The Wooden family of Oren Wooden’s Apple House near Pikeville, Tennesse, could teach a master class on expanding your productive season through direct farm sales. Many decades ago (over seven to be exact), Wooden’s apple orchard took root. The decision to plant apple trees seemed a natural fit for Henry and Orene Wooden. The couple had an extensive agricultural background when they decided to plant their first trees and go into business selling apples from home.
Later, observing a need to expand the business to provide for multiple family members, generations of the Wooden family are intricately entwined in the business in a variety of roles. Today’s business finds third-generation Wooden family members Mark and Sandy (Wooden) Burnett and Labron “Chubby” and Carole (Wooden) Smith at the helm of the Apple House, which bears the name of Sandy and Carole’s late father, Oren. Along with other family members, they also oversee its expanded enterprises.
Here is how one family moved beyond selling apples, and later peaches, into a business that supports multiple families and a host of employees all while remaining committed to their vision of providing a quality product.
Delicious Desserts & Café
While selling apples was the family’s first avenue to success, their next venture was selling fried apple pies. “We sold them from inside our Apple House. And it went so well that it was overwhelming,” Sandy says.
A former supervisor of Mark’s from a previous job, Doyle Mack Argo, who had experience in the foodservice area, helped them to get off on the right foot. Soon, they were building off of the success of the fried apple pies with more apple-themed desserts, such as apple dumplings, added to the menu.
When a niece expressed an interest in running a new family enterprise, it didn’t take long for the next step. They added the Oren’s Orchard Café, a family-style restaurant offering meat and vegetable plates.
It was readily apparent that their decision was a hit.
Before the addition of the eatery, customers mainly bought desserts from the Apple House for takeout. The inclusion of the café has allowed the business to move beyond that.
“People wanted to come and eat a meal here, then enjoy their dessert on-site,” Mark says. With a selection of tasty offerings, it’s no coincidence that the café has become so popular that it now also accepts Thanksgiving carryout food orders. It’s also expanded to include a food truck.
Success in selling apples and apple desserts along with the contributions of the café has led to the ability to grow the overall operation with the addition of a new packing shed and cooler.
Beyond Good Food
However, physical additions to the business aren’t the only added attractions. “People are looking for entertainment now,” Mark says. In response to customer demand, this past fall the family added a fall festival to their lineup that brought new customers to their business.
“We had a sunflower patch, apple picking, pumpkin painting, hayrides, face stickers, balloon animals and more,” says Shania Kate, Mark and Sandy’s daughter.
“People absolutely loved the experience of apple picking because they have never done that before,” Mark says. The family also included 22 local vendors, offering a variety of product spaces, to set up at the festival.
Because so many people came out to the festival, looking to the future they hope to expand the agritourism portion of their business. To date, they have had a physical presence at other nearby festivals in addition to hosting visitors at a Christmas-themed event on-site.
For the fall season, the family also grows and offers butternut squash, pumpkins, cabbage, peppers, tomatoes and more. And while they are best known locally for the apples they sell from the Apple House, they also have an outstanding reputation with wholesalers on the packing side.
Moreover, as part of the experience, customers looking for “No. 2” apples are welcome to come to the packing shed to select apples for making their apple sauce, apple butter, etc.
Getting the Word Out
However, good products and events are only successful if people know about them. For their marketing strategy—whether getting the word out about everyday offerings or for certain events—the family’s go-to tool is social media.
“The biggest one we use is Facebook,” Shania Kate says. “We try to update it every week with information such as what we are picking and the menu at the café.” The family also makes use of print media, where feasible, and Instagram.
Whether from a wholesale or retail perspective, any marketing strategy requires thought on how to best package your product.
Apples are picked and put straight into bins in the orchard. From there, the bins go into a large cooler directly beside the packing shed. Then the apples are moved from the cooler, as needed, to the packing shed where they are packed into boxes and shipped.
“This process keeps them from getting overripe,” Mark says.
As for packaging for retail sales, apples are offered in a bushel box and peck and half-peck bags.
“If a customer wants two or more varieties in a bag, we do offer that,” Mark says. “We do anything to take care of the customer. Fruit does have an expiration date, so we try to keep everything fresh, moving and of good quality.”
Like most farming enterprises, this type of business does have its challenges. Finding workers outside of the family is one of those.
“We would really like to add more hayrides and a pumpkin patch,” Mark says. “But before we do that, we have to have, for example, a reliable person to drive the tractor and watch the kids.”
Crop failure is also a reality. “We didn’t have a lot of apples last year,” Mark says. “We had a big freeze, and we had to pull a lot of apples from the North. If we need something we get it from North Carolina because it’s closer.
“The product was good but, just coming from a long way, the price was terrible. But we got through it.”
While sourcing apples is not something the family wanted to do, it was necessary to maintain and support other parts of their business. In these types of situations, Mark advises being honest about what caused, in their case, the shortage to occur and where the apples came from to replace those that were lost.
As well, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge that has been difficult to predict. “Our peak season is October right on through Halloween,” Mark says. “We used to have groups come out during the week and, especially with the groups of elderly people, they got kind of scared to come out and be around a lot of people. We understand, but these group visits are the bulk of our business.”
Read more: Make some dehydrated apple slices!
Looking to Improve
One area the family would like to improve on is the payment methods they accept on the retail side of their business. “The younger generation calls us old-fashioned,” Sandy says. “We have always only taken cash or check. We did get an ATM several years ago before all of these other payment methods became popular.”
In response to this growing acceptance of other payment methods, the family has considered adding some type of credit card machine but adds that there is an expense to doing so as far as credit card companies charge fees for their use. While Sandy acknowledges that some businesses pass this added expense on to the customer, they haven’t yet fully decided whether or not they will move forward with adding this particular payment method.
Advice for Others
Before taking on any business such as theirs, Shania Kate and Mark suggest the following:
- It’s important to stay current. Research is just as important when you begin as it is when you are looking to grow and expand your business.
- Due to ease of setup, use social media for the bulk of your marketing.
- Keep your business logs and safety records up to date.
- Offer additional product lines such as honey, crafts and produce from other established local growers.
- Put yourself out there. Get acquainted with your neighbors, other farms and people in the community. Your local chamber of commerce will also help. “A good community will help you with anything,” Shania Kate says.
By taking a page from the business plan of Oren Wooden’s Apple House, you can expand the foot traffic and direct farm sales of your small-farm operation.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.