Academy Road like a wave of green, each one blending into the other. In between the rows appear small open areas where other fruit plants mark their claim to the land, producing fresh crops of colorful, flavorful fruits.
This is the Norton Brothers Fruit Farm, a sprawling 35-acre set parcel that has been a farming fixture in Cheshire since the 1750s.
The garage off to the side of the main parking area - now used to store equipment - was once a small horse stable and still has the initials of the original owner etched into one of its sideboards.
The old dairy barn has been turned into a fruit and vegetable stand and one portion of the original farmhouse, which once stood much closer to Academy Road, is still connected to the impressive home that remains.
In late 1800s, the farm was owned and operated by Birdsey B. Norton, who served as the town's first selectman for 34 years - until 1954. It is he for whom Norton School is named. Birdsey and his wife Ruby had three children - Judson, Elizabeth and Donald Norton - who grew up on the farm and, eventually, took control of the day-to-day operations.
The land was used as a produce and livestock farm for the vast majority of its existence, with 30 milking cows, one bull, a few workhorses, pigs, chickens and assorted fruits and vegetables. The milk from the cows and eggs from the chickens were sold locally, and the farm covered more than 130 acres of land that stretched across Academy Road. In 1959, Judson and Donald Norton decided to sell off their livestock and focus primarily on fruit. Getting the cows back and forth across Academy Road, where they were housed, had become too troublesome and the brothers decided to focus their attention elsewhere.
* Tim Perry operates his hay baler around the field at Norton Brothers Fruit
Farm on a hot July afternoon.
The land across the street was sold and the farm was given a new name in honor of the brothers.
In the past 40 years, the family business has experienced even more change.
The farm, currently owned by Judson's three daughters Phyllis (Perry), Judy (Hall) and Betty (Hail), combines the Norton Brothers original wholesale operation with a retail fruit and vegetable stand that was first opened in 2003.
More modern "dwarf" trees, which use up less space, have all but replaced large apple trees
That once spread across the land. Different fruits have been added each year and an irrigation system, connected to a local pond near the farm, keeps over half of the entire farm watered throughout the year.
Some things, however, have not changed as much.
The hay still has to be cut, tedded (kicked up) to dry it, baled, and loaded onto trucks almost completely by hand. A sorting machine now helps separate the apples, but hand sorting and picking is still required. And each tree requires a personal touch to ensure that each year's crop is growing and thriving the way it naturally should.
"You have to be willing to sacrifice a lot," said Phyllis Perry, "but we have never really viewed it as sacrifice. This is what each one of us wants to do to keep the farm going."
Phyllis remembers the days on the farm as a child, when she would go out with her father to help bale the hay and would hold the rope as the hay was tied into place.
"Each year, my mother would go down and take a picture of my father baling the hay," Phyllis remembered. "It was something he loved to do, he really did."
The health and success of the farm almost solely rests with Phyllis and her family now. There are few workers that help keep up the property. In the fall, when the farm enters its busiest season, three additional fruit pickers are hired to help handle the work load and the number of employees who help run the fruit stand gets bumped up from one employee to perhaps four or five.
Mostly, the farm is worked each day by Phyllis, her husband Tom, their son Tim, and her sister Judy, who work seven days a week to keep everything running properly. "It is constant," said Tim Perry. He runs the orchard, inspecting the trees and spraying pesticides to protect the more than 9,000 fruit trees on the farm from disease. "You have to love it or you would never do it. Over the past two days, I have probably worked 40 hours. You wouldn't do that unless you loved the job."
Tim has been interested in the life of a farmer since he was a child. After high school, he ventured off to college for a while, only to realize that life back on the fruit farm was where he wanted to be.
That, at times, means that Tim must make concessions to the job, concessions outsiders might not realize are required.
"People always ask, 'Oh, what do you do, go down to Florida for the whole winter'?" chuckled Tim. "Yeah, right. There really isn't ever a break. We work all major holidays. My wife asks me how come we don't take a few more vacations, and the answer is because that just means I would have to work an extra couple of 24-hour days if we did."
Much of the work revolves around keeping ahead of Mother Nature.
In 2000 and 2001, when the winter turned exceptionally cold, Norton lost approximately 80 percent of its apple crops when the blossoms froze.
"My father was still alive at the time and my husband took him around to look at the blossoms, and he just shook his head," remembered Phyllis. "He said he had never seen anything like it before".
Hail has also wreaked havoc on the farm, and in past years as much as 50 percent of the crop has been lost in one year.
Also, heavy rains and wind can bend the fruit trees and potentially damage them beyond repair.
While some weather-related circumstances can't be avoided, Phyllis and her family have devised a way to try and combat cold winter temperatures.
When the temperature drops below 34 degrees, 10-gallon portable heaters, each one filled with diesel fuel, are dispersed around the orchard no matter what time of night.
"When we get the reading at three in the morning that the temperature has dropped, we have to be out there setting up the heaters and lighting each one," stated Phyllis.
Tom Perry hasn't been a farmer all of his life like his wife. Tom, instead, had a long career in the corporate world, working for SNET until his retirement 10 years ago.
However, after Tom married Phyllis, he began to work on the farm part-time, coming in on weekends and off-hours to help bale hay, pick apples, and work the land. Now, this is his full-time job, and even during the hottest days of the year, he still takes time to marvel at the land he calls home.
"Is there anything better than this?" asked Tom on a sunny summer day in July, as he helped his son Tim bale hay on one of the farm's hayfields. "The sky is perfect, you're outside; I just really enjoy it."
Phyllis credited Tom as being instrumental in the farm's transformation from wholesale to resale over the last eight years. Tom had previously worked at a grocery store when he was younger and, while the job didn't last all that long, some important points did stick.
"He just knows how to present (products) and what sells to the customer," said Phyllis. "What he learned, it really stayed with him."
Apples remain the farm's biggest seller and Norton produces more than 30 types of the favorite fruit at all different times of years. Then there are the pears, the strawberries and the raspberries, and the newest hit for Norton, blueberries, all of which can be picked out in the open fields by customers.
"We planted 2,100 blueberry plants recently. They are very, very popular," stated Phyllis.
The farm has remained a part of the Norton family for generations, with Tim Perry marking the seventh generation that has worked the land.
Each year forces the family to adapt, trying different fruits, incorporating more flowers, and offering more locally-grown produce at its fruit and vegetable stand.
While Phyllis hopes that her family will continue to own and operate the land, she knows that, eventually, all things must change.
"Honestly, I don't want to see a lot of change in the years I have left," admitted Phyllis. "I hope I have a few more years left, and I hope things remain pretty much the same."
"I'm not completely convinced that the farm will be here 100 years from now, that is just how things are," she stated. "Right now, though, what I love about this is that it is a family farm. We all get along, and we are all here for the good of the farm."
* Phyllis Perry, one of the owners of Norton Brothers Fruit Farm, picks a
few berries out on the farm.