"Welcome to Honey-Pot Hill!!!"
It was a little jarring to see two teenaged boys saccharinely greeting and waving cars into Honey-Pot Hill Orchards, an apple picking farm in Stowe, MA. The next surprise was seeing a parking lot as big as an amusement park, filled with hundreds and hundreds of cars.
"Are all of these people here just to pick apples?" was my question that popped out of my mouth.
Turns out they were. What I thought would be an peaceful, idyllic New England excursion turned out to be quite the opposite. The first surprise was seeing the tractor-pulled hayride slide dangerously down a slight incline toward the pond when it pulled loose from its hitch. Luckily, observers quickly pulled all the passengers out over the side in case it kept sliding. No harm done, but a few nervous moments.
Next came the picking policy, prepaying for bags that you fill. I don't really like this policy- the minimum was $16 and yields 1-1/4 pecks of apples (about 12-14 lbs), a lot when you only have two people. I understand that the farms need to make money, but this method forces you to take away more than you need, which also leaves fewer apples behind for later pickers. The price per pound of apples here is quite reasonable, but the policy encourages waste and excess rather than taking only what you need. I much prefer the method of weighing what you pick.
The apple orchards are quite extensive, with many different varietals. As we were going fairly late in the season, however, we had trouble locating any apples at all. We delved deep into the orchards, finally commandeering a ladder that helped us reach those last apples at the tops of the trees. The apples were crisp, delicious, and tart, the freshest they could ever be. Maybe things were looking up. Or not.
I always think of farming as quiet, peaceful work where you can really enjoy the lack of city noise and traffic. Honey-Pot Hill was so busy that we couldn't escape the screams or cries of children around us the entire time we were there. Lest you think I'm anti-children, remember that I teach at a kid's cooking school! Children have every right to be there, but I felt that the farm was so commercialized and dense with pickers that you never were able to really relax and enjoy the experience.
Besides apple picking, Honey-Pot Hill is quite a cash-making machine. They sell cider donuts, hot dogs, cider, pies, hayrides, hedge mazes, even food for the farm animals. Lines are long and tempers can be short towards the end of the day. It's a little discouraging to see how money-driven this operation is. What if someone just wanted to walk around the orchards and learn about apple farming? They wouldn't be able to do so without forking over the $16 minimum picking fee.
The whole experience left me with a dilemma: is a farm like this a positive thing? Pros: local, natural foods, jobs for the neighborhood teenagers, exposure to nature and farming. Cons: a Disneyland-like atmosphere, crowds, high noise levels, a sense of distancing from the farming process, money is valued over educating people about farming.
Does the good outweigh the bad? Am I expecting too much from a farm and not giving the farmers enough slack for trying to survive?
I went apple picking because I wanted to support a local farm and its operations, but left discouraged by the commercialism, even if it was just within the farm itself. It's an interesting wrinkle in the whole "Local is superior" mania going around in the food circles today. I'd love to hear your two cents.