BELMONT — Smith Orchard was recently named a New Hampshire Farm of Distinction.
The award was presented to owners Rob and Wende Richter by Governor Maggie Hassan and N.H. Commissioner of Agriculture Lorraine Merrill at the N.H. Farm and Forest Expo in Manchester.
The Richters have owned and operated the farm, which offers a variety of apples including McIntosh, Macoun and Cortland, since 1985.
Rob says that he and his wife view themselves as the caretakers of a long tradition of apple growing at the orchard, which still has many of the original McIntosh and Cortland trees planted by Charlie Smith in 1928, when he was entering his senior year at the University of New Hampshire.
He says that the 15-acre field which was planted by Smith, who was a long-time Laconia City Council member, had originally been an open pasture across the road from a large farmhouse on Leavitt Road. The farmhouse burned and was replaced by a smaller home the Smith family built.
Over the years Smith hired crews of workers to pick the apples but by the 1950s, when only the reddest fruit was considered acceptable for sale and there was no wholesale market for the rest, Smith made the novel step of opening his orchard to sell directly to the public, becoming what may have been the very first "pick-your-own'' operation in the entire state.
"He told us he made more selling that way than he did on the wholesale market. And it became very popular with people coming here and picking the orchard clean every year," says Rob.
There's even a story about the tradition of opening the orchard on a Friday. Smith told the Richters that he had so many complaints from local people that out-of-staters were flocking to the orchard and getting the best apples when it opened on a Saturday that he decided to open it a day earlier so that local people would enjoy the first picking.
As the older, full-size trees are lost to old age, (some 200 remain) the Richters are replacing them with dwarf and semi-dwarf trees and now have some 3,000 apple trees.
The smaller trees are easier to take care of and produce larger apples according to Rob, who got his start in the apple business in Madison, Maine, not far from Skowhegan, and was being groomed to take over the management of a large apple orchard there when he tore up his knee two days before the apple harvest started.
He said that he made his living in the corporate world until he moved to Laconia, where one of the first persons he met was Charlie Smith, who once he got to know about his interest in apple growing told him "you should buy this place."
He and Wende eventually did just that and Wende recalls that Smith was very helpful to them, even encouraging them to buy additional nearby land he owned that had a second pond on it so that they would always have a backup water supply for the orchard.
The orchard also sells pumpkins, mums, cider, gourds, cornstalks, and home-grown honey and on busy days provides tractor rides in and out of the orchard.
"We'd like to see this orchard stay like this forever," says Rob, who says that even with "current use" taxation at a lower rate because the land is maintained as open space, the taxes and costs of running the orchard are still so high that he and Wende couldn't continue if it weren't for their Laconia laundry and dry cleaning business.
"A lot of people look at the land and say that it's too valuable to grow apples on. But that's what it's been doing for over 80 years and we'd like to see it stay that way," he says.