Friday June 21, 2013

SANDISFIELD -- On a 155-acre pocket of land high in the Berkshire hills is Riiska Brook orchards, a Sandisfield farm that has been in the family for decades.

As you drive toward it from Route 57, the orchard comes into view with a beautiful jolt. Driving up to the main house, you can see the precisely planned rows of trees, the big, open sky, the barn and pretty much nothing else. The orchard is the focal point, and there are no distractions.

It’s idyllic, and it’s well cared for by Bill and Barbara Riiska, the patriarch and matriarch of a huge South County family.

Blueberry flowers and baby berries appear on the bushes at Riiska Brook Orchard, seen from Route 57. The berries should be ready within the next two weeks.
Blueberry flowers and baby berries appear on the bushes at Riiska Brook Orchard, seen from Route 57. The berries should be ready within the next two weeks. (Francesca Olsen / Berkshrie Eagle Staff)
The Riiskas, who have been married 44 years, live there with their two dogs, one house cat and about 18 barn cats, but the house is frequently full, since they have had six children together and 10 grandchildren, and one grandchild on the way.

During apple season, the road is frequently full as well. "The driveway and street are lined on Columbus Day weekend," Barbara said.

The farm was once a dairy farm run by Bill Riiska’s parents, but now around 25 acres are filled with apples, blueberries, raspberries, pumpkins and more. The entire farm covers about 155 acres.

They planted the first trees around 1990 and now have 2,400, plus 900 blueberry bushes across the street. There are 11 varieties of apples. They have an "apple shack" near the farmhouse where Barbara and her daughters sell cider, squash, bagged apples, apple corers and all the things you’d expect from an orchard store.

Bill is a logger and has been his whole working life. He comes home to take care of the orchard, which is sprayed for insects only, not for size or color.

"There’s an awful lot of hours in it," he said. "When it’s time to put in hay, you put in hay. When it’s time to spray you’ve got to spray.

Riiska Brook Orchard in Sandisfield
Riiska Brook Orchard in Sandisfield (Francesca Olsen / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
Š You don’t tell the trees. You can’t tell them when you’ve got to do it."

Like most industries, running the orchard has gotten more expensive, mostly due to the cost of fuel, which "drives the price of everything way up," Barbara said.

Stressing that he knows "everyone is in the same boat," Bill said, "I do a little bit better than break even on the orchard, when you’re done with it. You keep on paying, paying, paying with the logging money until the apples are ready."

With rain, spring frost, hail, erratic weather, "there’s so many things that can take you down," Bill said. "It doesn’t rain, it pours. Everything is supersized."

The Riiskas haven’t always lived on the farm -- they had a house in Otis, but they ended up moving to Sandisfield in a sort of family shuffle. The orchard was planted when Bill’s parents still lived there. Their daughter Bethany moved to the farmhouse after her grandparents’ death, while the elder Riiskas lived in Otis. Then their daughter Suzanne returned from Florida and moved into their Otis basement. Eventually, one daughter kept the Otis house, another moved onto land parceled out from the farm, and Bill and Barbara moved into the farmhouse.

The final decision was made when Valerie, their oldest daughter, died from cancer.

"It was such a horrendous shock for us," Barbara said.

During that time, Bill would take her on their golf cart (they have a couple of carts, plus a heavy-duty mule-type machine with room for four) around the orchard.

"You couldn’t look all around you and be mad at the world," Barbara said.

The trees are short and wide for easy picking. Barbara said they are kept short so kids can reach the fruit, and tasting apples is encouraged. "We’re a family business, and we cater to families," she said.

Bill said his favorite part is watching people enjoy themselves in the orchard he’s labored over so hard for so long. "They say when they come over the top of the hill it looks like heaven," he said. 

"One of our greatest paybacks is for someone to say, ‘I’ve never been to such a gorgeous orchard,’ " Barbara said. "They can find the beauty that we see all the time."

It’s not time yet, but blueberries will be ready in a week or so, and apples will be ready at the end of the summer. I’ll be back to pick both -- I make a heck of a pie, and my husband makes a killer crisp. On the land ...

What: Riiska Brook Orchard

Blueberries should be ready soon and apples at summer’s end.

Where: 101 New Hartford Road, Sandisfield

Information: Learn more at www.riiskabrookorchard.com, (413) 258-4761, info@riiskabrookorchard.com, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/riiskabrookorchard.

For more about Hudson Valley Organics, call (518) 928-4826 or visit www.hvorganics.com.

If you are a Berkshire farmer and would like to be considered for this column, find Francesca Olsen at (413) 496-6232 or folsen@berkshire eagle.com or on Twitter @FrancescaBOlsen. She would love to visit you and learn about your experiences.