Bushels & Pecks
In this family business, apples don’t fall far from the trees
Photos by Frania Caulfield
Bill Riiska reaches from the driver seat of his nifty utility vehicle and pulls three blueberries off one of his 500 bushes. They’re plump, sweet, and juicy. Then Riiska is off again, pushing his Ranger to a comfortable 25 miles per hour on the paved road alongside his blueberry patch, headed to one end of his orchard sitting right around the bend. He turns from the road onto the meadow with practiced skill, making the tour on this late-summer afternoon into a bit of a joyride.
Not far from some rows of honey-crisp apple trees, a neighborhood turkey lingers on a freshly mowed plot of land, pulling up some worms from the earth. There’s also a small clover field that Riiska says the local deer are quite fond of. The raspberry bushes here have just begun to bear fruit—little, fuzzy, white cones protrude from the branches, and they’ve attracted the attention of some equally fuzzy bumblebees. Riiska calls out the names of the different apple varieties—McIntosh, Cortland, Idared—as he rides through the orchard.
Rambling around Riiska Brook Orchard, located on a quiet road that branches off Route 57 in southern Sandisfield, a visitor can come across a small corn field, pumpkin patch, henhouse, and vegetable garden, in addition to the main attraction—rows and rows of apple trees, whose little red treasures are plain to see, even as dusk falls.
The Riiska family tends over 11 varieties of apples, most of which will be ready for picking by mid-September. Perhaps more than other Berkshire seasonal businesses, this one depends on a highly concentrated burst of activity. When blueberry season starts in July, things are still quiet. Visitors are welcome to pull into the family’s driveway and have a long walk through the orchard, taking in the surrounding forest and lush green hills. But after Labor Day, the place will be jam-packed with visitors improvising parking spaces alongside the road. Families will bring dogs and picnic lunches, turning an apple-picking visit into a full afternoon. Lucky kids may get a ride around the property in a golf cart or the Ranger.
The season peaks on Columbus Day weekend and then tails off quickly. But even in mid-November last year, Bill’s wife, Barbara, was still holding court in the farm store on a chilly, windy Sunday, sitting in a chair near the wood stove and advising walk-ins on the best apples for Thanksgiving pie. (She recommends a medley.) The phone rings, and a caller inquires about pumpkins. She’s got some that will suit. There’s always at least one dog lounging around, and often the Riiskas’s extended family drop by to do chores.
“I call this my healing place,” Barbara says, offering a visitor warm apple cider pressed in the building next door. It seems to be a favorite phrase, one that aptly fits the serene surroundings. Even when the hoards of apple pickers die down, with friends and family popping in and out, there’s a feeling here of bounty.
Bill grew up on the property, which at the time was a dairy farm run by his family. While he was overseas serving as a paratrooper in Vienam—after being drafted at the relatively late age of 26—his father broke his leg and was forced to sell the cows for lack of help. Returning home, Bill started a long career in logging. Later, he and Barbara settled down in Otis. They have six children, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
January will mark 12 years since the two moved to the old farm. Bill took a stab at growing an orchard, planting 500 trees. Now there are 2,700. One by one, they added the other sidelines, and nowadays Barbara and various family helpers are kept busy filling orders for quarts of blueberries and raspberry jam. This is the first year they’ve stopped hauling their wares to a weekly famers’ market, focusing instead on direct orders and store sales. The cook at a nearby YMCA camp has a standing order for blueberries, and Wheatleigh and Blantyre are also clients. Regular customers are fans of one jam or another and pretty much clean the Riiskas out each season.
At 72, Bill is still in the logging game, and does most of the farm upkeep on weekends and evenings. Keeping the place mowed and weeded is the most time-consuming part, he says. He sprays the apple trees 16 times a year—each time is a 10-to-12-hour job—and the rising cost of associated supplies, not to mention fuel for the tractor, is always a concern.
As Barbara, Bill, and granddaughter Katrina Wrba gather for dinner on an August evening, a whiteboard leaning against the wall bears a list of that week’s berry commitments. On the menu tonight is grilled pork chops, homemade applesauce and corn on the cob that Katrina plucked off the stalk just a few minutes before. The applesauce is sweet and a vivid pink color, owing to Barbara’s preference for leaving the apple skin intact. A colander on the counter is filled with a heaping pile of fresh eggs from the henhouse.
The farmstead has proven a major family gathering space, says Wrba, a registered nurse who works in Springfield. “It’s funny to see our little cousins run around, and they’re really raised here. They know everything about this farm. One of the grandkids, who’s 11, likes to take the bus straight here from school instead of going home. She’ll show up and say, ‘Can I play with the chickens?’”
Barbara pipes in: “She’ll pick one out of all of them and give it a name, and then she can tell you which chicken it is.”
“She’ll walk in with one under each arm,” adds Bill.
It’s a great gathering place for adults, too. Katrina threw a party here this summer for a friend’s engagement, and she smiles at memories of the 21st-birthday party for her brother Andy, who is known around the Berkshires for his musical exploits.
One suspects the stories could go on forever. But it’s been a long day. Before grilling the pork chops and taking a spin around the property, Bill was splitting logs at October Mountain State Forest. The family needs to pick, wash, and package 24 quarts of blueberries for a pickup the next day. Camp Eisner in Great Barrington will also send its youngest campers to pick their own.
Just minutes earlier the skies were clear, but rainclouds arrive with the dusk. As the heavy drops start to fall, this healing place is ready to rest, and it’s time to go.