On any given Saturday morning you might find us at the Union Square Greenmarket, standing amongst the manic throng of shoppers, perusing the countless stands overflowing with fresh produce, eggs, meats, cheeses, and flowers. Did you ever wonder where they all come from? I did. And the answer is surprising. These stands represent just a fraction of a staggering number of small farms in the tri-state area. And guess what? Many of them welcome visitors to their orchards throughout the year for pick-your-own fruits and vegetables.
Nothing embodies the seasonal changing of the guard from Summer to Fall quite like going apple picking. With our obvious love for all things fall and all things food, this sits squarely in our wheelhouse. But with countless options and even more contradictory reviews, we found ourselves at an impasse: Where should we go?
It’s a good question, and the answer may come across as glib: Depends on what you want to get out of it. There are farms that offer a wide range of produce and enough activities to provide a full day of family entertainment. And there are orchards that offer a no-frills, day-on-the-farm, pick-your-own experience. Here are two great options located in the charming town of Chester, New Jersey. Chester is just a little over an hour drive from New York City, which makes it ideal for a day trip. Each one sits at different ends of the spectrum.
Alstede Farms is a relative newcomer, having only been founded in 1982. Its operational practices reflect the state of the industry, particularly the plight of its smaller players. Alstede Farms is a cross between an active, vibrant farm offering a large variety of produce and products, and an amusement park with a farm theme. The simple statement here is: farming alone doesn’t cut it anymore. So they got creative. Beyond pick-your-own, you’ll find such activities as hayrides and petting zoos. Adults can enjoy wine tastings with their live entertainment. And families can enjoy a Pumpkin Pancake Breakfast before heading out to Corn Kingdom.
A hay wagon circles regularly through the farm, which acts as a hop-on-hop-off bus for visitors wanting to explore every inch of the 600-acre farm. This also means you don’t have to lug those giant pumpkins very far on your own. The John Deere chariot appears frequently to whisk you back to the check-out area. The behemoth farm also accepts credit cards (despite signs that read Cash Only), so if you end up buying enough produce to set up your own stand at Union Square Greenmarket, you can charge it. (Not naming names.)
In order to accommodate its hybrid operation, Alstede maintains more staff and equipment. So it’s no wonder that Alstede is more expensive, from its admission fee to the cost of its goods. But that being said, it’s far more organized than many of its peers, which makes for a much more enjoyable, carefree experience. Farms are really popular weekend destinations in the fall, and how an operation manages its guests can make or break an experience. We were impressed with how seamlessly crowd control occurred, from the grass parking lot to the endless lines for their apple cider donuts. Overall, you get what you pay for here.
Pro Tip: Alstede Farms charges for boxes, so save yourself some dough by bringing your own bags or containers. And if you find the admission fee difficult to swallow, it’s waived Monday through Thursday from 9am – 11am.
1 Alstede Farms Ln
Hours vary by activity
Where Alstede Farms has keenly focused on redefining what it means to be a modern farm, Riamede Farm has doubled-down on the classic definition. Their General Information section on Facebook pretty much says it all:
“Riamede Farm has no corn maze, no farm animal petting zoo, no trampolines, no moonwalks, no pony rides and no ice cream parlor. We are a peaceful, quiet olde-time apple orchard with a pumpkin field out back.”
The admission fee at Riamede is modest by comparison–just two dollars a head. Its operational structure, though perfectly adequate, is a self-service style model, geared much more toward flexibility and autonomy. It allows visitors to wander the orchard and explore mostly undisturbed. Across half of its 35-acre orchard, you’ll find many varieties of large, mature, half-century-old seedling apple trees producing high quality apples in great abundance. Different varieties are identified by simple color codes posted at the entrance to the orchard.
On top of apples and pumpkins, Riamede Farm also offers cherry tomatoes in September and Indian Corn in October. But note that even though the store sells a variety of goodies from apple butter to homemade pies, cash is the only accepted currency here. Lynn and I enjoyed how peaceful the experience was as we wandered through the grassy acres, filling our bags along the way. With apples being the primary focus, we also found the piping hot, freshly fried donuts superior to those at Alstede Farms. Frankly, we’d return just for them.
122 Oakdale Rd
Daily 9:00 am – 4:30 pm
Getting to the core of it
With both farms, you never have to worry about picking something that isn’t in season. Large signs indicate which apples are ripe and ready. (With instructions on how to do it too: twist, don’t pull.) It’s a fun learning experience for kids–or adults who have lived in cities their entire lives–to see where their food comes from. And though it may seem obvious, here are some basic things you can do to make the overall experience more enjoyable. Get there early to avoid lines and wear comfortable footwear. Even though hay wagons are present in both locations, you’ll still do plenty of walking. And you’re going to be outdoors, so dress appropriately.
Go forth and celebrate fall!