Circle R puts emphasis on quality produce

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 23 September 2015 at 12:00 am

Chamber Agricultural Business of the Year: Circle R Fruit Farms

Photos by Tom Rivers – Bernie Heberle, general manager and co-owner of Circle R Fruit Farms, checks on some SnapDragon apples in an orchard along Route 18 in Carlton. Heberle joined Circle R in 1998 and has helped boost production and quality.

CARLTON – In 1991, after about 30 years of growing vegetables, Lynn Roberts decided to make a big push into fruit.

There were about 250 acres of fruit up for auction, and Roberts bought the land, establishing Circle R Fruit Farms.

Circle R has grown to 554 acres. It is one of the biggest local fruit operations, producing 450,000 bushels of apples a year. (State-wide, there are about 25 to 30 million bushels of apples to be harvested each year.)

The Chamber of Commerce has recognized Circle R as the “Agricultural Business of the Year.”

Circle R added this farm market with ice cream five years ago along Route 18. Nearly all of the produce is from Circle R or the Roberts vegetable farm, Lynn-Ette and Sons.

Circle R has planted new popular varieties, such as Honeycrisp and SnapDragon, in high density orchards. Bernie Heberle joined Circle R in 1998. As general manager and co-owner, he has pushed for high-quality produce.

He also oversees the Circle R farm market on Route 18, just west of Lakeside Beach State Park. That started as two wagons by the road 14 years ago. Heberle put out 75 quarts of strawberries with people paying on the honor system, leaving cash in a locked box.

Five years ago, Circle R put up a farm market to better display fruits and vegetables from the farm. The site also sells lots of ice cream. Heberle says the market continues to see big growth in business each year. It has helped fill some of the void with closing of Brown’s Berry Patch’s retail site this year.

“This year there has been an incredible amount of business,” Heberle said.

The farm market is a popular spot in Carlton for people looking for ice cream, fruits and vegetables.

Heberle arrives at the market early, often by 6 a.m. and likes to get displays of fruit and vegetables ready. He enjoys the quiet before the workday gets busy around 8 a.m.

Circle R has 80 workers harvesting apples and fruit. Heberle directs them. He admires their work ethic and commitment to excellence. The workers are from Mexico and Jamaica.

Looking into the future, Heberle said the country’s unresolved immigration policies threaten agriculture, especially operations that are labor intensive. Circle R has 80 workers through the H2A program, which allows temporary legal workers for seasonal farm labor.

Heberle said the program is expensive, with lots of paperwork and often the workers are delayed in their arrival due to the government bureaucracy.

“I love working with my help,” Heberle said. “But I worry about the future. Americans don’t want to do these jobs.”

Heberle is pictured in a high-density orchard, where trees are planted close together.

When Heberle joined Circle R, the orchards were planted with about 90 to 120 trees per acre. The trees were tall and a bit ungangly with long branches projecting in wild directions.

Most of those trees are gone, replaced with shorter trees, planted close together in high-density orchards. The trees are easier to pick from (workers don’t have to spend much time high on ladders). The trees bear fruit quicker after being planted. And the total output per acre, with up to 1,400 trees, is far more than a generation ago.

The high-density orchards should allow Circle R to reach 500,000 bushels of apples annually, Heberle said.

Photo courtesy of Roberts family – Lynn Roberts is pictured about two years ago at Circle R Fruit Farm with his son Darren Roberts, center, Bernie Heberle, manager of Circle R.

The Chamber, in recognizing Circle R, praised the farm “for producing exceptional local produce to Orleans County and beyond.”

Heberle credits Lynn Roberts, patriarch of the farm, for diversifying into fruit, and for pushing for superior produce.

“I owe a lot of Lynn Roberts,” Heberle said. “He took me in as a son.”

Mr. Roberts was 80 when he died on June 13. Heberle accepted the Chamber award on behalf on Lynn, and has placed the award in Lynn’s office at the farm.