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Walter Gross, now 78, grew up in the orchard business.
His family originally had an orchard where the picnic ground is at the Peaks of Otter. If you go up there and see old apple trees, you’re looking at trees his great-grandfather, Richard Gross, planted.
The orchards are now along Wheats Valley Road. The oldest, which the family bought in 1908, adjoins Bedford’s Stoney Creek Reservoir. The reservoir is on land that the city purchased from the Gross family in the 1950s. Gross said that it had been a hay bottom.
“We used to cut hay on that bottom where the reservoir is now, and kill copperhead snakes,” Gross said. He said there were lots of copperheads there.
The orchard where their store is was established in the late 1940s. Walter Gross, along with his son, Ronnie run the place — Walter says that he plans to retire when he turns 100.
He still has plenty of energy. He noted that he recently worked a 12-hour day on a Saturday, then went dancing with his wife in the evening.
“We have some type of work to do in the orchard year around,” he said.
They plant new trees every year and Gross said they have several hundred new trees coming in this year. Keeping the orchard young provides the best protection.
“Young trees produce better fruit,” he said.
The tress they plant today are semi-dwarf trees. Gross said that they get more production from them. They can get between 200 and 300 semi-dwarf trees on an acre. In the old days, they could only get 50 trees per acre. The semi-dwarf trees begin producing faster. They bear apples in the third or fourth year after planting. It took the large trees between eight and 10 years to start bearing.
He likes what he does and enjoys meeting customers who arrive to either buy fruit in the store or go out in the orchard to pick their own, although he noted that pick-your-own season wrapped up early this year. The fruit ripened three weeks early.
“Overall we’ve been very well blessed with enough fruit to keep the business going,” he said.
They got plenty of rain.
“We’ve had a good season. The fruit sized up very well this year,” Gross commented.
Gross’ orchard comprises 100 acres of apples and peaches, growing 26 apple varieties.
“It gives us fresh fruit most of the year and in storage year around,” Gross said.
Along with retail sales, Gross’ Orchard also has a retail fruit business. Gross said that they have trucks going to convenience stores and restaurants in a 300 mile radius.
School tours also come through when pick-your-own fruit is available.
“So many of them have never seen fruit on a tree or a baby calf in the field,” he said.
Ten years ago, Gross’ Orchard began using reduced-spray techniques. They focus spraying on areas where they have spotted a problem, rather than routinely spraying the entire orchard. Gross said that this brings a double benefit. The reduced pesticide use is healthier for consumers and it costs him less.
Gross’ Orchard will have its 22nd Annual Apple Harvest Festival on Saturday. The event started as a celebration of life for Gross’ father, Austin J. Gross.
Walter Gross said the fall, that year, was particularly pretty and they brought some bands up. People asked if they planned to do it again the next year.