Tim Perry admits that, when it comes to farming, there is no such thing as a normal day.
Working in, with, and oftentimes against nature means everyday brings new challenges, new opportunities that can only be discovered when the sun rises. But, like everyone else, Perry, one of the owners and operators of the Norton Brothers Fruit Farm at 466 Academy Rd., has had to be even more flexible during the last few months, as new and unforeseen obstacles have emerged.
“For us, it was, like everyone else I’m sure, just wondering what our year was going to look like,” said Perry, regarding the onset of the pandemic. “We have about 5,000 kids who come to the farm a year for field trips. We have a bunch of high school and college kids who work for us. What was their year going to look like?”
“I was thinking that, (the last generation), they lived through World War II, the Great Depression, but I feel like we’ve lived through as much as they did in just the last few months,” he continued, with a laugh.
Perry is part of the seventh generation of his family to operate the farm, which has been a staple of Cheshire life since the mid-1700s when the Norton family first opened it. What was once a local farm with a small retail store has now grown into both a retail and wholesale business, keeping people, not just in town but all over the region, stocked up on fruit and vegetables .
When COVID-19 hit, the farm was in the midst of its down time, and Perry said that little changed at first. “I was going out and working, my mom was coming in and doing paperwork, so it wasn’t that things changed for us,” said Perry.
Almost immediately, however, the business saw an uptick in its wholesale revenue. “We were getting calls left and right,” said Perry. “With people working from home, they seemed to want to try everything. They wanted to cook more, so they were buying more (at the grocery store).”
That increase in home cooking combined with restaurants still looking to stock their shelves for takeout services during the early part of the pandemic meant that the farm was busy procuring as much produce as it could … with certain items suddenly in demand.
“Eggplant,” said Perry, with a laugh. “I have never sold as many in my life. I was talking to (another farmer) and he said the same thing. For some reason, everyone wanted eggplant.”
The farm opened to customers in June, but judging by the response he received, Perry probably could have opened even sooner. His usual customer base had been inquiring about when the farm was going to open back up to customers, most urging Perry to offer the same traditional services.
“We had people coming in, asking if we were open yet, and why not,” recalled Perry. “If you remember, the weather (in the spring) was a little screwy. It wasn’t really until June that we had some good weather, so we were actually a little behind. But I think everyone was just looking for some normalcy, and they wanted to come to Norton’s, buy their peaches, buy their blueberries, like they always had.”
Just like all businesses, Norton has changed the way it handles safety and sanitation. Masks are a must for both employees and customers when inside the retail store, and employees are also wearing gloves when handling all perishable items. Sanitation measures are taken several times throughout the course of the day to ensure that everything is clean, and Perry admits that he has already invested more in cleaning supplies than ever before.
The number of people allowed in the retail store is limited and, while out on the farm, those participating in pick-your-own are discouraged from gathering in crowds.
“If we see people crowding together, we just say, ‘Hey, come on now, you can’t do that anywhere else, you can’t do that here,’” explained Perry. “The goal is to keep my guys as safe as possible, to keep our customers as safe as possible.”
Thus far in the spring and summer, business has been good. In fact, Perry admits that he’s been surprised at how busy the farm has been, crediting both a loyal customer base and a desire by some to “get out of the house” when the weather is nice.
But, of course, the weather is always a factor when it comes to farming, and Mother Nature reared her head earlier this month when Tropical Storm Isaias ripped through Connecticut. “It threw everyone’s lives upside down, I think,” said Perry.
In addition to causing some damage to trees and crops, the power was knocked out at Norton Brothers and did not come back on for six days. That was an unwelcome development in the middle of an uncertain season, but Perry credited his employees for continuing to fight on.
“We were back in the next morning (after the storm) cleaning up,” he said.
“It hurt,” he continued. “We had to shut down our retail side, but not our wholesale side. Anything that was perishable that we couldn’t save (in the store) we had to throw out.”
With power restored, the farm is back in operation and busy with visitors. Fruit remains the popular items for those stopping by to pick their own, and apple season is just about to kick off in earnest.
Perry insists that, while the crops have produced smaller sizes this year, they’ve also produced sweeter fruit, and he singled out the blueberries as being “fantastic” in 2020.
An additional three acres of land was also planted for vegetables, as Perry wants to be prepared not only for a possible uptick in local interest but also for any shortages in the food chain across the country.
As far as what the future will bring, Perry is ready to meet whatever challenges lie ahead. “Nothing is going to put us down,” he said.
“This farm has been around for a long time. We’ve gone through some interesting times. We’ll get through this one as well … I have no doubt.”