There is a narrow dirt road that runs along the edge of the Wolff’s modest Sunny Brae farm. Mostly inactive now, this road used to be heavily traversed by tractors and various farming implements. Currently, three generations of Wolffs live along this stretch. Ken and Gennie, third generation Wolffs, live just across from the farm. Their house has two large windows that once overlooked great apple orchards that stretched as far as the eye could see. Ashley, a fifth generation Wolff and owner, also lives along this road–though her house is set back from the field more in the direction of Aston. If you follow this road until it becomes, more or less, a grassy path with two deep ruts pressed into it, you will reach Peter Wolff’s home and the man who helped make Wolff’s Apple House what it is today.
Peter Wolff is the fourth son of Ken and Gennie. He is one of eight children and has been involved with the apple house, in one way or another, his whole life. At 56, Peter is a slim and muscular man with a strong and sturdy build. In the spring and summer it is unlikely you will visit the store and not see him tirelessly positioning and rearranging the plants and flowers. In the Winter however, he lives mostly as a recluse and prefers to work from home with his wife, Kris.
Today, an unseasonably warm and sunny February day, Peter Wolff has granted me an interview and an opportunity to speak with him at length about growing up on a farm, running a business, and what the future has in store for the apple house.
I run into him on his way up the hill to the store. We exchange greetings, and after a moment of deliberation he invites me into his parent’s home. Ken and Gennie are busy about the kitchen, but immediately welcome us into the living room. As we settle into two adjacent chairs, I have a chance to look around the room. There is a blazing fire. Around us there are many paintings and photographs of the Wolff family over the years. Some of the pictures have worn and are beginning to show signs of age.
It is a fitting location for this interview…
Peter, I wonder if you can start from the beginning and tell me about what it was like growing up on a farm.
It was really pretty incredible. Because of the land and this being a working farm, there was always work and things going on. For a kid, there were places to play and things to do. In the barn (during the season when it didn’t have apples in it) we would play hide and go seek. We would build forts out of the empty bushel crates. We had a couple ponds for swimming and we had a couple picnic groves.
I think I remember seeing a picture of the whole family lined up and you’ve all got your bathing suits on.
By the pond.
Is that one of the ponds?
Yeah. And my father’s two sisters lived on the farm. So the two sisters and grandparents all had their houses on the farm. And there were some cousins on the farm, too. So it was a big extended family. We would all have picnics and do wonderful things together. Back then, we did a lot of different things. My grandparents enjoyed square dancing. So they would hold square dances—
I remember seeing pictures.
In the barn. And they were involved with a lot of social issues. There were a lot of cool groups that would gather on the farm. Early on, we did a lot more selling of what we grew. We started off selling most of it whole sale and some of it retail. And then we got to where we sold most all of it retail and bought a few things. We added more and more. Eventually we stopped growing and brought everything in. Now we’re starting to grow again—always with the idea of what’s local. Way back, we started selling things from Vermont. That is where my mom was from. Early on we were selling Cabot cheese because that’s the town in Vermont my mom was from.
When nobody knew what Cabot cheese was.
When nobody knew what Cabot cheese was! Back then we had three cousins working in the Cabot creamery. We knew all the farmers that sent their milk to the dairy because my mom went to school with them. So we were really connected to what was happening in Vermont. That‘s why we would sell the Sun Catchers from Vermont. We knew those guys. Helen Wolff was an artist and did paintings of a lot of the historic buildings and bridges of that area. It’s always had that extra flare of art and crafts because the family did arts and crafts. We sold our own things. When I was young we had chickens and we sold the meat and we sold the eggs. And we butchered. And grandfather raised bees so we did our own honey. We hybridized and cultivated rhododendrons, azaleas, and holly. Those were grandfather’s three main things. Way back, we really started as a production nursery. So the varied-ness of what we did was all around. But it was all around cool stuff—I mean plants and fruits and vegetables. It was a way of life. It was wonderful as a kid to feel you were at home where you played. You came in for dinner and you came in for lunch. It gave us a real opportunity to start working from a very young age. We would stamp egg cartons with sizes and grades and we would help with thinning corn. As we got older we had more and more responsibilities. They depended on us more. In a typical farm family everybody had chores, and as you got older you had more responsibilities.
Do you remember enjoying that? Or did you ever feel that it was a burden?
Oh, it was spectacular. We were paid when we were old enough. There was a sense that it taught you independence. It taught you how to do things and you were expected to know how to do things. It’s hard to know what that relationship means. Things mattered whether you did them or not. It cultivates a lot of personal responsibility but also a lot of personal connection. Connectedness. I feel incredibly blessed to have had that as a place to start, as a place to grow from.
Connectedness. Responsibility. These sound like missing ingredients in a kid’s life right now.
It think that’s really true. I was just at a conference yesterday. They said that the average person is 2 and a half generations removed from the farm. And that distance keeps getting further and further. We’re moving back in the direction of being a working farm in order to preserve that connection. By bringing the farm back to the retail operation, we can keep that connection between the customers and the family and the family to the community. Being a vehicle by which the community can feel connected, that is our goal. How we get there is always changing. But that’s always remaining our goal.
