ALTAMONT — The focus on family seems appropriate when considering how the Abbruzzese started in the business a half-century ago. Co-owner Jim Abbruzzese said it all started with an ultimatum his mother, Ellen, had presented to his father, Joe.
As Jim tells the story, his father returned from fighting in World War II and opened a bar; a successful one in Milton. “It had the first television in town,” he said. His mother, however, made his father sell the business. “She wasn’t going to marry a drunk — or a guy who served drunks,” he said with a laugh. And, as the story goes, his father sold the bar and married his mother. “That’s love,” he said.
His father Joe later ran a 24-hour diner in town with another family member. As a coincidence, that diner served as a meeting point for all of the big apple brokers in the region. Joe earned an education by listening to them set prices, defining the local market. He befriended some. And, when a catastrophic fire befell the diner, an opportunity to buy the apple orchard later presented itself.
Jim was in kindergarten when his family moved onto the orchard.
The history behind the farm dates back to Stephen Van Rensselaer, who leased the land to a William Ward in 1792. This plot, located at the base of the Helderberg Escarpment outside of Altamont, has changed several hands.
The first apple orchard, however, is more recent. According to the orchard’s website, Daniel Cook, an Albany physician with a curiosity for a new science to growing apples, planted the first orchard a century ago. It remained in the Cook family until Daniel’s son, Daniel Jr, died in 1952.
The orchards were nearly plowed over for a housing development. When that proposal fell through in 1956, 250 acres were sold to William C. Paladino, who headed a subsidiary of Hudson Valley Apple Products, Inc. one of the largest growers and packers of apples in the Northeast. It’s also the last entity to have owned Altamont Orchards before the Abbruzzese family.
After the diner was destroyed, Jim’s father was approached about taking ownership of an orchard.
“They flew up on a plane, looked over it, and he bought it,” said Jim. “It’s not the smartest thing he ever did,” he said with a laugh. But, the farm has been with the family ever since.
Today, thousands of Capital District residents visit Altamont Orchards for its farm market, pick your own grove, golf course and restaurant.
The latter two business ventures have extended the land’s financial viability. Against his father’s wishes, Jim said he and his brothers — Joe, John, Dan —invested money into an award-winning golf course. The risk, he said, was immediately justified after three seasons of devastating hail storms. The relative consistency of a restaurant business helps to stabilize the ebbs and flows from a weather-dependent agriculture venture. Jim said it’s helped keep the family business going to where they are today. But, he said, the orchard’s future is no more certain than it was.
Jim said it’s becoming more difficult to run a business in New York. The changing of the weather is affecting how some apples taste. He said he and his wife have a child to get through college. As with many family farms, the children of those working the fields are pursuing other careers.
“They all know the hours we put in on our lives, and they don’t want to put in 80, 90 hours a week like we do,” he said, of his daughter and nieces. “I don’t know what the future holds for us, but I’m here for at least ten more years.”
For more information on Altamont Orchards and this weekend’s activities, visit altamontorchards.com.