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The Nicholson family-Brian, left; Joe, Jr., center; and Mark-grow stone and pome fruit within a half-mile of Seneca Lake, the second deepest lake in the country.Photo by Melissa Hansen.

The Nicholson family-Brian, left; Joe, Jr., center; and Mark-grow stone and pome fruit within a half-mile of Seneca Lake, the second deepest lake in the country.Photo by Melissa Hansen.

A farm family in central New York is setting itself apart from other commercial growers by focusing on growing flavorful and unique varieties.

Planting decisions at Red Jacket Orchards of Geneva are based on the marketplace and what others are not doing, said patriarch Joe Nicholson, Jr. “We’re not trying to duplicate other producers, but supply better product or fill the niche that’s not being filled. That’s who we are.”

Nicholson’s parents planted the family’s first tree fruit orchards during World War I. The fruit sold was through a roadside market. Through the years, orchard acreage expanded, and the family shifted to producing fruit for the fresh wholesale market. The roadside market grew into a fruit store, with a cider press, fruit packing line, and cold storage rooms.

The Nicholson family’s 550 acres of apples, peaches, apricots, cherries, and other crops are planted near Seneca Lake-one of the 11 Finger Lakes-to benefit from the lake’s moderating effect on winter and bloom-time temperatures and take advantage of well-drained hillsides.

While about 70 percent of the fruit grown today by the family is sent to the wholesale market, the Nicholsons place great emphasis on what they consider to be their primary market-New York City. They supply grocery stores, farmers’ markets, restaurants, juice joints, and bakeries with fresh fruit and juice blends.

“We are totally ‘niched’ to New York City and the East Coast,” he said.

Red Jacket also capitalizes on the strong consumer preference of buying locally, a desire that tops consumer preference for organic produce, according to market research cited by Nicholson. Fruit is left on the tree longer for increased flavor and maturity.

They can get away with picking riper fruit because they are less than six hours away from New York City, he said, adding that they do not have to ship across country.

“That’s our advantage in the marketplace. But if we don’t stay on task, we lose our advantage.”

Family affair

Nicholson is joined at Red Jacket by daughter Amy and sons Brian and Mark, the third generation of family farmers.

Brian returned to the family farm in 2000 after working for an independent advertising agency in New York City. He takes care of marketing duties, while his twin brother Mark, who worked for USApple before joining the family operation, is responsible for managing farm production.

Amy heads up their direct marketing efforts, overseeing their fruit store in Geneva and working with the Greenmarket in New York City.

Greenmarket, a program of the Council on the Environment of New York City, promotes regional agriculture and works to ensure a supply of fresh, local produce for New Yorkers. It organizes and manages more than 50 farmers’ markets in 40 New York City locations, with more than 20 operating year round. Each market has its own ethnic base and food preferences.

During the peak farmers’ market season, Red Jacket supplies about 20 New York City markets each week.

Distinctiveness

Joe noted that fruit size is not as important as flavor and distinctiveness. “It has to taste good and look unique-that means that it can be small. In fact, sometimes we prefer it to be small because it sets us apart.”

They work closely with Cornell University researchers at the nearby agricultural experiment station in Geneva to find unique tree fruit varieties. Sometimes, varieties are chosen to complement the colors of existing fruit. For example, Nicholson is interested in finding a yellow plum to complement dark blue-skinned plums that they already grow.

When it comes to sweet cherries, Joe knows that they can’t compete with Washington State’s massive cherry volume, but must offer something better or new. They grow Emperor Francis, a high-quality yellow-red variety that ripens in mid-July, and Royalton, a large, dark cherry.

“When the West Coast cherries are slowing down, we’re starting our apricots,” Joe said. “We try to complement what comes out of other production regions.”

Maximizing value

Every piece of fruit is utilized at Red Jacket. Those that don’t make the grade for the fresh market are made into juice or processed products. Last year, they had extra cullage in their prunes, so they made plum butter to sell through their retail division.

They have been turning apples into cider for more than 40 years, although it was only recently that they starting making juice blends-strawberry apple juice, cranberry rhubarb apple juice, summer blended apple juice, cherry apple juice, Fuji apple juice, and others.

The juice line, which annually produces about half a million gallons, has grown rapidly in its short seven-year life, with sales increasing 20 percent each year. Red Jacket recently received a $75,000 grant for value-added products from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to further develop its juice market. The importance of retail sales has increased significantly in recent years, said Brian. Retail sales now represents almost a third of the company’s total revenue, with the Geneva fruit stand accounting for around 5 percent of total sales revenue.