It’s pick-your-own apples time in New England and Bashista’s Orchard in Southampton has plenty of “good pickin’s.”
New England - well known for its lush orchards - is prime apple picking territory and farms bearing the popular crisp fruit are key destinations in the fall for families looking for an enjoyable outing with the kids.
The Bashista family has been growing apples since Jacob Bashista established the farm in the 1920s, and many of the old standard trees are still producing fruit. Today there are well over 1,000 trees on 30 acres of orchard with 50 varieties of apples for eating, baking and cider making.
“As pick-your-own became increasingly popular with folks, we decided it was time to bring what was becoming a tradition with families to our farm for the many people who would often inquire if it was something we offered,” said Tom Bashista, who along with his wife Cheryl continued the farming tradition in 2010 when they took ownership of the farm.
But there was another reason for the switch in thinking to pick-your-own.
“At one time we had a crew who picked everything we sold. When the market changed and the price of labor more than doubled, we had to change our business plan because we simply couldn’t afford a sizable crew any longer. By introducing pick-your-own apples in parts of our orchard, we now had people paying us to pick our apples,” he added.
The fourth generation of his family to run the farm, Bashista said his earliest memories as a boy was harvest time in the orchard.
“It was a real community effort back then. We would have friends and relatives picking apples and the Red Sox would be on the radio in the background. It was a different mentality in those days back in the late 1960s and early 1970s compared to today where there is not much sense of community anymore. It’s me and my two sons, Jacob, 18, and Jonathan, 18, bringing in the harvest these days,” Bashista said.Today Bashista Orchards is known for much more than their apples. Over the years the orchard was expanded to grow peaches, pears, nectarines, apricots, plums and cherries. Customers also stop by the family-run farm to purchase their “awesome,” as their website describes them, cider donuts, as well as apple cider, store-baked pies and breads, country gifts and crafts from artisan soaps to jewelry, local vegetables and locally-produced maple syrup and maple candy, raw honey, and cider vinegar.
Tom and Jean Bashista (Jacob had a son Walter who went on to run the family farm beginning in the 1940s before his son Tom took reins at the orchard) expanded the retail store in 1984, and baked goods were added to the operation, giving them a reason to remain open year-round.
“We bake our own,” Bashista said about their pies, a wide variety of which includes the more popular Dutch Apple, as well as Strawberry Rhubarb, Blueberry, Apple, and the combination Fruits of the Forest, which he said has “a little zing to it.”
The menu for sweet tooths also includes cider donuts - plain, apple crisp or the seasonal pumpkin - scones, cookies, apple fritters, store baked breads of several kinds, as well as other taste-tempting treats, including a customer favorite - apple cake.
“We just added another baker to our staff to keep up with demand,” Bashista said, noting his son Jonathan and daughter Amanda, 21, both help out in the bakery.
With a web address gotcider.net, it wouldn’t be Bashista Orchards without a cider mill, which was added to the farm in 1996 using equipment purchased from Tom Molitoris of Easthampton. They use a slow pressed blend of ripe apples and the end product is unpasteurized with nothing added or taken away.
Bashista noted that people tell him that they make “the best cider around.”
“Our cider is a blend of our apples. I don’t like just using a single variety because the end product doesn’t have as good a flavor. I like to have sweet and tart blended together. We sell our cider year-round along with our cider slushies which have no sugar added and are a big favorite with customers,” Bashista said.
The cider making process involves brushing and rinsing the apples before grinding. The trimmed and washed apples then ride up an elevator before dropping into the grinder. Then the ground apples are pumped into the racking cloth and piled upon one another for pressing. The juice is pressed out of the cloth and filled into jugs. All that is left is damp pulp, which is taken by a local farmer who feeds it to his cows
“In-season we spend about 10 hours in the cider mill to produce 350 gallons of cider per day, and that includes cleaning up afterward. I do the pressing and my brother, David, does the jugging,” he said.
In addition to their apples and other orchard fruits, customers will also find fresh, locally-grown fruits and vegetables in season - everything from corn, squash, tomatoes to all kinds of berries and much more - at their country store. Also, just in time for the fall and Halloween, Bashista will soon be bringing in bins of locally grown sugar pumpkins big and small for cooking or carving.
“Our focus is on the orchard, not ground crops, so I support local farmers by purchasing their fruits and vegetables, and they buy our orchard fruits to sell at their roadside stands,” Bashista said.
Other local products sold at the store include Maple Line Dairy products and Maple Valley Creamery Ice Cream, both from Hadley, MA; local beef from Bofat Hill Farm in Chesterfield, MA; turkey pies from Diemand Farm in Wendell, MA; Crowley Cheese from Vermont, and local free range chicken eggs, as well as duck and goose eggs in season from Jersey Hill Farm in Chicopee, MA.
On top of everything they are known for, Bashista Orchards is also in the history books.
“We still have people who stop by and want to know where it happened,” Bashista said.
The “it” they are asking about is the site where a plane crash nearly took the life of the late Senator Ted Kennedy.
It was on the night of June 19 - while flying in for the state’s Democratic convention - that on their approach to Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport in Westfield, bad weather sent the plane into a dive crashing into Bashista’s orchard, several miles short of the runway.
Bashista’s Orchard is also in the books for a large piece of glacial rock referred to as “Apple Rock” that is considered as a Massachusetts landmark. Bashista’s great-grandfather discovered the chunk of history while clearing land after the 1950s to extend the orchard.
If you are planning on apple picking this fall, in September at Bashista’s Orchard there are Jonathan, McIntosh, Ruby Mac and Cortland to pick, followed in October by other varieties such as Empire, Fuji, Jonafree, Jonagold, and Mutsu.
Customers purchase a ½ bushel bag at the store for $30 and may pick from any of the varieties that are ready at the time in the pick-your-own sections of the orchard. Free parking and admission. No ladders are required.
But it is not just apple time in September and October, apple seekers can bite into their favorite varieties all year long at Bashista Orchards. In 1984 Tom and Jean added to their existing cold storage room and apple sorting area to the 1940s building that is home to their business. Most of the building is cold storage which allows them to offer their fruit through the winter into spring.
“Even today we still have some apples in cold storage from last year’s growing season. The varieties that store well such as Braeburn and Winesap are still really good eating apples even after being stored all winter. Small by industry standards, we have cold storage capacity of around 5,000 bushel of apples,” Bashista said.
For those who want to be further “in the know,” Bashista offered the following thoughts about his apples that come in every size, shape and color.
“Some people turn their noses up at Macs which are so popular and nice for eating. They are also a good sauce apple. When they are freshly picked, Macs are crisp and lightly tart. But if you want something even sweeter, try a Macoun. Honeycrisp are all the rage, but are difficult to grow. The Honeycrisp tree has higher nutritional needs than most other apple trees in order to produce nice consistent quality fruit. I doubt, however, Honeycrisp apples would win if they were in a supermarket taste test. If you are thirsty, however, they are watery apples.
It is too late now, but thinking ahead to next year, you can pick sweet cherries in mid- to late-June and tart ones right after the sweets are finished.
“We have a huge following of people who come from as far as Boston and New York to pick their own cherries. They come to us because picking cherries was a normal thing to do in their native countries, but many growers don’t allow cherry picking in their orchards,” Bashista said.
Bashista Orchards is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. They sometimes are open fewer days in April and May and recommend calling ahead or checking their Facebook page for details.
Centrally located from Route 10, Route 202, Route 141, Route 91 and the Massachusetts Turnpike, Bashista Orchards is located at 160 East St. in Southampton.
For more information, visit gotcider.net or call 413-527-9091