by LAUREE STROUD PURCELL
The Shenandoah Valley is fortunate to have a number of lovely orchards where anyone can find a wide variety of fresh apples each fall—some still on the trees ready for picking.
Shannon and Sarah Showalter took over Showalter’s Orchard in Timberville from Shannon’s parents, Joe and Frances Showalter, in 2002. Ever since, they have been building their scenic apple and peach orchards into a fun destination to learn about agriculture through festivals, celebrations, field trips and picnics. Children of all ages come with their classes or with parents for a unique learning experience they can’t get in the classroom. Visitors look out at miles of beautiful countryside from the hilltop picnic area where a new official Virginia LOVE sign was recently installed.
The first of the sweet dessert apples—Ginger Gold and Galas, are available for picking by the end of August. The Summer Rambos, great for making applesauce, were picked in late July and can be purchased in the orchard store along with sunflowers and a variety of freshly cut flowers. The orchard’s peach flowers froze this spring, so there will be no peach picking on the farm this fall. The Showalters may be selling some peaches from a neighboring farm.
“Being directly connected with the producers of your food allows your understanding to grow. You can get answers to your questions,” said Sarah.
The orchard’s Apple Harvest Celebration will be October 15 this year. It is always a fun day for the whole family held on the third Saturday in October. The Showalters do their best to make the celebration authentic and exceptional each fall. There is no admission fee, but there is plenty of fun entertainment, apple picking, live music by several groups throughout the day, local food trucks, apple cider, donuts, antique tractor rides, a giant inflatable slide, balloon creations, apple dumplings and hard cider tastings and sales. Parking is an issue, so carpooling is a good idea. “I love how in the fall, people are celebrating bounty and have a gracious attitude. They are in a warm, nesting mode and seem changed after being busy all summer,” said Sarah. Local artisans attend the celebration. Last fall, a weaver of rugs, a jewelry maker, a person who makes lights from repurposed things and a woodcrafter all helped make the day memorable.
From the beginning of the new school year until mid October when the harvest is finished, the Showalters have four time slots each week to provide field trip experiences in the orchard for school children of all ages. Each field trip is tailored to meet the goals of the teachers who schedule the trips. The students get a tour, have lunch in the field where they are offered samples of sweet cider and apple juice, pick a small pumpkin from the field and an apple from a tree, and ride in large apple boxes while being pulled by a tractor through the orchard.
Sarah and Shannon want to provide opportunities for consumers to meet the people who grow their food, to know those farmers are feeding their own families what they grow, and to feel good about what they’re eating because it is grown responsibly and is not harmful. “People have questions and concerns about their food. There are lots of things they don’t understand and there is lots of misinformation. Being directly connected with the producers of your food allows your understanding to grow. You can get answers to your questions,” said Sarah.
The First Lady of the Commonwealth, Dorothy McAuliffe, has dedicated her efforts to eliminating childhood hunger and improving access to Virginia’s fresh, locally grown agricultural products for all Virginians. The Showalters attend many of the local schools’ “farm to school” agriculture education days in the fall and spring. They provide a variety of apples for students to sample and help illustrate the science and social studies standards of learning (SOLs) associated with agriculture with real life examples. “We use natural, human and capital resources on our farm, but it’s easier to show this to children in a hands-on concrete way when they come to visit us on a field trip where they can see the SOLs in action and in person,” explained Sarah.
The farm has an educational trail loop with about ten signs within the orchard. A map is available in the tasting room for anyone who would like to walk the trail and learn about the process of growing apples and getting them to the consumer. Open year round, Showalter’s Orchard welcomes visitors from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. In addition to selling apples and hard and sweet cider, the orchard store serves as an outlet for other local producers with a variety of foods, treats, cookbooks and children’s books.
In May, the Showalters unveiled their very own official Virginia LOVE sign they designed themselves out of the wood from their apple trees and from stainless steel like the tanks that hold their sweet and hard cider. The Virginia Tourism Corporation approved the sign as one of the official LOVEworks on display throughout the state to promote the “Virginia Is For Lovers” theme.
Showalter’s Orchard has been a farm since 1913, so it is over 100 years old. Shannon Showalters’ parents Joe and Frances Showalter bought the farm in 1965 and added the greenhouses in 1971 to sell annuals, bedding plants, hanging baskets and patio planters when apples are not in season. In the early 70s, the Showalters built the cold storage area to keep apples long enough for people to buy them directly from the farm. In 1975, they added a hydraulic cider press. Joe and Frances’ sweet cider press hose looked like a gasoline pump and people brought their own containers to fill with cider. “It was a nice way to repurpose and recycle containers, but that’s not allowed now,” said Sarah.
Joe and Frances still live nearby, but they often travel now that they are retired. Sarah was teaching when she and Shannon bought the farm from his parents, but she resigned in 2011 to help run the business full time and start the hard cider line. She often uses the skills she perfected teaching grades first, second and third to guide students through learning experiences when they come on field trips.
Sarah feels blessed to have the business, but admits they all work hard. They work to keep the business a sustainable, viable option for their son and daughter should they choose it someday. Their son, who is studying agriculture at Virginia Tech, is most interested in the production of apples. Their daughter, a high school freshman, appreciates the marketing and greenhouse aspects of the business.
Less than two percent of Virginians have a connection to a farm even though agriculture is the largest private sector industry in this state. The Showalters believe it is important for everyone, especially children, to understand where food comes from. Agritourism helps sustain the Showalter farm. “We invite people with open arms to come and be here, learn, appreciate agriculture and be a voice for it. Most farmers don’t have time to explain what they are doing to educate people. So we are fortunate we get to interact with consumers every day to help them understand the conscientiousness, stewardship and efficacy that farmers live by,” notes Sarah. “We use the land to feed the world in an efficient way while taking care of our land for the future.”
LAUREE STROUD PURCELL serves as an editorial consultant for Living. She and her husband Steve have two daughters.