Locate Finger Lakes Business Journal

DeFisher Fruit Farms Grows with Family and Ingenuity

The DeFisher family posing for a group photo with a bushel of apples in the orchard

The DeFisher family. Bill DeFisher (3rd generation) and his wife, Eleanor; Dave DeFisher (4th generation) and his wife, Christine; their children, Luke and Kimberly DeFisher (5th generation); Ella (6th generation).

The northern Finger Lakes region is the genuine “Big Apple” in New York State. Wayne County is the largest apple producer in the state, and the third largest in the country.

Apple production is big business in the Finger Lakes. And multi-generational family farms are the core of the industry. Locate Finger Lakes showcases one of those farms, both as an example of its regional and national impact on the apple industry, and how new generations of growers are finding creative ways to add value to a longstanding Finger Lakes tradition.

DeFisher Fruit Farms had been growing apples for over three decades when Leon DeFisher passed away in 1967 at the young age of 57. His son, Bill, then 28, faced an unexpected decision: keep the family farm or sell it.

“That first year, I debated whether I wanted to do it alone or not,” he said. “But I’m glad I stuck with it.”

Today, DeFisher Fruit Farms in Williamson, Wayne County is a fifth-generation, family-owned and operated farm.

Bill expanded the farm into its abundance of apples, grown on most of its 500-acres and yielding about 160,000 bushels annually. The farm also produces tart and sweet cherries, pears, plums and peaches.

Bill and his son, Dave own and operate the farm. Dave’s son, Luke, 28, manages the newest addition to the family business: Rootstock Cider and Spirits. Dave’s daughter, Kimberly, 25, handles the administrative duties for both the farm and the craft beverage business.

The DeFisher family farm was founded in Sodus, New York by William DeFisher, Bill’s grandfather. It was relocated and expanded to Williamson in 1932 by William and his son, Leon. The farm has been continuously owned and operated by the DeFisher family for more than a century.

Five generations on the farm

Like his father and grandfather before him, Luke grew up on the farm.

“The very first job I had was pulling brush out of the orchard rows and working alongside our cherry harvester,” said Luke. “All that started about four in the morning when I was 12 years old and I’ve been working on the farm ever since.”

Luke was drawn to natural systems, and the way ecological principles are applied to modern farming. That interest led him to Cornell University where he studied general biology and participated in field research with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

His focus shifted, though, when his dad decided to diversify the farm and enter the distilling business.

Rootstock Cider Cans“About junior year, I changed gears and started learning about fermentation and hard cider,” Luke explained. “Then I came back to start the family distilling business.”

The DeFishers opened Apple Country Spirits in 2012. A year later, Luke graduated from Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

One year into the business, Luke went to work for Lyons National Bank (LNB) in small business lending. He wanted to learn more about the financial and operational aspects of running a company.

“What I liked about working for a commercial bank was the opportunity to see how other businesses functioned,” he said. “I gained perspective on the growing pains that new businesses or expanding businesses go through. I’m thankful for the training I received at LNB.”

After four years at LNB, Luke returned to the family business full-time and trained as an apprentice cidermaker.

LNB provided financing to help the DeFishers launch their distillery and cidery.

“The essence of a hometown bank is to work with individuals, small businesses and municipalities in the communities it serves to help them obtain their financial goals,” said Robert Schick, chairman and CEO of Lyons National Bank and Locate Finger Lakes board member. “We are proud to have partnered with the DeFisher family in helping them grow their multi-generational fruit farm into a vibrant member of the Wayne County agri-community. We are also proud to have counted Luke DeFisher as a member of our Lyons Bank family.”

Bottle of Apple Country Spirits - Apple Jack

Diversifying the farm

The idea for Apple Country Spirits was born in 2010, when Dave began thinking of ways to keep the farm profitable and viable into the future.

He had recently sold Haunted Hayrides of Greater Rochester to radio company Entercom. The family operated the Halloween-themed hayrides for two decades, enhancing the farm’s reputation throughout the area.

Then he and his wife, Christine took a course on farm distillation at Cornell.

“We did a little exploring and research and determined we were going to jump headfirst into that project,” said Dave.

In 2011, they built a 7,000-square-foot distillery and tasting room on the farm. It opened in 2012.

It wasn’t long before Dave had another idea.

“I noticed what was happening with hard cider. It was the fastest-growing segment of the alcoholic market,” Dave said. “And here we sat in Wayne County—the largest apple producer in the state—and nobody was doing it yet.”

Rootstock Cider and Spirits logoSo the DeFishers jumped headfirst again. They bought the equipment needed to make hard cider, and in 2014, opened Rootstock Ciderworks in the same location as Apple Country Spirits.

They recently brought the two businesses together and have rebranded as Rootstock Cider and Spirits.

Planting roots in the craft beverage business

The DeFishers opened the first post-prohibition farmstead cidery in the Rochester region.

All Rootstock products are made from fruit grown on the farm.

Its flagship spirit, TREE Vodka, is among the few in the world created using all-natural, gluten-free, locally-grown apples.

