During World War II, a new variety of apple was developed at the Ohio State Agricultural Experiment Station in Wooster. The Melrose apple, a cross of the Jonathan and Red Delicious apple, was crisp, juicy and full of flavor. Back then, Geauga County farmer Allen Sage knew Melrose would be a hit with his customers long before the red and gold speckled apple became the official state apple. He was so confident that he concentrated on Melrose when he decided to expand his orchard in 1952.
“Dad expanded the orchard to get more money, and Melrose was the one he speculated on and he was right. He planted them to put (my brother) John and I through college,” said Bob Sage, the fifth generation to run Sage’s Apples Fruit Farm in Chardon.
The Sage family has a long history of farming in Geauga County, arriving in 1842 from Chautauqua, N.Y. Bob speculates that his great-great-grandfather was looking for a similar climate to have an orchard. If that was the case, he found the perfect spot.
The orchard is several hundred feet higher than nearby Lake Erie and in mid May when the trees start to bloom and the lake starts to warm up, a 1 to 2 mph breeze of warm air from the lake flows through the orchard, moving around the colder inland air.
“My dad used to have a pipe and he would light it and watch the smoke move on a frosty morning. That little bit of air movement would protect the apple blossoms from getting frosted. Someone five to 10 miles south of us doesn’t have this same microclimate, which means their crop could get wiped out completely,” said Bob, who has a switch in his bathroom that turns on the weather radio every morning.
Chardon is known for its heavy snowfall (an average of 107 inches per winter) and all that snow keeps the ground cold for a longer time period than surrounding areas. That means Sage’s trees start growing later than nearby orchards, protecting them from late spring cold snaps.
Evolving into a year-round market with a diverse array of local products has helped keep the family business vibrant. With customers today buying smaller quantities of apples, the Sages have made changes to the orchard to grow more varieties of apples for customers to try. Switching to smaller sized trees freed up space for more trees and made picking easier for Bob and his son Benjamin. The two meet at 9 a.m. every morning from late July until frost/freeze to pluck apples from the trees and place in the metal containers strapped to their chests. Sometimes picking can be challenging — two years ago, a late October storm dumped eight inches of snow during harvest.
Changes in technology also have made it easier for the Sages and the handful of retirees who help pick apples during peak season.
As a teenager, Bob used to move and stack one-bushel crates by hand in the family’s storage cooler. Today a hydraulic forklift stacks 650-pound bins of apples six high at a time.
During peak apple season, the farm market is filled with samples of the 50 varieties of apples grown at the orchard. The sampling helps gauge customers’ reaction to new varieties, including EverCrisp, a sweet apple with the snap of a Honeycrisp and taste of a Fuji. EverCrisp was developed by the Midwest Apple Improvement Association, an Ohio-based organization of private breeders who develop apples specifically for the Midwest’s climate. The Sages have had Ohio State University research conducted on their farm. The first calcium research done in commercial orchards was on some of Sage’s Turley Winesaps and Spartans apples.
Serving in the community has been important to the Sage family for many generations. Bob’s grandfather Jay M. was a charter member of the Geauga County Farm Bureau and his father Allen was county Farm Bureau president several times, active with the Geauga County Planning Commission and on the Ohio Fruit Growers board of directors and the Geauga Soil and Water Conservation District board. Bob has been county Farm Bureau president three times and director of the Western Reserve Farm Cooperative, which has five operating divisions—agronomy, feed/grain, petroleum, lumber and retail—for members and patrons in northeast Ohio and northwest Pennsylvania.
“Both Dad and I did what we could for public affairs. When I got out of college, one of the first things I worked on was CAUV (Current Agricultural Use Value),” Bob said of the referendum Ohio voters passed in 1973 that establishes a program where farmland is taxed at its agricultural value rather than full market value. “You don’t want to lose good farmland, especially a good apple site like ours. You don’t want to be forced out by developers and high price taxes.”
The family gives back to the community whenever it can by donating apples to the local Meals on Wheels program and area food banks and hosting school field trips for elementary school students.
John’s daughter, Stephanie, has always loved working in the farm market and greeting long-time customers. Now a teacher in Mentor, Stephanie helps pick berries or bag customers’ purchases in her spare time. “Working here is quality family time for me because everybody’s always here,” she said as she sorted through raspberries she had just picked. “So many of the customers remember me as the little girl who helped bag. Now I’m the one who is showing my 8-year-old cousin how to help out.”
Growing A Community
In recognition of agriculture’s growing economic impact on the Mahoning Valley, a new partnership started this year between northeast Ohio county Farm Bureaus and the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber. The Mahoning Valley consists of northeast Ohio and northwest Pennsylvania and has more than 7,000 northeast Ohio farms. Over the past three years, food-related industries have invested nearly $50 million in the valley and now make up 7.45 percent of all manufacturing jobs. The goal of the partnership is to better serve the agriculture industry, including farming, food manufacturing, processing and distribution, by offering business development assistance and helping companies make connections within the industry overall.
Seeds of Growth
After Bob and his brother John graduated from Ohio State University, they joined the family business, which went through an expansion in 1972. An all-season farm market was built next to the family’s 1914 barn so customers could stop by to purchase apples as well as sweet corn, pumpkins, winter squash, peaches, red raspberries and blueberries that the family was now growing. In the new market, the family started selling jams, jellies, honey, popcorn, maple syrup and pancake mixes, which it continues to sell today. It was about this time that Ohio Farm Bureau started Farm Markets of Ohio, a merchandise and supply cooperative, which made it easier for the Sages to purchase and stock quality items. Farm Markets of Ohio was later sold to GreenStar Cooperative Inc. in Salem, and today the Sages rent cooler space from GreenStar for long-term apple storage.
Published in the September/October 2015 Our Ohio magazine. Stay connected with and support great food and farm stories like this by becoming anOur Ohio Supporter. For just $25 you can stay connected with Ohio food and farm stories while supporting local foods and community outreach.