I feel like your elaborating on the Wolff’s business mission statement.
Now we’re trying to focus on getting better product to the customer. That is what is driving this year. And I’m feeling really good about that. This year we’ll do a better job all the way around.
When I brought up the concept of doing these interviews for the website, I said that every story about Wolff’s is a story about food.
If I could bring us to the subject of food, what are the earliest food memories that you have? Like, when you were a kid, what did you look forward to eating? I’ve heard a lot about corn. Your family has some funny corn traditions.
Well, we ate a lot of what we grew. That was summer. Corn, peaches, tomatoes, melons, apples. We ate a lot of that stuff on a regular basis.
So, the big five just started off as what the Wolff’s ate most.
Corn and tomatoes every lunch and most dinners all summer long. We put other parts around it—like salads. Because of that, we always ate in season. The idea of “eating what is locally grown” is what we did at that time. My nickname was Peter-Pig because I ate everything and loved everything. I always really just loved eating. And today still. I can’t think of anything better than a spectacular tomato. I mean, I live for a great tomato. When it’s summer, I eat them for lunch and dinner and I usually eat a couple in between just for snacks because I love them so much. When I was buying produce for the store it was wonderful, because I love produce and finding great produce and getting the best stuff has always really mattered to me. And it mattered to me because I really loved it. I was a vegetarian for years. Now I think that a well rounded diet is the smart diet. So designing a store with a well rounded variety of products is smart. I think wellness includes the whole gamut. And that’s what we’re thinking about all through the store—like the prepared foods. We’re trying to make prepared foods with local ingredients. We want to have it ready “to go” for people. But we also want to move in the direction of fresh meats so people can make whole meals from locally raised beef and chicken. We’re moving in that direction. We have some irons in the fire. There has been real interest from our customers for so many years. I think we have a good core of people that are committed to the future of the business. We’ve come to a time when we are more able to get to these next levels. You’ve brought me back to food, but my job for a long time now is to run a business and provide the vision for the business. My vision is to provide a place and certain kind of pride of that place. I want Wolff’s, as a business, to be good for the community. I want the things people buy at Wolff’s to be good for the individual. I never want to sell anything to the individual that doesn’t promote wellness and goodness. The stuff we sell, like plants and food, just make your life better. I want that to be what Wolff’s is about. I want coming to Wolff’s to make your life better. I want you to go home with more than the stuff in your basket. I’m not sure how to really make that work. But you try things and some things work and others don’t. We’re moving in a direction, a very intentional direction.
You mentioned a couple things. First, that your job is to run a business. And second, that the store is moving in a direction. Not to dwell on why you left Wolff’s when you were younger, but I would like to get a better sense of what brought you back. I keep hearing that the seasonality of Wolff’s and the diversity of Wolff’s is an expression of Peter Wolff, I would love it if you would talk about that for a little bit.
Peter Wolff at 55 is a very different person than he was at 28. The seasonality is the seasonality of generations. Because I’m 4th generation, I got to watch 2 other generations. I grew up being very aware of what those other generations passed down to each other, from one generation to the next. Part of what I need to do, concerning continuity, is pass this baton to the next generation. I saw where there were problems in the last generational changes and I’m trying to do this more smoothly. At first, this required me to step away. I needed to create a void into which other people could step. But I stepped too far away. And the void was maybe a little bit too much. At the same time, my wife and I moved back to the farm. That gave us the opportunity to be more a part of the day-to-day. Being closer, I can walk to work. But back to the idea of successive generations, it really is quite a thing to be able to hand a business from one generation to the next. It’s not easy—transitioning a family business from one generation to the next. So doing this, and doing this well, has been really big in my mind for six or seven years. I talked to my dad. I said, “Dad, you know, I want to start to retire.” He just laughed at me. [laughs] “Ha!” he says. “that’s gonna take you at least ten years.” This process is a minimum of a ten year process from my father’s point of view. So, if I’ve been saying it for five years, well, maybe I’m half way through this baton change. I’m no longer going to provide the hard work, necessarily, that goes into the day-to-day. Learning how to shift from the hard work to the sage wisdom comes with age. And learning what is best for the business now has been difficult for me because I’ve always been the hard worker. So, I’m learning through this transition as much as trying to direct the transition. It’s as much a learning experience for me as it is for other people. I’m as unsure about the process as anyone else. We’re creating it as we go. But the continuity of the business is what has to drive that. That is the important part. That’s why I wanted to come back. It was pride in the business and pride in this place. Pride of Wolff’s.
And you were the next generation.
