Wallingford’s Fruit House in High Season: The Family Fun Affair

Angela Coron of Poland picks pumpkins Thursday at Wallingford’s Fruit House in Auburn. Daryn Slover/Sun Diary

AUBURN – Wallingford’s is a name in Maine that is synonymous with autumn, apples and freshly baked apple and pumpkin fritters. The Ricker family, who have been linked to the orchard and fruit stand for generations, recently purchased the 50 acres of Wallingford and incorporated them into the family’s portfolio of farms, which now has over 400 acres of apples, spread across seven towns. and three counties. The prize at Wallingford’s is the 25 acres of pick-your-own apple trees on the property, which is also home to a growing crop of blueberries and raspberries.

Peter Ricker took over management of the orchard and store operations at 1240 Perkins Ridge Road almost 15 years ago, after the unexpected death of Wallingford patriarch Peter Wallingford. True to his word, Ricker made no drastic changes. “It was a much more seasonal, very well-run, very well-respected, month-and-a-half operation,” he explained. Wallingford’s is now open from June 1 to New Year’s Eve, although high season is late August to early November.

Ricker says he felt there was an opportunity to bring more entertainment value to the area, to expand the options for their customers. The Rickers also operated Apple Ridge Farms next to Wallingford’s, which had goats, a small bakery, and the expensive rows of pick-your-own apples, which have since been consolidated and expanded at Wallingford’s.

The Ricker family, who also own and operate Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner and Vista of Maine Vineyard and Cidery in Greene, have been growing apples for over 200 years, and Peter Ricker said it’s a real family operation , with three generations of the Ricker family currently managing different aspects of the three businesses. The Rickers are the second largest apple growers in Maine and have been vying for the coveted top spot with Cooper Farms orchards in West Paris for years.

To say Wallingford’s is a popular place for families and others to visit is an understatement. Ricker estimates that on his busiest weekends in the fall season, between 4,000 and 6,000 people flock to the property each day. They’ll let the kids run around, feed the goats, pick apples, wander through the corn maze, and sip sweet apple cider or hard cider.

As the family grew into hard cider, the next logical step was to create a tasting room for their wines and ciders, which you can also purchase and take home. There’s a small space for private functions, though Ricker said he likes to keep them small.

Ciara Spofford bakes donuts Thursday at Wallingford’s Fruit House in Auburn. Daryn Slover/Sun Diary

As you make your way to the store, the smell of sweet baked goods wafts with the wind, inviting you inside – where all the tantalizing smells come from. A small but functional bakery produces apple cider and pumpkin spice and even chocolate donuts, pies, muffins and more. The store offers food specialties from local farms and producers, and there’s a children’s section with LEGO, Playmobil and stuffed animals.

Peter Ricker is a satisfied, if not happy, workaholic. Apple growing is a year-round business with a lot of work to distribute, which is helpful when you have a large family support group. He is at Wallingford every day and has other responsibilities within the Turner operation as one of the owners. Still, he says he loves what he does and it’s clear from his interaction with the young staff that he’s informal, but certainly not pushy.

“I know there’s more to it than that, guys,” he said, berating a group of young girls crammed into the crate hut.

“I enjoy my crew. I enjoy working with my staff,” Ricker said. “I enjoy the constant challenge of trying to figure out how best to make it work… how to make it better.”

GO FROM WHOLESALE TO RETAIL

Growing apples is fraught with risk, and the wholesale aspect of the business, especially on the national stage, pits Maine growers against much larger orchards in the Northwest, New York, Michigan , Ohio and parts of the South.

“Maine is an extremely expensive place to grow apples,” Ricker said, citing Maine’s short growing season and cool, wet climate, which makes disease control more difficult and expensive. Apples and apple trees are very susceptible to disease.

Consumer tastes are constantly changing and the big chains today want slightly sweeter varieties, which require a longer growing season, and they buy apples based on cost. So, says Ricker, western orchards in particular have lower costs due to heavily government subsidized water and less need for chemicals to control disease due to the drier climate. Labor costs are also higher in Maine due to higher minimum wage requirements for agricultural workers.

“We just can’t compete nationally as well,” Ricker said. Regional affairs are doing well, but he said it was getting more and more difficult. Thus, the decision was made to put more emphasis on retail, which can be more profitable, by expanding retail options for people.

CUSTOMERS STILL WANT A PANORAMIC FARM EXPERIENCE

“As you grow up, one of the things I didn’t want to lose was the idea of ​​coming to a quaint farm,” Ricker said, noting that it’s a constant challenge to find the boundary between the old farmhouse vibe and still having plenty of activities and options for a large customer base.

An aerial view of the corn maze at Wallingford’s Fruit House in Auburn on Sept. 29 with Lake Auburn in the background. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

They added the seven-acre corn maze, but lost another smaller one to new plantings of blueberries and raspberries. Then there are the wagon rides and a food truck on the weekends and an escape room, where small groups of people are ‘locked’ in a themed room and must solve puzzles, riddles and clues. to escape.

But what has grown in size and popularity is the “Nightmare on the Ridge” haunted walk, which is more of a haunted village than a haunted house. It takes about 30 minutes from start to finish and is full most Saturday nights and some Fridays, which is why they added Thursday nights. Ricker says “Nightmare on the Ridge” is nationally ranked – the best in Maine and one of the best in the Northeast. It’s listed on halloweennewengland.com, but there are dozens of ratings and lists of haunted attractions on the internet.

All of this activity requires staff, which has become increasingly difficult for businesses of any kind to attract. Ricker says he hires between 30 and 50 people, mostly teenagers and people in their twenties, many of whom work around 20 hours a week or less because that’s all they want to work or all they want to do. can work under the law.

After the significant downturn in Halloween business, Wallingford’s will post on social media that the pumpkins are free. “And it’s almost scary what’s going on,” he adds. People line up first thing in the morning and before you know it they are all gone. Some take them to collect the seeds, but it’s the pig farmers who bring in bigger trucks and pick them all up.

Wallingford’s then turned to selling hundreds of Maine-grown Christmas trees and wreaths made by a handful of local artisans. Meanwhile, the goats return to the farmer who owns them for the winter, as do the rabbits, and it gets pretty quiet on the ridge.

One thing Ricker says he would like to find is someone who can add special value to the Wallingford experience. “I would love to have an older gentleman to talk about apples and explain apples to people, if I could find one.” So if you know an apple-knowing grandpa or grandma looking for a side gig, call Peter Ricker.


Use the form below to reset your password. After you submit your account email, we’ll send you an email with a reset code.