Peaches, Apples, & Family History: A New Producer Profile on Drumheller's Orchard
Oh, the taste of summer peaches and the crunch of a crisp fall apple! The Drumheller family knows these pleasures well, and they’ve worked for five generations now to bring them to you, too. We think they’re a perfect fit for our Fall Line Farms and Local Roots community. They’re a small local business, family owned and operated. They expand our offerings of seasonal fruits and they use that fruit as the basis for some wonderful handmade, small-batch, value-added products. (Have your tried the pluot jam? A revelation!) And like the rest of our FLF&LR community, Drumheller’s Orchard is committed to the kind of collaboration and community that makes our non-profit local food market work to the advantage of others in Central Virginia’s local food system.
An Appalachian vista
Photo credit: Mary Delicate
Less than a hundred miles from Richmond, Drumheller’s Orchard is just far enough away from RVA and has enough higher altitude for apples and peaches and pluots to thrive. Morgan Drumheller Johnston, a fourth-generation orchardist and the spokeperson for the business, is proud of what her family has accomplished and is excited about being connected with the other producers in the FLF&LR family.
“Dad (Kevin Drumheller) handles the orchards,” explains Morgan. “I handle the berries. I’m getting ready to send tissue samples off to see how they’re doing. That way, I can find out what they’re lacking, what they need for balance. Our blueberry and blackberry patches were planted at the same time. They’ve done well. We offer pick-your-own berries only right now, but I want to plant a wholesale patch sometime soon. I’m always thinking about how to expand. We’ll probably increase the size of our pick-your own operation and add wholesale at the same time. It’s all about what our customers want!”
Morgan's blackberry patch
Photo credit: Mary Delicate
The Drumhellers have become quite good at figuring out what their customers need and want, and there’s a lot of pride and joy for them in delivering it.
“When I was a kid, all I remember is working around the orchard with my family. We grew up helping out. That’s why we have such a work ethic now,” Morgan explains. “In the 1980s, we took out all of the peaches and grew apples only—five varieties. I was born in 1987, when Dad was 23. He and his two brothers worked here with my grandfather. Dad ran the orchard part of the business. My uncle worked here and ran the retail part. Back then, we also grew for grocery chains and packed the fruit to go off to grocery stores. That’s not our business model anymore. We’ve stopped selling to grocery stores altogether now. We sell through the farm and other smaller outlets like FLF&LR, though there are beginning to be some ‘local’ sections in grocery stores again. Right now, we have 21 different varieties of apples. We carry a wide variety to accommodate canning, cooking sauce, cakes, and eating out of hand. It’s all about meeting the needs of the people who support us.”
Photo credit: Mary Delicate
This family business began in 1937, when E.O. and Eva Drumheller decided to take on an abandoned farm in Lovingston, Virginia and bring it back to life. They began pruning and caring for the fruit trees that had been untended for so long. In doing so, they mingled their own family’s roots inextricably with those of the trees. Those roots have borne beautiful fruit, and we’re not just talking about apples and pluots and peaches. Four additional generations of Drumhellers have lived on this property and run the family business ever since.
Laughing, Morgan shares a family story about her great-grandfather and the beginnings of Drumheller’s Orchard: “He didn’t even know everything he had when he took on that farm,” she says. “He was pruning trees on the farm he had just bought, and he had hired two local men to work with him. At the end of a long day, he made what he thought was the last cut. He looked at the men and said, ‘Well, we’re done.’ They looked back at him and said, ‘No, Mr. Drumheller. You have another side of the hollow to do.’ Turns out there were about 500 more trees to prune!”
About her great-grandfather, Morgan says, “I didn’t know him, but they say he was a firecracker. A joker, ornery and fun. I knew my great-grandmother, though. She passed away when I was 15. She was a very wholesome, humble lady. She never drove. She was a homemaker, made everything from scratch. I remember she used SunHigh peaches for preserves and pies. They were her favorites for that. She also loved to read. I loved spending time with her. We’d sit and watch The Sound of Music together. When my great-grandfather died, she decided to travel and went to Disney World. She was 89 when she passed away. She was a person you could go to with your problems. Calm, humble. I was lucky to have known her.”