I was the next generation. Now, I’m trying to get it to the next generation. When I first came back, I grabbed and ran. Now my goal is to allow and facilitate and assist. But it took me a little while to recognize. I thought that what I needed to do was step back and allow the new vision to be the new people and the new generation. I think in the last year and a half, I realized it’s still my vision. And the vision will stop being my vision when somebody comes up and says, “ Peter, I have a different vision.” Until then, I need to supply the vision. I’m good with supplying the vision. Right now, the next generation is happy with me supplying the vision. They don’t want the responsibility of supplying the vision at this point. That will come along. That comes along with time. And that might come from a slightly different person from a different generation. But they’re out there. And it’s coming. We just have to hold it all together in a way we all want it to be now. And I’m sort of the spearhead of that vision. I’m really comfortable in that place.
Thinking about vision and stepping away from that and stepping more into the sages position in order to supply the vision, where does the farm fit in to that? That’s a very labor intensive thing. Is that Peter Wolff trying to recapture something lost—
from his family’s history?
And not let it slip away entirely?
Yes. When the bulk of the farm was sold, I was a junior or a senior in high school. My next older brother, Nathan, was planning on concentrating on the store after he graduated. I was going to concentrate on the farm and the farming. When the farm was sold, what I was going to do vanished. Although I had obtained an education in business, I had a concentration in agriculture and horticulture. That was the nursery side of the business. I did that stuff just out of plain excitement. I went to arboretum school from my own excitement. I enjoyed it. I brought it back to Wolff’s where it makes really good sense. It ties in with what we do. Originally I wanted to be the farmer. It’s all sort of like the Zen method. You can have all of these great ideas, but you still need to chop the wood and carry the water, and do the dishes. I think the labor intensive part of farming is just that—chopping the wood, carrying the water. And you do that while you are being the Zen vision master. It’s not about ego. It’s just about place and connection. And I really value that connection. Farming gives me a chance to do it. I don’t really want somebody else to do it. I want to do it. And I want it to be my hobby and my contribution to the business. But I look at it as something that I will grow old doing. And love it. Hopefully. [laughs] It is hitting history for me, and it is hitting future for me because I really want to be that connected person. Farm is ground and it is grounding. I find it to be very grounding. I want to be a part of a business that matters. And right now I feel a connection to the earth matters. This is what we are all searching for— reintegration with each other and to the land. “Buy fresh, buy local” means so much more than food. It means buying from your community and participating in the community. It means having a community that you want to participate in. all of that is part of what really drives me. It’s a philosophic driving.
And it has always been a part of your life.
It’s always been. This is just more of the same. And I’m thankful that there are other people in the family that are good at running a business, because I really don’t want to focus on that. I want to chop the wood and haul the water. And be the sage that people come to. And I get to say, “ahhh, grasshopper… [laughs] while I sit and ponder.
I think you’ve answered the last two questions I was going to ask.
So, I know you are very busy,Peter, but I have one last question for you.
How many tomato varieties can we expect this year?
Well, we’re getting seeds ordered now. We’ll probably have more than we’ve ever had. I think we’re going to have about one hundred and ten.
One hundred and ten! So we’re taking a leap. We’re not going to just add one a year and go to one hundred and two. We’re going to jump to one hundred and ten.
Well, I have my wish list. We’ll see what comes of that wish list.
Any new killer varieties?
Yeah, there are a couple. One is Primo Red which is an earlier and better producer than scarlet red. It’s a spectacular tomato—hard and red with a lot of flavor. And Primo grows and produces a little better. And then there is Brandyboy. It’s a cross between Better Boy and Brandywine. So it looks like an heirloom but performs more like a hybrid variety. But the flavor is a lot like an heirloom. Steve Bodash, the tomato guru of Pennsylvania, says that the Brandyboy is his top pick. There are a lot of exciting things happening with tomatoes. They’ve found these wild varieties of tomatoes that are resistant to early and late blight. And they are doing tissue cultures and grafting on other varieties to that root stock. It’s bringing disease resistance of wilt into the varieties that we already have. I ordered some of those for the farm here. Maybe we can avoid the blight problems we had last year. This is exciting because this method of grafting will allow us to go more organic without pesticides and herbicides. I’ve also decided to go to high tunnels on the farm this year so that I can get out of the weather and the problems that come from too much rain. But we won’t do any of the plants from the tissue culture at the store this year. That is the big news about new cultivars. Cool. Cool. Cool…
His words trail off, and I can see in his eyes that he has moved on. His gaze is set beyond my shoulder as he looks toward the window. I imagine he is surveying the weather. There is compost to be turned and it is getting late.
I thank him for this rare opportunity and he reciprocates. After saying goodbye to his parents, we exit the house and shake hands. Turning now, he walks with conviction toward his tractor and begins turning over the massive piles of compost. He turns them again and again. I watch him for a while as he works. This is his farm. “This is his life,” I find myself saying. It is just as he wants. It may not be chopping wood and carrying water (that will happen on another day), but it is the kind of work necessary to make something good.
It reminds me of a Wendell Berry quote I once heard. It goes something like, “Work affects everything in the place where it is done: the nature of the place itself and what is naturally there, the local ecosystem and watershed, the local landscape and its productivity, the local human neighborhood, and the local memory…