For more than a century-and-a-half, the members of the Wilklow family have grown fruit on their land at the base of Illinois Mountain in Highland. The farm was started in 1855 and has been growing ever since.
“Like most farms around that time, they [earlier generations of Wilklows] grew a lot of berries, and would ship them on boats down the Hudson River to New York City to sell,” said Sharon Wilklow, the current matriarch of the family. She and her husband Fred have three grown girls and one son, all of whom work on the farm — not to mention their six grandchildren, all age 3 and under, who are all being raised on the farm. “They grew blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and currants, but eventually moved to growing apples — mostly as a wholesale business,” Sharon explained.
When they started working on the farm as a young couple, Sharon and Fred began to add their own twist to things, opening up one and eventually four farm markets: three in Brooklyn and one at Vassar College. “We did and still do those markets year-round, every weekend and Tuesday, Thursday and Friday,” said Sharon.
In 1979, when Sharon became pregnant with their first child, she wanted to raise their child at home, and she and Fred decided to start the now-über-popular “pick-your-own” apples at the farm. “I could be home with our daughter and tend to the pick-your-own customers,” said Sharon, “while Fred continued to do the direct marketing” to farm markets in the City.
After they lost their entire apple crop in 1986 due to extreme weather, they decided that it was time to diversify. “That was an awful year, but in retrospect, it pushed us to concentrate on a greater variety of fruits and produce and focus on all of the little things which added up to a much more vibrant farm,” she said.
To that end, the Wilklow clan focused not only on their 100-acre apple farm, but also on acquiring neighboring farmland and growing a variety of vegetables, peaches, plums, heirloom tomatoes, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries, blackberries, raspberries and rhubarb to boot! “We also dug a pond, so that we could irrigate and have more control over our crops. That way, if one fails, we have others to harvest and market.”
They put a vegetable cart out front of their home/farm, which is located directly across from Highland High School, and their efforts began to see incredible results. “When Mom and Dad started, they were barely supporting two people,” said one of Sharon and Fred’s three daughters, Becky, who runs the office, markets the farm and also runs one of the Wilklows’ farm markets, among other titles. “My Dad had to work odd jobs on top of farming full-time, and today this farm supports my parents, me and my three siblings, their children. Even my two aunts are involved in the farm: one who does all of the fresh baked goods, and the other who does all of our jams and jellies.”
They even have first cousins who live in New Jersey who come during the fall to work at the farm during the pick-your-own apple season. “They bring their kids, and it’s like a Wilklow day care center here!” Becky said with a laugh.
The baked goods are fresh and made from the Wilklows’ fruit, as well as New York State flour that they have to drive to western New York to pick up by the truckload. From Labor Day weekend on, every day through the end of October, Wilklow’s Orchard offers not only pick-your-own apples, but also a full-fledged bakery including gluten-free products, maple syrup, local honey, Sharon’s unique made-from-scratch and “not-a-mix” apple cider donuts and more. When you come to pick your own, that includes apples, pumpkins, a petting zoo, crafts for kids, hayrides and more.
Becky pointed out that the farm market is popular with Highland High School students, as well as locals and their farm-market customers from Brooklyn. “There are people who remember me as a child growing up at the farm markets, and they’re so excited to come up, see and experience the farm where they’ve been getting their produce and baked goods for 28 years.” “We had to rig up a back seat to the truck and strap in seatbelts and car seats so that we could take the children with us to the farm markets in Brooklyn,” recalled Sharon.
“I went to school for Creative Writing in Colorado, but got sucked back into the farm, because every day is a different day, and there are always a thousand different things to do and learn,” said Becky. “Even the people we employ during the pick-your-own season are like family, as they’ve been with us forever. That’s what we’re about: family, community and providing the greatest, freshest locally grown produce, as well as made-from-scratch baked goods that come directly from our fruits!”
Fred and Sharon’s son Albert purchased a farm that neighbors theirs, and has added even a greater dimension with a pick-your-own pumpkin patch, as well as his latest venture into locally created and aged hard cider named Bad Seed Cider, which is taking off like a rocket. Sharon remembers herself and Fred adding their signature to the farm, and encourages her children and someday her grandchildren to do the same. “I never expected for all of our children to come back, but what more could a mother ask for? I’m delighted, and I’m so excited when they branch out and try new things to add to our family farm.”
For more information, go to www.wilkloworchards.com or call the market at 691-2339.