Doris Drumheller is Morgan’s grandmother. “She’s 80 and goes like she’s 50,” Morgan laughs. “She and my grandfather ran the orchard and inherited it when his parents passed away. I don’t know what I’d do without her. She works just as hard as the rest of us!”
Morgan and Doris
Photo Credit: Mary Delicate
Right now, the hardworking crew at Drumheller’s Orchard brings apples, peaches, and pluots for sale to our members. For those who care to take the beautiful drive to their gorgeous Lovingston property, all of these fruits are currently available in their farm store, and there are also u-pick blueberries and blackberries. You never know when they might add some new varieties to their already impressive array.
“While we were selling to grocery stores, it was apples only,” says Morgan. “We added peaches back about 20 years ago. We saw a need, and the peaches let us get back to our roots, back to how the orchard began. Now we have two very large peach blocks—all hand planted. There are about 500 trees per block. We added the pluots when we added the peaches. Then about 7 ½ years ago, we tried another large block of peaches, and we found the ones our customers preferred. Once we know what people like, we plant those in the larger blocks.”
Peaches, ready to go out to appreciative eaters!
Nothing at the orchard goes to waste, and because they’re good business people, the Drumhellers understand the importance of value-added items that can be sold all year. Morgan says, “Our pluot jam is really great. We make it here in small batches. I made jam for my daughter with them, and she loved it. I use the variety of pluot that’s green on the outside and purple on the inside. They’re both tart and sweet, so they have a distinctive taste. This jam is great for a marinade on a roast or in salad dressing. It’s also great on toast of course—or in a peanut butter & jelly sandwich.”
Some of the undeniably gorgeous (and delicious) pluots from Drumheller's.
Asked if she knew that she was destined to be a fruit maven, Morgan says, “Yes. It’s all I’ve ever known. I grew up here, riding tractors, hooking up equipment. I’ve been on the farm with my dad almost my whole life. I worked here while I was in high school, but I made good grades the whole time. I also worked away from the farm for two, two and a half years. But I came back. This isn’t an easy job, but what job is? It’s just so gratifying knowing that you work with your family. My dad’s my hero—my biggest inspiration for doing what I do. I’m really proud to be his daughter. Not too long ago, a guy came out to work on our refrigeration unit. He gave me the biggest compliment he could ever give me when he said, ‘you’re just like your dad.’ I hope I am!”
At the same time, Morgan admits that life in the orchard isn’t always, well, peachy: “There are some pretty hard times. I ask myself why we do what we do sometimes, meaning this family business. I’ve really mulled it over. It comes down to this: we do what we do for the people who appreciate the way we grow our fruit and the kinds of fruits we choose to grow. Like an older person who wants a really good piece of fruit, the kind that brings back memories for them. An older variety. We also do it for the people who appreciate knowing where their food is coming from. They’re getting a really good quality piece of fruit, and they know what’s behind it. It’s really gratifying to help that family learn about the different varieties of each fruit and which is best for each purpose. I love knowing that they can come here if they want to and see where their fruit comes from. They can walk out back and see the orchard and the views. We love it when they want to visit!”
A berry picker's mountain view from the orchard.
Photo credit: Mary Delicate
Along with directly connecting to visitors to the orchard, Morgan has come to appreciate what it means to be a member of a market like FLF&LR and our sister hub in the Williamsburg area, KelRae Farms: “I like knowing that we’re in a community with a lot of other family farms and businesses, helping support each other.”
It’s clear that Morgan loves what she does. She loves the connection to her family and her customers. And though times can get tough, she considers it all worthwhile: “Mother Nature is a tough boss,” she says. “You just have to have faith. You pray for the best, for good crops. You have to be positive, creative, and willing to take on any kind of situation whatsoever. You have to always look in front of you, never look back.”
We’re happy to have them aboard, strengthening the ability of our non-profit market to support rural culture and small farms by expanding our offerings of great local food, lovingly raised.
Learn more about this great business by visiting their website: www.drumhellersorchard.com. If you want to shop for their fruit and jam and other great items through our market, go to www.flflr.luluslocalfood.com.