It was mid June, and already customers at Barnard’s Orchard were inquiring about the Lodi, which ripens in July. Last year, Lewis Barnard’s crop of the sauce apple overbore, so he expected there would be too few this year. Scientifically speaking, such an abundance steals the carbohydrates that start nourishing production the following year. It’s the nature of farming, which has its ups and downs—even at Barnard’s, a Kennett Square, Pa., institution that’s a few years shy of celebrating a third century.
Barnard grew up with the orchard. Back then, its operation was handled by his father, Richard, who lived to 94, and his uncle, Sam, who was 97 when he recently passed. “You hear of century farms, but there aren’t many three-century farms,” says Barnard.
Barnard’s offers pick-your-own pears, pumpkins and apples. The ancient orchard’s mainstay is the 30-some varieties of the latter that ripen in rotation from mid-summer through Thanksgiving. Apples are sold steadily from August through May.
Increasingly diversified, Barnard’s also grows 20 varieties of peaches, along with plums, blueberries, blackberries, sweet corn, peppers, tomatoes and other vegetables. There are also flowers—snapdragons and freesias in the greenhouse and zinnias in the ground all summer. “People appreciate us being here,” Barnard says. “Even if they come once a year, they’ve been doing that for 30 or 35 years.”
Settler Richard Barnard arrived here in 1726, purchasing land across from the current orchard from Joel Baily. The family established a 40-acre farm here in 1862. An 80-foot white pine tree that Lewis’ great-grandfather Milton planted remains a testament to some serious roots. Though his father died without a will, Milton received the farm and his twin brother got 40 acres across what’s currently Wawaset Road (now a development). Milton’s son, Percy, turned the land into orchards with greenhouses in the early 1900s. Today, more than 40 of its 74 acres are in production.
The Barnards were strong Quakers. During the Revolutionary War, they didn’t pay war taxes, so the British took animals and bushels of the family grain for supplies as they marched through to wage the Battle of Brandywine. Barnard diary entries also document Continental Army visits, including two by Henry Lee, whose son, Robert E. Lee, would gain Civil War fame.
Later, the Barnards assisted with the Underground Railroad. Richard’s cousin, William, and five other Quakers went to Washington, DC, and met with Abraham Lincoln to talk about freeing slaves. Six months later, the president signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Today, there are new varieties of apples and a more modern way of planting them. There’s also $40,000 of deer fencing and a 2017 document with the Land Conservancy of Southern Chester County that forever preserves the farm as agricultural land. “If I didn’t see that through, I would’ve regretted it,” Barnard says.
On a tour of his farm, Barnard opens a large gate to a 14-acre block enclosed in deer fencing. It contains some $5,000 in new apple trees. Vertically trained to grow tall and narrow—so-called high-density axis planting—they don’t need to get topped like old-style dwarf trees. Without the fencing, he wouldn’t have apples to sell, and deer damage would keep younger trees from producing again. “Back then, there wasn’t the deer population,” he says. “We’ve squeezed them onto the land that’s left.”
Modern-day demand is for Honeycrisp apples, but they’re hard to grow. Of 100 bushels, 25 might be first grade, Barnard says. Temperate August nights are better for all apples—particularly Honeycrisp. The Stayman (reddish green) was always popular for its tender juiciness, but Fuji has surpassed it. Red Delicious, meanwhile, is losing traction. “It used to be that it couldn’t be considered an apple unless it was red, but now it’s almost the color no one wants,” says Barnard. “The new focus is on the inside, the flavor.”
Barnard can sell over 50 percent of his apple crop at retail value. The remainder—led by the “drops,” the ones that fall to the ground— become apple butter, cider and sauce. Because deer fencing has largely worked, overall apple production is up, so Barnard is converting more acreage for sweet corn and pumpkins. Additional diversification includes greenhouse lettuce in winter. “The focus is on what we can sell at the farm stand,” he says.
There are some issues. The newest tractor, for example, is 20 years old, and the farm has trouble attracting and retaining labor. Right now, Barnard’s employs three full-time workers, along with part-timers at the farm stand and the occasional local young hand. “Even though I know these are hard times for farmers, I don’t want to be the one that says it’s too hard,” Barnard says. “We continue to find a way forward.”
There’s an unspoken modesty about his efforts, and patrons almost always want to chat with the fourth-generation producer, who only ever left the orchard to study horticulture at Delaware Valley University. Since he never married and has no children, Barnard doesn’t know what will happen after him—but he’s not about to leave it to the deer. “Every day, I go at it as if we’re going to keep it going,” he says. “In this area, we have the population, the mindset and the history. People thank me for being here, but I thank them for coming. If not, there wouldn’t be a reason to be here.”
1079 Wawaset Road, Kennett Square, Pa.