Small Business Startup: Denmark Gardens

Patsy Makuch opened Lewis County's first apple orchard this year. Amanda Morrison/ NNY Business

Patsy Makuch opened Lewis County’s first apple orchard this year. Amanda Morrison/ NNY Business

Lewis County’s first apple orchard had a successful first season

THE INITIAL IDEA

Patsy S. Makuch, who opened Denmark Gardens — Lewis County’s first apple orchard — this fall, is a woman of ideas who’s constantly thinking about what to do next. After selling off some of the cows at the Denmark dairy farm she owns with her husband, Maxwell J., a few years ago and transitioning to the fifth generation of farm ownership, she worked for about two years at the Mercer’s Dairy ice cream facility in Boonville, which she and her husband were part owners of at the time.

But the commute didn’t suit her and she felt like she was “missing out on a lot of life” being away from the farm so much, so she started brainstorming ideas for off-beat, home-based business that could fill a niche.

“I thought, ‘what does Lewis County not have?’” she said. “The idea evolved over several months. I thought about what little businesses Lewis County could use.”

An apple orchard was an unusual choice, not the least for someone eager to constantly try new things and innovate—“you really have to be very patient to grow this type of business” when trees take about three years to start producing fruit, she notes—but because of the location. Numerous growers in the Finger Lakes region expressed doubt that apple trees could survive so far north, even though Mrs. Makuch told them that an Empire tree in her yard had done well for years.

But friend Susan E. Maring, who started the county’s first winery, Tug Hill Vineyards, and was previously in the landscaping business, didn’t think it was at all a crazy idea, and stepped in to help, providing Mrs. Makuch guidance on pruning trees (believe me, Mrs. Maring told her when she said she was afraid to prune, the branches will grow back) and operating a business.

From late August through early October, Mrs. Makuch sold apples that her family picked, as well as pumpkins, squash and handmade barn quilts in half of the farm’s barn, separated from the farm equipment by a “wall of hay bales” in what she notes was an ineffective setup because the store had to be moved every time equipment needed to come out.

This spring, she and her husband plan to build a 15-by-80-foot lean-to adjacent to the barn to house a real store after what she called a “wonderful” first season. The orchard also housed a hay bale maze that 500 people went through; the couple plans to make it more challenging next year as part of their desire to make the orchard a destination spot for families.

THE JOURNEY

Mrs. Makuch and her family planted the orchard’s first 300 trees in 2010, which they got from Minnesota on Mrs. Maring’s recommendation so they would survive in the north country’s similarly cold climate. They planted another 150 the following year, also from Minnesota, some of which arrived with broken branches and other damage, she said, which led to her partnering with Tim Widrick of Zehr’s Flowers and Landscaping in Naumburg, who is now grafting and supplying her with trees and is a “fountain of information” on everything from royalty fees for apple varieties to pesticides and diseases, she said. Using his trees, the orchard planted 145 last fall and another 100 in early October.

Mrs. Makuch said there is room in the current orchard to plant another two rows—about 200 trees—but says long-term she could see the orchard expanding to as many as 1,200 to 1,500 trees, which the orchard would plant elsewhere on the family’s 160 acres.

Next year, the orchard will have double the crop, and this season indicates that there is indeed enough demand—Mrs. Makuch said the orchard was shuffling directly from one variety to another, and several times had to turn people away because of a lack of supply. In late August the orchard sold Zestar apples, then Snowsweet in mid-September, McIntosh, Cortland and Honeycrisp in late September and Spy, and Regent in early October.

Mrs. Makuch said she charged slightly lower prices for her apples and squash than competitors to “draw people in and put myself on the map.”

Mrs. Makuch also said that the orchard hasn’t lost any trees, other than when a tornado swept through the orchard in July, taking down 30 trees, damaging some and routing some others entirely, and preventing the orchard from offering U-pick apples, something she says didn’t hurt her business but that she intends to offer next season.

TARGET CLIENTELE

Mrs. Makuch hopes her orchard provides an opportunity for families who want to pick apples without having to drive to Mexico in Oswego County. She had customers from Lewis and Jefferson counties this season, including numerous people from Carthage, Croghan, Boonville and Watertown. She said many customers thanked her for providing a place to buy apples that saved them the trip to Mexico and were “making a day of it” in Denmark.

A location across from the Carlowden Country Club also attracts families or others out and about in the community, she said.

IN FIVE YEARS

“I have to figure out what I’m going to do with my oodles and oodles of apples,” Mrs. Makuch says of the future.

But her mind is already buzzing with ideas. She hopes to construct a climate-controlled warehouse for storing apples and is looking into selling them to local schools or restaurants. She broached her idea for selling to schools at a meeting of Lewis County food service workers in late October. She also hopes to sell cider from the Burrville Cider Mill and baked goods made locally inside the revamped store.

Her children have suggested that she start a distillery, sell apple vodka and “just be happy,” she says with a laugh, unconvinced.

This winter she plans to prune her trees and get the orchard into immaculate shape for next season, as well as possibly sell some of her barn quilts and teach herself to knit.

While she hasn’t hammered out the specifics of the orchard’s future yet—I could change my mind, too, my next great brainstorm might come along,” she says—one thing is certain: “I plan to do this forever.”

— Leah Buletti