|It's fall at Ontario Orchards when pumpkins and apples are in. Photo by Lisa Hollenbeck|
By Debra J. Groom
A stroll through the Ontario Orchards store in Oswego Town shows all that is great about agriculture.
The Ouellette family transformed a chicken and pig farm that started on 132 acres back in 1952 and grew it into one of the most diverse farming enterprises in Central New York. In fact, it’s a one-stop shop, a place folks can visit year round (every day but Christmas) to buy just about everything they need.
And that everything, by the way, is pretty much all local. Can you say fresh?
“Customers are amazed at the selection, the variety and the completeness of the store,” said owner Dennis Ouellette. “They can come here any day and find something they need.”
The farm today is run by Dennis, his wife June and their daughters, Kathy and Laurie. Dennis, at 67, still is at the farm or store most days tending to one thing or another.
But back in 1952, when Dennis was just 6, his parents Dennis and Estelle had the chicken and pig operation, along with the acres and acres of fruit trees in Sterling that took in the cool moist breezes from nearby Lake Ontario.
Dennis remembers as a young boy selling apples and strawberries on a roadside stand atn state Routes 104 and 104A. “This planted a seed,” he said. “How about U-pick apples for $1 a bushel. At this time it became apparent retail sales were more profitable than wholesale and processing.”
The Ouellettes set up retail operations in Fulton, Watertown, Ogdensburg and across the road from the current store on Route 104. Soon, they expanded into the Regional Market in Syracuse. Then the farm extended its sales to Long Island during the fall and Christmas seasons.
“The New York City market was more profit,” Dennis Ouellette said. “It meant prepping during the week and traveling to New York Friday after school and returning Saturday evening.”
The Ouellettes have always had a strict business plan – they want to expand to provide their produce to as many people as possible, but they also remember not to overextend or overexpand.
This was quite evident after June and Dennis married in 1965, after realizing in their senior year at Hannibal High School that they “would become more than friends,” Dennis said.
The beginning of the present-day Ontario Orchards came after the marriage, when Dennis and June decided to offer more than just apples. They got into producing other fruits, vegetables and Christmas trees.
They added a Fall Jamboree and U-pick operation. This, Dennis said, not only helped with profits, but brought people out to the farm so they could see the operation and learn a little about where their food comes from.
On 35 acres, the Ouellettes grow corn, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, squash and pumpkins. They have 30 acres of Christmas trees. About 90 acres are apples.
After the old two-stall horse barn was converted into the present-day store in 1966, Ontario Orchards sold not only its own vegetables, fruits and trees, but also brought in product from other nearby locales.
Dennis Ouellette said he gets nursery products from local and out-of-state growers and also grows many varieties in Ontario Orchards own nursery behind the farm market.
He sells Tender Loving Compost, made from cow manure on the Fessenden Family Dairy Farm in King Ferry, Cayuga County. He gets parsnips from a farmer in Port Byron. He sells New Hope Mills pancake products from Cayuga County. Honey comes from Snow Valley Honey Farms in Hannibal.
New York maple syrup in his store comes from Croghan, in the state’s largest maple-producing county, Lewis County. All onions and potatoes come straight from the rich, black muck of Oswego County.
|Ontario Orchards presses cider yearround. Photo by Lisa Hollenbeck|
He sells Hinerwadel’s salt potatoes, Dinosaur BBQ sauce and Hofmann franks and coneys from Onondaga County, Croghan bologna from Lewis County, Grandma Brown’s baked beans from Mexico, Sillman Jams from Dickinson Center, Franklin County, Turkey Joints from Nora’s Candy Shop and olives from Williams’ Homegrown Garlic, both from Rome, Oneida County, Morgia’s pasta and sauce originally from Watertown, Buck’s Seasoning from Mallory in Oswego County and Italian sauces from Canale’s in Oswego.
Even his refrigerated case has local products, such as cheese from various places like Macadam from St. Lawrence County, Heluva in Sodus, Wayne County and Yancey’s Fancy in Genesee County, Hudson Farms eggs from Elbridge, Onondaga County and milk from Hudson Dairy in Fulton.
The farm store also has a full bakery, an outgrowth of pies made in June’s home kitchen and sold at the retail sites in the early years.
“David and George (two farm workers) came to work on the farm on weekends and said ‘how bout you make some apple pies with those drops?’” Ouellette said of the apples that drop to the ground.
He said June began making the pies and others delivered them to the retail sites. The customers loved them.
“Then one day, a deer jumped out in front of us and all the pies went all through the car,” Ouellette said. That was when the full bakery in the farm stand was born.
“The expansion of the farm, farm market, cider mill, bakery and nursery was a direct result from the increases in customers,” Ouellette said.
Dennis credits many of the new ideas at Ontario Orchards to his daughters and other employees.
“Not only did the two girls, but also the very young staff had a lot of new energy and ideas,” he said. “And with this in mind, what was the horse barn in 1966 has become one of North America’s most complete family-owned farms and farm markets.”
And while many farm markets are open only in the summer and fall when the crops are harvested, Ontario Orchards is open year round. This was an unheard of idea a few years ago – but Ouellette said it works at Ontario Orchards.
“Our variety allows us to be open seven days a week,” he said. “We really don’t have a season here.”
The store is open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m .in the winter, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the spring and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in summer.
“And we press our own cider 12 months a year,” Ouellette said.
In addition to expanding the hours, Ouellette said he has always thought “outside the box” on how to improve the business and bring in more customers.
He knows he can’t make a living off the person who might drive up from Syracuse once a year to visit Ontario Orchards. He needs to draw repeat customers in throughout the year – who them that the store is more than just a place to come get apples.
“Advertising and promotions at specific times of the seasons has extended the customer base out 100 miles,” he said. “Each season is a whole new energized season and each time you have a new season, you come up with a new idea.”
What he wants to do more of in the future is product sampling. He began a couple of years ago with cheese, but is tinkering with offering other products for people to try. He might even have some cooking demos to show people how to prepare things he sells.
For example, he mentioned parsnips, a root vegetable that many people think of as a white carrot. He said people will look at them at the store, sometimes pick them up, but put them back because they aren’t sure what to do with them.
Ouelette said he also plans to improve the facilities, work on upgrading the website (tasteofcny.com) and growing the ever-popular Fall Jamboree.
“There are not many of us that are this complete,” Ouellette said. “In this day and age, everyone wants local, fresh, homegrown, completeness.”
A fourth generation, Dennis and June’s grandchildren Taylor and Nichole, now are involved in the business, so it looks as though Ontario Orchards will be serving its customers for a long time to come.
“Entrepreneurship and self employment is great, but a very difficult challenge,” Ouellette said. “Fortunately adjustments are made and met. Ontario Orchards wants to extend its many thanks for everyone’s support and ideas. The three generations – Dennis and June, Laurie and Kathy and Taylor and Nichole, look forward to being a part of your lives and the community.”