The story of Champlain Orchards as we know it today began in 1998, when twenty-seven year old Bill Suhr purchased 60 acres of orchard in Shoreham, Vermont. At the time, his motivation and initiative to live off the land overshadowed the fact that apple growing and fruit farming were not in his realm of knowledge. Today, Champlain Orchards manages over 220 acres of fruit trees that includes over 70 varieties of apples as well as plums, peaches, nectarines, European and Asian Pears, raspberries, cherries, and blueberries. Needless to say, Bill is as ambitious as they come. His passion for working on the land and the fruit mixed with his forward thinking and goals of success and sustainability have created a thriving Vermont agricultural business that provides to communities all over the state. But he was and is far from alone in his efforts. The knowledgeable Shoreham orchard community, an equally motivated wife and business partner, Andrea Scott, and a hard working Champlain Orchards Crew all continually contribute to cultivating and shaping the Orchard into the business we know and trust today.
Bill grew up in the Maryland suburbs and began developing a love for Vermont from a young age by spending summers with his grandparents in Greensboro. Once he completed high school, it was a natural choice to attend UVM where he studied Natural Resources and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Forest Biology in 1994. Right out of school, he began a career as an environmental consultant, but as he gained professional experience, it became clear that his goal was to be self-employed and earn his living off the land. He would frequently spend weekends land-hunting and toyed with plans of managing a woodlot or becoming a furniture maker. Once it came to his attention that the Larabee Point Orchard was for sale in Shoreham, it was an opportunity he could not overlook.
At the time, the property was in the process of being conserved as agricultural land by the Vermont Land Trust as part of their Farmland Access Program. This feature of the land ultimately made it possible for such a young person to consider the purchase because the trust obtained the development rights, which in turn made the property much more affordable. In the case of Champlain Orchards, the $320,000 asking price was cut in half, allowing Bill to purchase the property in 1998. Bill comments:
“It was a huge financial advantage for a 27 year-old who had never farmed before. It’s a story in itself, the land trust taking a risk on someone with no experience, but with a lot of initiative.”
With the purchase of Champlain Orchards, hands on apprenticeship into orchard farming was facilitated by the very seasoned expertise of long established neighboring orchardists Sandy Witherell, Scott and Bob Douglas, and Judy Pomainville – who all shared equipment, land and information. But Bill’s orchard education was not seamless and recalls a number of trials in the initial years when he was the sole, inexperienced pruner of the 60 acre plot. His motivation prevailed and with the help of the community and a small Jamaican crew, Champlain Orchards harvested a little over 20,000 bushels in 1999. Bill delivered 20 bushels at a time in a station wagon to the local farmers markets and co-ops in that first fall. He also hired his first local employee, Mavis Munger, who was and is a knowledgeable asset and partner who still comes to work at the orchard today. Bill quickly gained the trust of produce markets around the state through exhibiting a steadfast motivation and passion for delivering high quality, Vermont grown fruit.
With time, Bill’s knowledge grew as did his enthusiasm for the trees, apples, and ecosystem of the orchard. Growing ecologically became a central part component to his vision for Champlain Orchards as he began to strategically plant a diversity of apple and fruit varieties as well as naturally disease resistant varieties. Ethical growing practices remains a central aspect of Champlain Orchards today with the help of his wife and co-owner, Andrea Scott, who spearheaded the orchard’s Eco Apple and Organic programs.
Andrea grew up on Martha’s Vineyard Island on a small organic vegetable farm created by her grandfather and mother. She also ventured to UVM to study Natural Resources and received her degree in Integrated Natural Resources in 2000. After school, she traveled to New Zealand and the Hudson Valley to learn more about farming, sustainability, and managing CSAs until finally returning to Vermont to work for a non-profit farm to community organization. Back in Vermont, she eventually bumped into Bill in 2002 and they began a strong relationship based on their shared interests of providing nourishing food to the community and living from the land. Andrea’s passion for education and outreach lead her to Graduate school for elementary and early childhood education. Though after working as an elementary school teacher for three years in Bristol Vermont, she left her position to devote more time to the well-being of the Orchard. Andrea still plays an integral role in community education through her work with NOFA Vermont as a Farm to Community mentor for Addison and South Chittenden Counties as well as serving on the NOFA board. She believes deeply in ethical agricultural practices and works to continually educate herself and all of us at the orchard on all the ecological and organic practices that contribute to our tagline: Grown with a conscience. Andrea now works mainly on the farm leading tours and helping run the Farm Market and Pick-Your-Own.
Bill and Andrea now have a son, Rupert (named after Rupert, Vermont, where they met at a contra dance), and a new baby. Rupert is an expert on tractors and can tell you more about orchard operations and apple varieties than most of our crew. The four share a beautiful home on the orchard as well as a love of the outdoors, dancing, food, and music. Andrea shares:
“Although there are huge stresses and we are constantly working to find more balance, we have a huge appreciation for the lifestyle that farming allows for- the time outdoors, the time with plants and trees, and using our hands. We love watching young trees and grafted trees bearing new fruit, it always amazes us!”
Over the years, the orchard has grown continually in size, staff, offerings, and infrastructure. Today, the orchard harvests over 80,000 bushels of ecologically grown apples in a season, which are not only eaten fresh but also used toward sweet cider, hard cider, pie, donuts, apple butter, and cider syrup production. Our growth also allows us to employ over 30 locals year round, 30 Jamaicans in the harvest season and to annually deliver to 50 schools, 28 Hannafords, 19 food co-ops, 8 colleges, 5 hospitals, various CSA’s, independent groceries, and restaurants.
Bill and Andrea have taken their dream of providing nourishing food to the community farther than they imagined and are excited to enter these new frontiers of fruit growing. Their passion for the trees and the well-being of the orchard and the environment only grows with the yearly increasing harvest and varietal plantings. Bill often remarks “I was just trying to grow some apples!” when reflecting on the evolution of Champlain Orchards and where he finds himself today. As the orchard crew, we look at Bill and Andrea’s efforts and are inspired by their initiative and are proud to take part in the orchard and all that it offers to the community. And most of all, we are excited for the future of Champlain Orchards and we hope you will stay posted to follow and take part in our growth and change