Life On the Farm: Quonquont Farm in Whately Offers Apple Picking, Blueberries and Breathtaking Views

The Recorder, October 7, 2016, by Andy Castillo

A narrow dirt road stretches along Quonquont Farm’s apple orchard, proceeds by a lone bench and up a small hill before disappearing into forest vegetation, which, last week, was verging on its annual change from vibrant green hues to rustic oranges and deep reds.

From a thicket of reeds surrounding a beaver pond, crickets sing a rhythmic ballad emphasized by the thud of falling fruit as grownups chase children up and down the rows of the farm’s exclusively pick-your-own apple trees.

“He calls it Annie’s farm,” said Mary Malone, while watching 3-year-old Andrew Ciborowski, whom she nannies, pick apples. “Today he wanted to get apple cider.”

The 140-acre farm on North Street in Whately, dating back to the early 1920s, was named after a 17th century Native American chief who lived near the Connecticut River.

Throughout the century of its existence, the farm has raised cattle, dried tobacco, delivered dairy products around the Pioneer Valley and built the famous Quonquont Milk Bottle in the center of town.

Today, the farm hosts events and sells pick-your-own fruit from about 2,000 blueberry bushes, three acres of peach trees and 16 apple tree varieties planted in the 1970s, in addition to a few other small crops.

Behind the scenes, Quonquont Farm is run by full-time graphic designer Allison Bell, farm manager and Bell’s wife, Leslie Harris, and Ann Barker, the namesake of Malone’s reference.

A labor of love

Before taking the reins of the historic local landmark 16 years ago, Barker, a soft-spoken woman with a firm handshake who was born in California, but has spent much of her life in Franklin County, worked in the purchasing division of Deerfield Plastics. In 2000, Barker co-purchased Quonquont Farm with a relative, who asked not to be named, as well as Bell. After working part time on the farm for a decade, Barker quit her job at the plastic company in 2010 and became a full-time farmer.

“I can’t say that when we bought the place we had any idea what we were getting ourselves into,” Barker said.

Since then, they’ve restored the farm’s rambling 1840s farmhouse, revamped the barn behind it into a farm store and converted a hay barn across the yard into a 200-person event hall.

In large part, they purchased the farm as “a labor of love,” to preserve its culture, be good stewards of the land and provide an accessible way for the community to connect with nature and appreciate the outdoors.

Barker said that coming from an office environment to working outside is very rewarding, but not without challenges.

“We’ve learned a lot, and made a lot of mistakes along the way,” she said. “I wasn’t always aware of how much weather can impact farming and how unaware people are about how the weather affects the food they eat. This season, we didn’t get any peaches because of a frost. It’s a big hit, because peaches are a big draw for pick-your-own.”

The peach loss hit the farm hard, because the crop, while not the largest, is the farm’s “most profitable.” While state and federal aid was offered through interest free loans to local farmers, Barker said the farm chose not to use them because it wouldn’t have benefited.

Year-round work

Despite what Harris said is a common misconception — that picking season is the busiest part of the year — fruit farming is difficult work and a year-round activity.

After apple harvesting from weather-dependent August through October, blueberry bushes and fruit trees need to be pruned despite snowfall.

Spring brings low-spray, environmentally friendly pest management followed by summer, which signals the start of blueberry picking, more pruning, weed control and mowing.

Despite the hard work, Harris, who grew up in rural Ohio and served as executive director of Dakin Humane Society for about 20 years before coming to the farm in 2015, said she loves her job.

“I’m so lucky that this is my view every day,” she said as she picked through cases of freshly picked apples outside the farm’s store, overlooking the beaver pond. “There’s no time (of year) when it’s not beautiful.”

Love for the landscape expands beyond farm ownership. Anne Fine and her son, Eli Liebman describe the farm owners as “stewards of local culture.” From Northampton, the mother and son left the store carrying two large bags of apples one recent fall day. They said they’ve been coming to Quonquont for more than 15 years.

“When everything is in season, we try and come out every week,” said Amanda Vernon, who was picking apples with her two children, 2-year-old Tegan Pepper and 8-month-old Quint Pepper. She said visiting the farm is better than the park, because there’s “more space to run, more grass to fall on.”

Responsible land stewardship

After a few minutes walking through rows of trees, inhaling the sweet scent of fallen fruit — feeling the first cool hint of fall on the breeze and observing the rolling landscape — it is apparent that land stewardship is important to the farm’s owners. From the beautiful old farmhouse at the front of the property to the acres of untouched forest to the back, the farm is unmarred New England at its breathtaking finest.

With the keen desire to preserve the landscape, the farm’s management wants to preserve its wildlife as well.

“We take a huge amount of joy in the wildlife population,” Harris said, while taking a break from apple sorting. “When we talk about our neighbors, we’re talking about them.”

The farm manager said that about three years ago, beavers, which still live on Quonquont, moved into town and dammed Dingle Brook, a small stream that flows through the farm near the apple orchard.

“It became a pretty large pond, and there was a moment of panic,” she continued. For a while, the beavers were allowed to live in peace, but when the expanding pond flooded a blueberry patch, Harris said farm management decided to confront the problem.

Instead of exterminating the beavers, the farm researched options and implemented a “beaver deceiver” — a drainage system designed to prevent the beaver pond from expanding.

Today, the beavers live peacefully with other wildlife on the farm. Harris said they’ve set up wildlife cameras throughout the property and enjoy observing them. In the past, they’ve snapped photographs of many different animals, including bobcats, a family of river otters, bears, herons and river ducks.

As far as future plans — Barker said she’d like to try planting other crops that people might not be able to get elsewhere. Until then, people can pick apples Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The farm at 9 North St. in Whately is closed Mondays, except for holidays.