As children, in the hills and hollows of Peace Valley Orchard, the Simmons siblings didn’t realize they already had it all figured out.
Dan (Dano) and his brother Paul hoed their small patch of pumpkins and gourds on the rolling Columbiana County apple farm in the Appalachian foothills. They hauled their harvest to the family’s market with a little red wagon and a lawn tractor.
“I would come over every evening after school and I sold them,” remembered their sister Carol (Simmons) Day, sitting at the kitchen table of the family farmhouse nearly four decades later.
Today, just outside her front door, is the same small market, which she now operates. A bakery case extends along the wall (Carol won the Betty Crocker award in high school). Near a cash register, the wood grain of a laminate countertop has been rubbed white from past seasons’ sales. Dan points to its solid oak replacements protected by a thick skin of varnish.
“I built those,” he said. “I used to enjoy woodworking when I had time for it.”
He’s now overseeing the packing facility, which handles the tens of thousands of bushels of apples and peaches the farm produces. His older brother Paul, the first to come back to the farm after college, got the responsibility for the trees.
“He got lucky: the fun part, the farming part,” Dan lamented.
Sixty years after their grandfather took over the abandoned orchard, the three siblings work side by side to keep the business going.
“We’re in our 50s and we still see each other every day,” Dan said. Then he marveled, “And we don’t yell at one another.”
Don’t get him wrong, he explains, there can be tension. How many other siblings have to sit down each year to decide whether they should get a raise or, for that matter, take a pay cut? With the ups and downs of farming, family ties hold them together.
“You have to have something besides just the business to tie you into it,” Dan said. “We’re tied in together because of the family, and the ground and the heritage and it has to mean more than the money.”
But aside from typical business tensions, there are the typical family tensions.
“Sibling stuff comes in from the whole get-go, ya’ know,” Dan said. “And it’s good and it’s bad. It’s good because family can always count on family. But at the same time, the same stuff that ticked you off when you were a little kid ticks you off when you’re a big kid.”
What makes it work, according to Carol, is learning to rely on each others’ strengths.
“Dano is very…” she paused.
“Go ahead and say it,” Dan dared.
“I’m looking for the perfect word and there isn’t a perfect…”
“Hardheaded,” he laughed.
“No,” insisted Carol “He’s very aggressive, outspoken…He is a very excellent president of a company. And he’s a good brother.”
Dan later graciously volunteers that he’s likely the hardest to put up with, which provokes both laughter and agreement from his sister.
“(Carol) kind of mothers us a bit,” he said. “She’s the peacemaker; she keeps us all together.”
Perhaps more telling, “I don’t know how anybody can answer the phone and be that chipper” at 8 o’clock in the morning, he said.
Paul, who was on vacation at his home down the road, is the reserved one, the pair says, easygoing and not necessarily inclined to seek the attention of an interview.
But when an unannounced visitor showed up, he quickly unfolded two chairs on the large farmhouse porch. As he spoke, wind chimes struck a random melody, broken intermittently by a vocal rooster.
“Oh, we get along all right,” he said smiling. “There’s always stuff that comes up.”
If there is stress in managing the large farm, and Dan and Carol assured that there is, you wouldn’t know it by talking to Paul.
“I’ve always enjoyed it,” he simply stated.
Each of the Simmons’ spouses also pitches in. Carol’s husband runs the farm bakery, Dan’s wife keeps the books and Paul’s wife does the payroll. All of their children have worked on the farm. Their youngest sister, Ginny, lives nearby and lends a hand when needed.
As for their father: “My Dad’s going to be 80 this year and I was just cleaning a mower up for him. Oh yeah, he’s retired, but he hasn’t quit though,” Dan said.
As he drove his pickup truck through the 300-acre property, Dan talked about the farm’s accomplishments. He pulled past two-story coolers that will be stacked to the ceiling with apple crates at harvest. In the fields, giant fans that resemble wind turbines tower over the trees. They’re used to blow frosty air into the valleys away from apple blossoms. An electronic box mimicked the screech of a bird – a “keep out” to hungry crows.
Then he stopped by a row of trees. They are what helped carry the farm through hard times. Years ago, his father and brother discovered a limb on one of their Gala trees was producing fruit that was bright red rather than yellow. The farm patented the natural mutation as the Buckeye Gala apple and now earns royalties wherever the variety is produced.
“It’s rapidly becoming the largest selling Gala in the world,” Dan said.
He can’t help but smile when he talks of his Ohio apple breaking into the Australian market as the Gala was born in nearby New Zealand.
Despite bright spots such as this, the farm has had its share of struggles. Dan frets it’s what may have turned away a fourth generation from returning to the land.
“Unfortunately, when most of them were growing up, it was very, very black years for the apple industry,” he said. “When they were in decision making modes, the apple industry looked like it was going nowhere.”
While this leaves the long-term future of the farm somewhat unclear, the ability of the family to stick together through whatever lies ahead is all but a certainty.
“When we get together as a family we are not snipping at each other and such,” Carol said. “We’re a family. And this is how we were always raised and this is how we will always be, I hope to say.”
Peace Valley Orchards, Inc.
5667 Adams Road
Rogers, OH 44455