By Susan Crowell
BERLIN HEIGHTS, Ohio — All of his life, Ben Gammie has watched his dad Bill in the family’s retail market whip out a knife, slice one of their apples and hand a sliver to a customer.
“Straight from my hand to their mouth,” Bill would say.
That connection between the grower and the consumer stuck with the young Gammie, and although his career as a civil engineer took him to Texas, then Arizona, Ben never doubted he would return to the northcentral Ohio orchard of his roots.
• • •
Bill Gammie, on the other hand, admits he “didn’t want to have a damn thing to do with farming,” with its long hours and minimal returns.
His uncle Alex and his father, William G., moved to Erie County in 1931, leaving the steel mills of Lorain to raise vegetables. William attended Ohio State University studying horticulture, and worked after college managing a rubber plantation in Liberia for Harvey S. Firestone.
The brothers bought two farms near Berlin Heights and started raising tomatoes and cabbage and other vegetables, selling their truck crops at the food terminal in Cleveland. A few fruit trees were added along the way.
“They followed their passion,” Bill Gammie says today.
But in 1964, William died of cancer, when young Bill was just in junior high. Alex Gammie focused on his own farm and William’s farm was primarily rented for cash grain production.
Although he worked for his uncle while he was growing up, Bill studied political science at Ohio State, then got called up for active duty in the Vietnam War. After 19 months in the service, he returned to Ohio and became a teacher, meeting a young home economics teacher, Jacque, who was to become his wife in 1975.
But the pull of the farm was too great, so in addition to teaching, Bill slowly started revitalizing the old 30-acre orchard, one block at a time. After several years of juggling both jobs, he quit teaching to focus on farming even though, like all agricultural ventures, it was a competitive industry — there were 20 orchards in his township alone.
Today, Quarry Hill Orchards — so named because of the three long-abandoned quarries on the farm — encompasses 130 acres of tree fruit. The primary crop is apples, with the popular eating varieties of Evercrisp, Honeycrisp, Fuji and Galas, but there are also blocks of peaches, plums, nectarines and pears. The sandy (but rocky) loam soil, higher topography (on a clear day, you can see Lake Erie three miles away) and microclimate give the orchard its edge.
The Gammies also lease a couple hundred acres to another farmer for row crops.
Gammie built a cold storage shed soon after returning to the farm full-time, to extend his marketing season, and eight years ago, built controlled atmosphere storage rooms, which control temperature, oxygen, carbon dioxide and humidity to store apples even longer.
He started transitioning to a trellis system for new apple plantings about 10 years ago. Since Ben’s return in 2013, the two have been exploring the “top work” style of grafting, which involves using a new scion, or variety start, on existing trellised tree rootstock. It’s a faster-growing, lower cost option for starting new blocks of trees, which can often cost $15,000 an acre.
Their newest high density trellis planting, on 3-foot spacing, is Pink Lady apples, which is a variety that’s part of a suite of new apples that have consumer interest, Ben said.
Twenty percent of the fruit is sold at the orchard’s retail market and at the Crocker Park and Hudson farmers markets, and the remaining 80 percent is sold wholesale, primarily through a grower-owned marketing cooperative, the Fruit Growers Marketing Association.
They also offer pick-your-own options for customers, with many people returning each year from as far away as Cleveland, 40 minutes to the east.
At the height of the season, the Gammies employ 30 people in the retail and production operations, including a half dozen foreign workers through the H-2A temporary visa program.
(Story continues below photo gallery.)
Quarry Hill Winery expansion
In 2005, Bill Gammie expanded into grape production, partnering with winemaker Mac McClellan. They first sold the wine in a corner of their retail barn, but in 2009, built a separate winery building.
The partners have developed Quarry Hill Winery into a destination venue, offering indoor and outdoor seating, private rooms for rentals, a limited food menu and live entertainment year-round.
Bill Gammie, now 71, says the growth of the farm has been slow, but sustained, and always with the power of family behind it.
“Family ties allowed us to do this,” he said. “You evolve and you change and hopefully you grow.”
While son Ben and daughter Adrianne worked on the farm as they grew up, Bill never pushed them to consider it as their vocation. In fact, he told them if they wanted to come back to the farm, they had to work someplace else first.
Adrianne, who lives Michigan with her husband and daughter, carries a little bit of the farm with her, growing cut flowers at the Tilian Farm Development Center in Ann Arbor, and selling floral designs.
Next generation comes home
Ben Gammie and his wife, Brooke, moved back to join the orchard in 2013. The two met as civil engineers in Austin, Texas, then moved to Phoenix, but Brooke knew his heart was back in Ohio.
From the first time they met, “I knew it was a package deal,” she said.
While Ben jumped into working with Bill, Brooke focused on improving the administrative and management efficiencies, marketing and social media, as well as building a new responsive design website.
She built Farm to School sales, and the orchard now sells apples directly to 20 school districts in a five-county region. School staffers can place orders on the farm’s e-commerce website, and from August through February, the orchard maintains a dedicated truck delivery route once a week to the schools. To further diversify a revenue channel, Brooke also developed an apple box gift package as a corporate gift enterprise for the end-of-the-year holidays.
Ben Gammie says they’ll keep working with the wholesale side of the operation, “but if the retail can sustain us, that’s much more fun.”
While a farm or orchard is never tranquil for the owners, “there is perceived tranquility out here,” Ben said, adding they’d like to shift and develop that experience for customers, and the dollars associated with it.
“It’s more real, and speaks to who we are,” he added.
That’s when he tells the story of his dad slicing those apples in the farm’s market to hundreds of customers through the years. That connection to the food and the grower who produced it — “from my hand to their mouth” — is what keeps him going.
And keeps customers coming back.
STAY INFORMED. SIGN UP!
Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!