CONWAY — Elaine Hatch, owner of Hatches Orchard in Center Conway, said the orchard is enjoying the best crop she has seen in her half-century of growing apples.
“The apples this year are the best ever,” said the 80-year-old retired schoolteacher in an interview Sunday at the beautiful orchard she and her late husband, Bruce Hatch, purchased on Christmas Eve 1971.
After the Hatches moved to Center Conway from Massachusetts in 1970, Elaine said she asked the then-postmaster Martin Fortier if he knew of any available land. He shared that as a boy he used to climb a tree up on Water Mountain with his friend Francis Hatch (no relation) and he said there was a classified ad in newspaper, advertising the property for sale.
The Hatches bought the land and its old apple trees from Mr. Hatch.
Hatches is now among the local pick-your-own operations in the region.
Widowed in 2017, Elaine is forging ahead with the operation, helped by apprentice Julie Neville, 29, of nearby Goshen Corner Farm; friends suc as Betty Rogers and Marvin Swartz; and neighbors Richie and Christie Girourard, Mary Croasdale, Rod Wilson and Clare Long.
Her hired hand is Gary Raymond.
Neville apprenticed at the Earle Family Farm of South Conway. “Hopefully, the plan is she will take over,” said Hatch, who notes in the meantime, she’s happy to teach Neville everything she knows and encourage her to learn all she can through UNH Cooperative Extension.
Hatch, who is about to become a great-grandmother, says she is grateful for the help of friends, as no one in her family — at this point, anyway — wants to continue the often-back-breaking operation. Hatch’s daughter, Tamara, lives in Utah.
Elaine and Bruce had entered into a conservation easement with the Upper Saco Valley Land Trust four years ago. Surrounded on three sides by other land in easement with the trust, the Hatches Orchard easement adds 50 acres to a block of conservation land in the area.
“This is a funny neighborhood in how tight-knit it is,” Elaine noted. “You don’t see one another for months, and it’s not like we go out to have coffee together. But if you need something, you just call, and everyone shows up and it’s like we just saw each other yesterday.”
She says she still feels Bruce’s presence when butterflies alight on the apple trees.
She says it’s hard to describe the satisfaction she feels whenever she gazes down from their home across the orchard, appreciating what they achieved together.
“It’s like a mother looking at her baby: you feel pride and joy," she said. "And, you know that you’ve made the planet a little better. I tell God every night 'I’m working very hard to improve upon what you gave me,'” said Hatch.
The orchard has 220 trees, not all of which are fruit-bearing yet.
“It takes years. You’ve got to give them time,” said Hatch, noting that an orchard owner has to have patience, because you depend on the whims of Mother Nature — and as noted previously, hard work and science.
“I think a big reason why we’re having such a good crop this year is the work that Julie and I have done to improving the soil these past four years,” said Hatch.
She noted that last year’s crop was affected by freezing rain and snow during blossom season in May.
“I think that gave some of the trees a break because they didn’t bear fruit so they came back stronger this year,” she said.
She says they are “as green organically as we can be,” using products that work for pest control.
This year’s apple crop has not shown any blight. The fruit is tasty and sweet.
Hatches grows primarily Macintosh, Empire, Cortland varieties with some Northern Spy. "My favorite is Macintosh, said Elaine. "You can do anything with them: bake, make jelly, applesauce. I never put sugar in my applesauce because they are so sweet."
Pick-your own hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. weekends and by appointment.
“It’s always been a great family activity to get outdoors. Last year, with COVID, we definitely saw a big increase. This year has been normal,” said Hatch.
Hatches Orchard is located at 1440 Brownfield Road in Center Conway. For information, call (603) 447-5687 or go to pickyourown.farm/farm/hatches-orchard-10599/.