ROGERS, Ohio — The ground froze overnight in mid-April. Normally, this would have had Dan Simmons worried. It’s also been warm lately. The apple trees are blooming. A spring freeze could damage the delicate blossoms, jeopardizing that fall’s apple crop.
“For the first time in my life, I didn’t care that it was going to freeze in the spring,” he said.
It may take a bit longer for him to stop paying attention to the five weather apps on his phone. That’s a hard habit to break when you are brought up in an orchard.
After a lifetime of living and working amongst the fruit trees at Peace Valley Orchards, set on a hilltop outside of Rogers, Ohio, Simmons and his brother, Paul, are retiring from the family business. Simmons’ sister and brother-in-law, Carol and John Day, will continue to run the bakery at Peace Valley.
The main farm, its buildings and equipment, on Adams Road, sold at auction in March, though the new buyer is keeping it an orchard, Simmons said. Seeing as he still lives across the street from the orchard, Simmons offered his consulting services to the new owner.
“That’s the best of all worlds,” he said. “I’m hoping [the new owner] makes it.”
How it started
Simmons’ grandfather, Daniel J. Simmons, bought the orchard in 1948. Before that, he ran a small vegetable farm near Pittsburgh, but suburban sprawl was beginning to encroach on their farmland.
About that time, Daniel J. Simmons’ two sons, Daniel E. and Donald, were about to enter the family business. It was time to move on to something else somewhere else. The way Simmons tells it, his grandfather asked his sons what they wanted to do.
“They said they didn’t want to bend over and pick vegetables. They wanted to climb a ladder and pick apples,” Simmons said.
His grandfather bought an abandoned apple orchard just over the state line in Ohio. It was 117 acres and had been abandoned for three years. They pruned the orchard and brought in a crop the first year.
“It wasn’t much of a crop, but it was a crop,” Simmons said.
The business and land base grew from there, eventually reaching about 300 acres of land.
Simmons started working on the orchard when he was 11, after school and during the summer. Neighborhood friends around his age wanted to earn some cash, so they asked for work on the farm.
“I didn’t have anyone else to play with, so I went to work,” Simmons said.
They picked rocks out of fields, trimmed brush, loaded crates onto trailers. Simmons and his brother took on more responsibility as they got older. They both went to school to study pomology, or the study of growing fruit; Dan at Ohio State and Paul at Michigan State.
Paul handled the orchard, while Dan was steered by his father towards the business, packaging and shipping side of things, which fit his type A personality. But as it goes on all family farms, everyone does a little bit of everything as needed.
“We did whatever we had to do,” he said.
In addition to being a well-known local name, Peace Valley Orchard has five patents for apple varieties. Their most famous one is probably the Buckeye Gala, a red gala apple that was discovered on the farm in the mid-1990s. There are millions of Buckeye Gala trees planted across the world now.
Gala only recently became popular in the U.S. Originating in New Zealand in the 1930s, it surpassed Red Delicious as the apple cultivar with the highest production in the U.S. in 2018. The Buckeye Gala contributed to that growth, Simmons said, as consumers prefer a more consistently red apple.
His dad and brother found what would become the Buckeye Gala while driving through the orchard one day in the summer. Two red apples stuck out like a sore thumb among their green peers.
Simmons said mutations like the one that created the Buckeye Gala probably happen in every orchard. What made the difference for the Simmonses was taking the time to watch their trees and fruits through the seasons.
“We were always looking for what was different,” he said.
Other apples discovered at Peace Valley Orchard include the “Golden Glory” Golden Delicious apple, “Lawspur” Law Rome apple and the Dandee Red, a Macintosh-type apple.
The Simmonses are part of the Midwest Apple Improvement Association that discovered the Evercrisp apple through a breeding project.
When to say when
Running an orchard with family was a good life, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard and stressful at times. Simmons wanted his children to do something else. He knew there wasn’t room for them in the family business. It was fine to provide for three families, but it couldn’t support him and his siblings in retirement and bring on new families.
The day of the auction, run by Kiko Auctioneers, was “one of the worst days of my life,” Simmons said. Seeing people pick over your things, “that ought to happen after you’re dead,” he said.
But it was a necessary evil, Simmons said, to be able to cleanly close one chapter of their lives and move on to the next.
All three of his children work outside of agriculture. One is an attorney, the other is a retired naval officer working in the private sector, and the other is a nurse.
“They’re all making more money than I ever did and with less stress,” he said. “None of them has to worry when it freezes or when a rain storm goes through and it hails. Or if it doesn’t get cool enough in the fall and the apples don’t get red.”
And now, neither does he. He’s looking forward to being an attentive and present grandfather, one like he couldn’t be while running an orchard. He has five grandchildren, ranging in age from 9 months to 8 years.
“I just want to be the guy my grandkids run to,” he said.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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