Who knew the New England Patriots could have such an impact on New Hampshire apple orchards?
On a typical weekend, said Tom Balsamo, who owns the Stone Brook Hill Farm in Gilford with his wife, Mary, he sees maybe a thousand visitors.
But when the Patriots played a Sunday night game two weeks ago – freeing up Patriots' fans from their usual Sunday afternoon appointment with the television – “we probably had at least 2,000 people,” Balsamo said.
Joe Rolfe, who owns the Stone Mountain Farm in Belmont with his wife Cindy, also saw a surge in visitors.
“There's definitely a difference when the Pats are on at one,” Rolfe said. “It gets very quiet out here. We noticed a difference.”
Balsamo and Rolfe may be seeing more of the same this weekend, because the Patriots defeated the Colts this past Thursday night and have Sunday off.
As home-field advantages go, the Balsamos and Rolfes – and every other orchard operator in the state, for that matter – will gladly take the Patriots not playing on a sparkling Sunday autumn afternoon.
“It's a pretty fickle business because the fruit doesn't stay on the tree very long,” Rolfe said. “You have a very short window with some of this fruit...If you don't have great weather and a lot of customers, coming through, down it goes.”
The state has more than 1,400 acres of orchards, said George Hamilton, a field specialist in fruits and vegetables with the UNH Cooperative Extension Service.
The average apple yield in the state is 300-400 bushels per acre, Hamilton said, but there's a huge gap from farm to farm, depending on the type of orchard being run.
Traditional orchards, he said, average between 200-400 bushels per acre.
That would include orchards like the Balsamos' Stone Brook Hill Farm, which has about 1,600 trees on 12 acres, with the trees spread out in long rows with plenty of space in between.
Tom and Mary Balsamo – who bought the farm on Glidden Road three years ago – said they pay attention to aesthetics and try to make a visit to their orchard about more than apples.
“I kid myself we have the largest playpen in the Lakes Region," Tom said. “It's 12 acres and all fenced in.”
That was perfect for people like Chery Davis, a Centerville, Massachusetts, resident who was in the area for a family wedding last weekend.
“The grandkids need something to keep them busy,” she said, standing near the orchard entrance.
“We encourage people to come, and feel free to stay,” said Mary Balsamo. “Somebody brought a picnic lunch and sat at one or our tables. We love that. We put balls out for the kids to play” and have lawn games in a nearby pine grove for people to enjoy.
They also have a tractor pulling visitors through the orchard, as does the Stone Mountain Farm in Belmont, which is a different kind of orchard.
It employs a special high-intensity growth system that results in a much higher yield per acre.
Hamilton said such orchards across the state produce 1,000-1,200 bushels per acre.
When Joe and Cindy Rolfe bought the farm from his parents, there was a hayfield where apple trees now stand.
The first of the trees went in just five years ago after the Rolfes consulted with the UNH extension service, seeking advice on how best to make the land more profitable.
They considered Christmas trees, but the timeline for that to pay off was too far out, Joe Rolfe said.
UNH suggested they plant apples – but rather than plant trees in long rows about 20 feet apart, they suggested grouping the trees and rows much closer together.
The result is that, after five years, Stone Mountain Farm features about 6,000 trees on only five acres of land off Route 106 and plans are in the works to add cider and other improvements in the coming years.
“We're able to produce about 1,500 to 2,000 bushels per acre,” Rolfe said.
Plant it, and they will come?
Hamilton, from UNH, said the vast majority of the state's apples are sold the same way – directly to consumers, at farm stands and at pick-your-own operations. In addition to Stone Brook Hill Farm and Stone Mountain Farm, other places to pick your own apples in the area include the Smith Orchard on Leavitt Road in Belmont and the Surowiec Farm in Sanbornton.
And regardless of the type of orchard, apple picking is as much a part of fall in New Hampshire as the changing of the foliage, trick-or-treating or watching the Patriots.