AUBURN – Wallingford’s is a Maine name synonymous with fall, apples and freshly made apple and pumpkin donuts. The Ricker family, who have been associated with the orchard and fruit stand for generations, recently purchased the 50 acres from Wallingford and added them to the family portfolio of farms, which now totals more than 400 acres of apples, spread across seven cities and three counties to distribute. The prize at Wallingford’s is the 25 acres of pick-your-own apple trees on the property, which also has a growing blueberry and raspberry crop.
Peter Ricker took charge of the orchard and store operations at 1240 Perkins Ridge Road nearly 15 years ago following the unexpected death of Wallingford Patriarch Peter Wallingford. True to his word, Ricker has not made any radical changes. “It was a much more seasonal, very well run, very respected operation that lasted a month and a half,” he explained. Wallingford’s is now open June 1st through New Year’s Eve, although peak season is late August through early November.
Ricker says he feels there is an opportunity to add more entertainment value to the area and expand options for their customers. The Rickers also operated Apple Ridge Farms adjacent to Wallingford’s, which had goats, a small bakery, and the prized rows of pick-your-own apples that have since been consolidated and expanded at Wallingford’s.
The Ricker family, which also owns and operates Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner and Vista of Maine Vineyard and Cidery in Greene, has been growing apples for over 200 years, and Peter Ricker said it’s a true family business with three generations of the Ricker family growing currently directs various aspects of the three companies. The Rickers are the second largest apple growers in Maine and have for years competed with the Cooper Farms orchards west of Paris for the coveted top spot.
To say that Wallingford’s is a favorite spot for families and others is an understatement. Ricker estimates that between 4,000 and 6,000 people flock to the property each day on its busiest weekends in the fall season. They go to let the kids run around, feed the goats, pick apples, meander through the corn maze, and sip sweet cider or hard cider.
As the family expanded into the cider business, the next logical step was to set up a tasting room for their wines and ciders, which you can also buy and take home. There’s a small space for private events, though Ricker said he likes to keep them small.
As you walk towards the store, the scent of sweet baked goods blows with the wind, inviting you inside – where all those delicious smells come from. A small but functional bakery pumps out apple cider and pumpkin spice and even chocolate donuts, cakes, muffins and more. The shop stocks specialties from local farms and producers, and there’s a kids-only section with LEGO, Playmobil, and stuffed animals.
Peter Ricker is a content if not happy workaholic. Apple growing is a year-round business with a lot of work that needs to be spread out, which is helpful if you have a large family support group. He’s with Wallingford every single day and has other responsibilities in Turner’s operations as one of the owners. Despite this, he says he enjoys what he does and it’s clear from observing his dealings with the young staff that he’s informal but certainly no pushover.
“I know there’s work to be done, boys,” he says, admonishing a group of young girls huddled in the cashier’s hut.
“I enjoy my crew. I enjoy working with my employees,” said Ricker. “I enjoy the constant challenge of thinking about how to make it work best…how to make it better.”
SWITCHING FROM WHOLESALE TO RETAIL
Growing apples involves risk, and the wholesale aspect of the business, particularly nationally, pits Maine growers against much larger orchards in the Northwest, New York, Michigan, Ohio and parts of the South.
“Maine is an extremely expensive place to grow apples,” Ricker said, citing Maine’s short growing season and cool, humid climate, which makes disease control more difficult and expensive. Apples and apple trees are very susceptible to diseases.
Consumer tastes are always changing and the big chains now want slightly sweeter varieties that require a longer growing season and they buy apples by cost. For example, Ricker explains, orchards in the West in particular have lower costs because of heavily government-subsidized water and less need for disease-control chemicals because of the drier climate. Labor costs are also more expensive in Maine due to higher minimum wage requirements for farm workers.
“We just can’t keep up at the national level,” Ricker said. The regional business is fine, but he said it’s getting harder. Hence, the decision was made to give more prominence to retail, which can be more profitable, by expanding retail options for people.
CUSTOMERS STILL WANT A VINTAGE FARM EXPERIENCE
“One of the things I didn’t want to lose from growing was the idea of coming to a quaint farm,” Ricker said, noting that there was an ongoing challenge of walking the line between feeling old farm and still Plenty to find activities and options for a wide customer base.
They added the seven-acre corn maze but lost another smaller one to make new plantings for blueberries and raspberries. Then there’s the Hayrides and a weekend food truck, and an Escape Room where small groups of people are “locked” into a themed room and must solve riddles, puzzles, and clues to escape.
But what has grown in size and popularity is the Nightmare on the Ridge haunted trail, which is more of a haunted village than a haunted house. It takes about 30 minutes from start to finish and sells out most Saturday nights and some Fridays, which is why they’ve added Thursday nights. Ricker says that “Nightmare on the Ridge” ranks nationally – the best in Maine and one of the best in the Northeast. It’s listed on halloweennewengland.com, but there are dozens of rankings and lists of haunted attractions around the web.
All of these activities require human resources that are becoming increasingly difficult to recruit for any type of business. Ricker says he hires between 30 and 50 people, mostly in their teens and 20s, many of whom work about 20 hours a week or less because that’s all they want to work or are legally able to work.
After the Halloween business slowed significantly, Wallingford’s will post on social media that takeout pumpkins are free. “And it’s almost scary what’s happening,” he adds. People line up first thing in the morning and before you know it they’re all gone. Some take them to harvest the seeds, but it’s the pig farmers who bring bigger trucks and collect them all.
Wallingford’s then sells hundreds of Maine-grown Christmas trees and wreaths made by a handful of local artisans. The goats, meanwhile, go back to the farmer who overwinters them, as do the rabbits, and it gets pretty quiet up on the ridge.
One thing Ricker says he’d like to find is someone who can particularly enrich the Wallingford experience. “I’d like an older gentleman out there just talking about apples and explaining apples to people if I could find one.” So if you know an apple-savvy grandfather or grandmother who is looking for a part-time job, give Peter Ricker a call.
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