The spirits are distributed throughout Upstate New York. Rootstock also does custom distilling for other craft beverage producers.

The company has experienced a 20 to 25 percent annual growth rate in hard cider. Those products are sold at bars, restaurants and retailers throughout the region, including Wegmans.

The cidermaking process is similar to winemaking.

“Cider is produced just like a fine white wine would be,” said Dave.

In fact, the company’s head cidermaker is a former winemaker.

“We’ll choose each variety of apple based on how it tastes,” explained Luke. “We’ll make a blend and that blend influences the final product, in the same way a winery would make a table blend of whites.”

What’s old is new again

It turns out that the family’s oldest venture is what makes its newest venture work.

DeFisher Fruit Farms continues to grow many older varieties of apples—such as Cortland, Ida Red and Gold Rush—that make a better-tasting hard cider. Newer varieties of apples don’t have the characteristics needed to make a truly good cider, explained Dave.

The DeFishers plant their own fruit trees, grow their own fruits, and press and distill the juice inside their own processing facility.

But making great cider doesn’t just take a family. It takes a village.

Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, New York has been a tremendous resource to both the farm and beverage business, the DeFishers said.

For one, the Cornell Craft Beverage Analytical Laboratory at Cornell AgriTech tests samples of its ciders to determine the percent alcohol and ensure accurate labeling and federal regulatory compliance.

“It’s great to have that service right in our backyard,” said Luke.

Cornell AgriTech is one of the best sources of information on growing cider-specific fruit, Dave added.

He works closely with Cornell’s Dr. Gregory Peck, a leading pomologist, to conduct tests on fruit drop, fruit size, and how different rootstocks affect various fruits.

As a Cornell alumnus, Luke has shared their products with the Smith Family Business Initiative at Cornell, which hosts an annual conference on family-owned enterprises.

“It’s a great opportunity to learn how other multi-generational businesses function, some of the issues they run into, and many success stories,” he said.

The DeFishers are one of those success stories, when you consider this: research finds that about 30 percent of family-owned businesses transition into the second generation, and less than half of those make it to the third generation. Only three percent operate at the fourth generation and beyond.

Sustaining the family farm

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 98 percent of American farms are family-owned. They remain the core of the agriculture industry.

Keeping the family farm growing also involves implementing more sustainable practices in both agriculture and production.

This includes integrated pest management strategies that are more environmentally friendly. An example is using pheromones (as opposed to pesticides) that disrupt the mating rituals of insects that damage crops.

The farm has several wild areas to attract pollinators, like bees, that naturally fertilize plants. Solar panels installed next to the cidery/distillery reduce energy consumption.

The apple pomace that remains after pressing the juice is sold to several customers and re-used as nutrient-rich cattle feed, and as a healthy filler in pet food.

And of course, they are minimizing waste by turning dropped and bruised apples into cider and spirits.

“The Finger Lakes is a hub for sustainability research,” said Luke. “Cornell and RIT have programs dedicated to finding ways to reduce waste or to make profit on the waste we produce.”

Technology offers new opportunities

Technology is also playing a bigger role in the agriculture industry. Satellites and mapping software are helping growers improve operational efficiencies and crop yields.

The DeFishers are now testing mapping software, which they hope to implement next spring. It maps the soil so growers know the best time to plant seeds and introduce nutrients, for example. It can also calculate the expected amount of production by acre.

And while the DeFishers still hand-pick much of their fruit, Dave is exploring the use of their cherry harvester to mechanically harvest the cider apples.

Because they are ultimately processed, Dave said, “a little bit of bruising doesn’t matter, and if you can mechanically harvest it, it would be a huge savings for the farm.”

A legacy rooted in the Finger Lakes

Bill is now semi-retired and grateful to have three generations on the farm.

“I kind of enjoy thinking about that because if something were to happen to me, which it will sooner or later, I’m sure things are in good hands,” he said. “I’m glad they’re taking over. It’s the best set-up you could have.”

By expanding into the craft beverage business, Dave not only secured a fifth-generation family farm, but created a legacy for his children and grandchildren.

“I encourage anybody who hasn’t tried hard cider before to go out and try some,” said Luke. “It’s got such a history in our country and I think it could have some real roots not just here in Apple Country but all throughout Western New York.”

“Ditto for our apple spirits, too,” said Dave. “AppleJack is an original colonial drink that is making a comeback. It’s done like a whiskey or bourbon, but with apples instead. It’s an incredible drink.”

“It’d be cool to see people in this area get back to the centuries-old roots of these beverages, and rediscover what could be made out of the fruit that we grow here,” he added.

So raise a glass. To the old and the new. To the DeFisher family. To the end of another apple season in New York’s Apple Country, proudly rooted in the Finger Lakes. Cheers.

Watch this video about DeFisher Fruit Farms and visit The Tasting Room at:

The Tasting Room at DeFisher Fruit Farms

3274 Eddy Road
Williamson, NY 14589
The Tasting Room on Facebook

Krista Gleason is a contributor to the Locate Finger Lakes Business Journal. She is a freelance writer and owner of Gleason Writes in the beautiful Finger Lakes.

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