Back in the 1980s, when the Davisons of Vernon, British Columbia, were preparing to enter the direct-marketing arena, Tom, the grower and horticulturist of the family, envisioned maybe a fruit stand along a highway.
It was Tamra, his wife with a background in fashion merchandising, who lobbied to open up their remote farm to tourists and tell the story of how they grow their apples, tomatoes and corn.
“We wouldn’t do that if we were just a stand on the highway,” she said.
This was all back in the era of limited varieties, diminishing packer returns and Farm Aid concerts. They feared the wholesale business model would not see the orchard, established by Tom’s grandparents in 1933, through future generations.
Today, the family is glad they listened to Tamra. Davison Orchards hosted 325,000 visitors in 2017, while generation No. 4 — Tom and Tamra’s adult children — have leadership roles in the business. For that matter, the fifth generation helps out by feeding the animals at the petting zoo.
“We feel blessed to be able to involve the family that way,” Tom said.
They started by planting tomatoes between apple rows and selling them from a single A-frame building.
Today, apples, whether U-picked, covered in caramel or pressed into juice, are the biggest draw, aside from the farm experience. The venue was one of the stops of the International Fruit Tree Association’s summer tour in July through British Columbia, a production area where growers are searching for new ways to overcome challenges such as small acreages, high property prices and constrictive land-use regulations. In fact, it was a previous IFTA tour through markets and U-pick operations in New York and Pennsylvania that inspired the Davisons’ agritainment vision.
The move has involved challenges. For one, people who don’t understand agriculture visit their home every day. Tom and Tamra live nearby while Tom’s parents live right next to the farm market.
“You have to get your head around inviting people to your farm,” Tom said. “It’s a different experience and not everyone is going to be able to deal with that.”
But they consider the difficulties worth it. One benefit is the education about farming they provide for the people who visit. For example, adults sometimes act surprised that melons grow on the ground, he said. He even encourages his family members and employees to answer questions about controversial subjects, such as sprays.
“We talk about sprays because that’s this taboo subject, and we just talk straight up about it and people appreciate that,” he said.
It seems to work. Their tour trains, towed by iconic green and gold John Deere tractors, are busy every day in the summer and fall and prompt visitors to spend more in the market, Tom said. “When a customer does the tour, they shop like crazy. They connect,” he said.
The farm consists of about 120 collective acres, about half tree fruit, between the family members and still includes the original 34 acres.
The farm boasts more than 20 varieties of apples. Honeycrisp is the most common and draws U-pickers, but the Aurora Golden Gala — exactly what it sounds like — is one of the big crowd pleasers. The variety bruises easily and takes an extra gentle hand in packing, but customers line up for it. The Davisons also named a high-colored Gala sport after themselves, the Davison Gala, while Summer Reds and others fetch a lot of attention for pie makers.
“They all have their place for us when we’re direct retailing,” said Lance Davison, the couple’s son, who supervises the production side of the business.
The Davisons grow on a mixture of Budagovsky 9, Malling 9 Nic.29 and Geneva 41 rootstocks. They like the growth of Nic.29 and G.41 but were disappointed in recent winter damage, Tom said. They haven’t written anything off but may revert back to Bud.9 for future plantings.
They leave their rows at 12 feet, wider compared to most new British Columbia orchards, to make pruning and training simpler so they can save labor for other crops. Generally, they keep trees short for pedestrian U-pickers. However, they have a block of fifth-leaf apples on trellises. Their own crews pick the top wires, which typically ripen earlier, leaving the lower rungs for customers to pick without ladders.
Market and juice
The market, a combination of produce stand and gift shop decked out like a country mercantile, was mostly Tamra’s vision. It’s the centerpiece of a whole facade designed as a village main street with awnings, vintage trucks and hay bales. The place is so clean it resembles a theme park.
“She’s just created a real unique country village kind of escape for people,” said Kevin Shaw, the couple’s son-in-law. “So, that’s what we’re selling on the farm is the experience. People come up and they get an on-farm experience.”
They also get juice.
Marketed with the slogan Apple Tap, the family’s juice — cold-pressed and flash-pasteurized on the farm, is one of the Davisons’ calling cards. They began making juice 25 years ago.
Today, with a new press purchased just last year, demand is so high they have to buy apples from other growers. They’ve been courted by outside retailers but want to keep their juice unique to the farm.
They often blend five or more varieties, so each press ends up being a little different. When the market closes in October, all of the leftover apples end up in juice, which they bottle into 2-liter and 4-liter plastic jugs and freeze at a rented cold storage facility until the following spring.
The farm also has a café, the renovated original farm house, that serves soup and a popular on-farm bakery.
Tamra admits the crowds wear her out at times, but overall, she enjoys the fruits of their decision to gamble with on-farm agritainment so many years ago.
“I love talking to people and they love to hear our story,” she said. “It brings me a lot of joy.” •
-by Ross Courtney