Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
HAMPTON FALLS, N.H. – It’s a scene straight out of Norman Rockwell’s sketchbook – a New England tableau painted in impossibly brilliant splashes of oranges, reds and 10 shades of green.
The red-and-white barn, gleaming in the early autumn sun. Hundreds of acres of rolling hills with 12,000 apple trees heavy with fruit. And, in the near distance, a pumpkin patch worthy of a Yankee magazine cover.
“My uncle was stopped by the police once for speeding on a tractor right over there,’’ a chuckling Everett Eaton Jr., 60, a foreman here at Applecrest Farm Orchards, said. “Lots of memories here. I was born on this farm. This place is home to me.’’
This place bills itself as one of the oldest apple continuously operated orchards in the United States, a 104-year-old operation that is more than a seasonal totem for the October page of a New England kitchen calendar.
You see jugs of apple cider, plaid-shirted scarecrows, and a giant contest-winning pumpkin roughly the size of a Volkswagen.
The Wagner family, which has run the place since the week Hurricane Carol blew through in late August 1954, sees something else: Ninety-hour workweeks. Confounding government regulations. Weather systems that have no pity. Razor-thin margins.
“It’s a very tough business,’’ Peter Wagner told me the other day as we sat in the shade at a well-worn picnic table on an unseasonably warm morning.
“We lost one crop after another. You make money for one year maybe. But you’d better save that because you’re going to lose money in other years. We had hurricanes come in. We had hail storms come in. We’ve had freezes that wiped out our total crop. It’s a tough business.’’
As Wagner, the farm’s 74-year-old president spoke, his 47-year-old son, Todd, nodded in agreement. If you’re thinking rough-hewn men in bib overalls and hay in their hair, you’ve wandered into the wrong orchard.
Both men are college educated. Both had charted professional lives far from the apple orchards of southern New Hampshire. Both felt the gravitational pull of a land that’s produced countless millions of bushels of apples since the Woodrow Wilson administration.
“This isn’t Iowa,’’ Peter Wagner told me. “This is New Hampshire. This is the East. People aren’t farmers. I had a career path.’’
As a kid, even as a son of the owners, Wagner did grunt work on the farm, performing chores and making money alongside other kids from the neighborhood like John Irving, the best-selling author who pays homage to Wagner’s mother, Jean, in the author’s notes of “The Cider House Rules.’’
Wagner collected his post-graduate degree in business at the Whittemore School of Business and Economics at the University of New Hampshire in 1968. A year later and newly married, he joined the military, knowing that a job at Eastman Kodak awaited him upon his return from Vietnam.
He was in Germany, awaiting transport to the war in Southeast Asia, when his father called.
“Mom and I are thinking of selling the farm,’’ his father said. “If your brother and sister are not interested, are you interested?’’
The 1970s were boom times in apple country. Everybody, it seemed, was planting trees, a trend that led to a blossoming oversupply. Then publicity about health risks from the Alar, a chemical growers used to keep their fruit firm and full-colored beyond its organic life, delivered an economic gut punch.
“The market just dropped,’’ Wagner said. “So many growers just went out of business.’’
Instead, it changed. To stave off bankruptcy, it sold wide swaths of land to developers for subdivisions of handsome homes. At one point the farm comprised 600 acres. Today, 225 acres are farmed. There’s a bistro here and a retail store. Sweatshirts and T-shirts are for sale next to McIntosh and Cortland apples for $1.95 a pound.
“It’s always been a precarious business,’’ Peter Wagner said. “If we were in the wholesale business, we’d be out of business. Without our retail, these would be all house lots.’’
As his father worked feverishly to preserve a business begun by his grandparents, Todd Wagner took notice.
Like his father, Todd Wagner learned every inch of Applecrest Farms, its rocks and ridges, its streams and the mechanical whims of its ancient Rube Goldberg-esque apple-peeler. As a kid, he was lowered 15 feet into a well hole to clean the muck out of a drain.
You have to do it all on a farm.
He marveled at the red-tail foxes, the turkeys and the deer that roamed the orchards and the Canada geese whose flight path takes shape in a familiar formation above the trees.
But he fell in love with film, the field in which he took a degree from Middlebury College in 1993. He was a nationally ranked downhill skier, and, later, became a documentary filmmaker, working at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch north of San Francisco.
In 1999, he walked the red carpet at the Oscars as the associate producer of the Academy Award-nominated film, “Regret to Inform,’’ a documentary about Vietnamese and American widows of the war his father had fought.
His life at Applecrest became grist for a screenplay he authored. His cinematic tale of life among the apples was a finalist at the Sundance screenwriter’s competition.
But instead of making a film about life there, he and his wife, Jennifer, a Wired magazine writer, opted to live it.
It was time for another fateful phone call between a Wagner father and son, a conversation both wonderful and worrisome.
“We were struggling all the way through and to bring another family in would just have been really tough,’’ Peter Wagner said. “I got a phone call and Todd says, ‘Hey, Jen and I are coming home.’ And I said, ‘Great! When are you coming and how long are you going to stay?’ And he said, ‘No, dad, you don’t get what I’m saying. We’re staying. We’re coming home and staying. We’re coming back to Applecrest.’”
Life at Applecrest today is virtually unrecognizable from the years Todd Wagner spent here as a kid, doing endless chores like cleaning out that clogged drain.
He’s a marketer. He’s a human relations specialist. He’s a paymaster for 220 employees. He’s a restaurateur, mechanic, janitor, and public relations guru.
“You name it,’’ he said. “Every single component of the farm requires wearing 20 hats. And that’s every single day. I know how every single thing on this farm works. I know every single tree. I know every single rock and hole and ditch. You come to know a place. Even with its 200 acres, you come to know it so intimately it’s almost scary.’’
Peter Wagner sometimes worries that his son is stretched too thin, particularly on the coming cool autumn weekends when the farm will be bursting with customers sampling the fruit of the Wagners’ labor.
When Todd Wagner comes home at night, he walks through the door of the same house where his grandmother raised her farm family.
He and Jennifer have two kids. Their daughter Hattie is 15. Their son, Dieder, is 13 .
Dieder’s formal name is William, named after his great-grandfather who bought this place 63 years ago in the middle of a hurricane and then looked around and wondered where all the apples had gone.
Dieder now sleeps in the same room that once belonged to Peter Wagner, his grandfather who grew up on the farm, who went to war, who dreamed of life in the corporate America -- and then found himself happily back where he began.
Back at Applecrest.
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