PHOTO BY TAMMY DiDOMENICO
Each autumn, thousands of Central New York families take the scenic drive on Route 20 to LaFayette. Their destination? Beak and Skiff Apple Farms, one of the area’s most enduring family-owned businesses.The Beak and Skiff families started their wholesale apple business in 1911. These days, Beak and Skiff’s endeavors include a thriving farm market and a winery/cidery. A distillery will open soon. But the pick-your-own orchard is what brings people to the farm, and chances are a fourth- or fifth-generation family member is on the premises.
Sisters Candy Beak Morse and Charlene Beak Stack and their cousin Jackie Beak have spent much of their adult lives on the farm. They’ve endured years of hard, physical work, the chronic unpredictability of the Central New York growing season, and economic hardships. Yet each says she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else from late August until Thanksgiving.
“We were brought up working on the farm every fall. We didn’t really know anything different,” says Morse.
Morse’s father, Ron Beak, was a third-generation owner. But the Beak sisters were actually raised in Syracuse. “Our mom was a city girl,” Morse says. “She didn’t like living in the country, so we grew up in the city.”
Jackie Beak and her brother Tim grew up on the farm and Jackie still lives on the property. Like her cousins, she has filled various roles on the farm as its needs changed. Today, she supervises the packing of apples for wholesale—which the Beaks and Skiffs have done since 1911. Aside from a brief stint working road construction, Beak says the rhythms of life on the farm have always agreed with her. She credits that to the years she spent as a child working alongside her father, Richard Beak.
“Always being around the farm was fun,” Beak says. “I was happy being out working with my father. That was fun. He taught me so much.”
Unlike Beak, Tully resident Morse didn’t always envision the family business as her calling. But the strong work ethic she and Stack learned from their father couldn’t be denied. Upbeat and personable, Morse seems to have found a comfortable niche as retail manager of the Beak and Skiff operation and is often found in the country store. The store has evolved since it first opened in 1976. Once just a small shack, the store now occupies an old cow barn—a reminder of the Beak family’s initial commitment to dairy farming.
The Beak and Skiff families have been remarkably good at adapting the business to suit the demands of the public. The families today devote about 350 acres of land to the apple orchards—down from 600 acres when wholesale distribution was a bigger part of the business. “They had more acres back then, but the focus was more agricultural, so it was a shorter busy season,” Morse says. “They were busy, but it was a different kind of busy.”
Although the store has been a fixture for 30 years, the family increased its commitment to retail about 12 years ago. “The wholesale apple business went into decline,” Morse says, adding that the rise of China as the world’s leading apple producer and increasing demand for apple juice concentrate contributed to Beak and Skiff’s evolution. “We stopped using unproductive acreage and enhanced the retail part of the business.”
The country store opens when the pick-your-own season begins in late August and remains open after the last of the apples are harvested in October. The season culminates with a family party on the day before Thanksgiving.
Stack, who lives in Navarino, says although the public aspect of the business ends with the harvest, packing and distribution continue all year. Then there is planning for the next crop.
“Our season goes to October, but people don’t realize that this is an all-year operation,” she says. “The apples don’t just appear. Months of planning and preparation go into it. There is always so much to do.”
Many local school groups have enjoyed trips to the farm over the years, and the families like being able to share it with young people. Morse remembers her father taking school groups around himself. These days, the visits are limited to preschools and special education groups. “We really had to cut back because we want the experience to be as enjoyable as possible—for the children who come to visit, and for the other people who are visiting the pick-your-own orchard,” she says.
Beak says time management is probably the biggest challenge with the business today. There are many long-term seasonal employees, but for the family members, the weight of their legacy can be daunting. Her brother Tim, and his son, Richard, are among the Beaks who work the farm full time. Richard represents the fifth generation of Beak family apple farmers. “We came, we stayed,” Jackie Beak jokes. “We’re lifers.”
The Skiff family, now led by fourth-generation owners Lynn Skiff Fleckenstein, her husband, Mark, and son, Peter, still owns half of the business. “Lynn and I would bring our babies to work here,” Candy Morse recalls. “We did what we had to do.”
Family members are not handed jobs on the farm, Morse says. Youngsters have to come to the owners and ask. Several members of the Beaks’ and Skiffs’ fifth generations, including Morse’s daughter, Cait, help out on a seasonal basis or as often as their non-apple-related pursuits permit.
For all of its history, the Beak and Skiff business always has an eye on the future. The Web has increased national demand for apples, and sales from the winery and cidery have shown steady growth. The distillery is slated to open any time.
The families devoted a small orchard to growing applies without pesticides or fungicides but haven’t had good luck with organic practices. Central New York apples are particularly susceptible to fungal diseases. “It’s tough to farm organically in a climate like this,” Beak says. “This summer has been so damp.”
Nonetheless, apple lovers will have 15 varieties of apples to choose from this year. Beak says this is fewer than in the past as a result of customer demand. Empire is now Beak and Skiff’s most popular apple, with Northern Spy and McIntosh not far behind.
Talking with the Beak women, it’s clear that the years have done little to erode their enthusiasm—and pride—for the family business. “I still love apples,” Beak says proudly. “Every year, I can’t wait for the first ones.”
Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.