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Frazer Township couple keeps tradition alive at Norman's Orchard

| Sunday, June 7, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Erica Dietz | Trib Total Media
Norman's Orchard owner Jeff Norman checks on his bounty in his orchard in Frazer Township on Monday, May 11, 2015.
Erica Dietz | Trib Total Media
Norman's Orchard owner Jeff Norman poses for a portrait next to an 80-year old apple tree in his orchard in Frazer Township on Monday, May 11, 2015.
Erica Dietz | Trib Total Media
Norman's Orchard owner Jeff Norman poses for a portrait in his orchard in Frazer Township on Monday, May 11, 2015.
Erica Dietz | Trib Total Media
A flower with fallen petals which soon grow into an apple can be seen at Norman's Orchards in Frazer Township on Monday, May 11, 2015.

Retired hospital executive Jeff Norman has returned to his roots, literally.

He and his wife, Leslie, are celebrating the 57th season of Norman's Orchard, a pick-your-own site in Frazer.

The farm was purchased by Jeff's parents, Robert and Sarah Norman, in 1947 and began producing fruit in 1958. The original farm offered fruit, sold Christmas trees and had a garden.

Jeff and Leslie assumed operation of the farm in 2012 after Robert Norman died. Jeff, who was raised on the family farm, had already retired after 33 years, most recently as president and CEO of St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, Md., and had time to “embrace the orchard experience.”

“My favorite memory from childhood on the orchard is the bright, sunny autumn days with the sweet smell of ripe apples as we picked,” Jeff says.

The couple splits their time between the farm from June to October, and Phoenix the rest of the year when the orchard isn't producing. They do all the work at the orchard themselves, with some volunteer help from relatives. Jeff Norman also still does consulting work with TRG Healthcare.

The farm was once part of a Revolutionary War land grant, with the orchard positioned on a westerly and southern slope. This location is well-suited for a Northeast orchard, with longer hours of sunlight during the winter.

The orchard offers pick-your-own heirloom fruit varieties, such as 20 varieties of apples, five pear varieties and six types of cherries. There also are grapes and blueberries. It is one of the few local orchards to offer tart cherries.

Picking baskets are provided, along with personal instruction and tips from the Normans.

Heirloom fruit, or antique fruit, are varieties that have existed for hundreds of years with a distinctive look and flavor generally not found in fruits available in stores.

“Most heirloom fruit are not bred for durability or appearance; instead, they offer a distinctive flavor and are best picked ripe, rather than being picked before fully ripe and held in storage,” Jeff says.

Now in their fourth operating season, the Normans have sold out of fruit the past three seasons.

“If we do not sell out, we plan on donating fruit to a local food bank,” Jeff says. “We have 20 acres in production on our 55 acres.”

Leslie Norman particularly enjoys seeing youngsters try their hand at picking fruit.

“I love to see the interest of the children picking cherries, blueberries or apples for the first time,” she says. “I enjoy talking to customers and answering their questions. We get a lot of families, and its their first time picking.”

The orchard offers several uncommon varieties of fruit.

“Some of our more unusual apple varieties are Wealthy, Super Rambo, Empire, Cox's Orange Pippin, Stayman Winesap, Northern Spy, Arkansas Black, Roxburry Russett, recently planted York Imperial and King David,” Jeff says. “My favorite we offer is called Spitzenburg (said to be Thomas Jefferson's favorite apple).”

The average price ranges from $12 to $18 for about 10 to 12 pounds of fruit. Freshly picked fruit may be frozen, especially cherries and blueberries. The Normans suggest that apples be frozen if they are going in a pie; otherwise they are best consumed fresh.

The deer and birds also love the fruit, so the Norman's constantly work to stay one step ahead of the wildlife.

“We lose 20 percent of our crop annually to critters,” Jeff says.

Fencing is necessary, and Jeff is testing a device on his blueberry bushes that offers constant movement to deter the birds.

The orchard practices IPM (integrated pest management), spraying with naturally occurring organic materials only when indications of pests or fungus exist.

March and April is when the orchard awakens from winter, and organic oils are applied before blossoms explode.

“We use a spray of dormant oil and other synthetic organic materials early in the growing season,” Jeff says. “We never spray during blossom time in order to protect honeybees, and we don't spray 30 to 60 days before the fruit is ready for harvest.”

Each year, the orchard adds 30 or more trees to add to the farm's productiveness.

“Our customers come from all over Western Pennsylvania and are discovering the subtle and distinctive tastes of heirloom fruit,” Jeff says. “(Pick your own) has become a popular activity for families who want the freshest fruit possible and a delightful outing on a summer or fall day.”

Joyce Hanz is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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