Why Crozet: Sweet Family Business Remains Fruitful into Second Century

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Henry and Ruth Chiles. Submitted photo.

It’s important, where we live and why. Those of us who consider fresh, local food as a factor in our quality of life are grateful for the enduring presence of the Crown Orchard Company, owned and run by Crozet’s Chiles family. Working with nature and technology, the family has built a successful business from its humble beginnings in 1912, and now employs members of the fifth generation. Their persistence in making a living in one of the most difficult occupations on earth and their commitment to the community has benefited Crozet in countless ways.  This is the 19th in a series.

It was a sweet week in late June when Chiles Family Orchard displayed strawberries, cherries, blueberries, apricots, nectarines, peaches and summer apples at the same time, shining like jewels side by side at the farm market. “It was like the Mecca of fresh fruit there for a while,” said Cynthia Chiles. Strawberries held on later than usual, blueberries were early, and cherries came in as expected from the family’s Spring Valley Orchard to add saturated color to the beautiful golden and rosy tones of peaches, apricots and apples. 

It’s no accident that the orchards––all part of the Crown Orchard enterprise––are full. For more than a century, the family has battled weather, pests, and diseases in their nine local properties, and they’ve learned a thing or two. 

“The one with the vision and energy is my father,” Cynthia said. “He’s the first at work and the last to leave.” That’s Henry (the eighth Henry in the Chiles family) who took over the business at a young age to keep the family going after his own father died. Besides his name being the same as a line of British kings, there’s more than one royal connection in the multi-generational business: as the company grew in the early 20th century, the queen loved their Albemarle Pippins so much that she adjusted the import tariffs.

Henry’s wife Ruth (they’ve been married for more than 60 years) is now retired from the business, but she gets credit for adding direct retail sales to the wholesale business, a strategic move for which everyone in Crozet can be grateful. When a late frost reduced the wholesale peach possibilities years ago, Ruth set up a fruit stand, really just a card table, a folding chair and a cigar box, along Jarmans Gap Road, which blossomed into the present farm market over the next four decades. Ruth is known for her friendliness, her flair for the dramatic and her sense of humor. She was the force behind the Crozet Lion’s Club variety show for 50 years, and made sure the family lent support to other worthwhile groups. The family continues to work behind the scenes to help fund essential community services, their church, and other efforts that directly benefit the Crozet community. 

The Chiles Family: Henry,(#10), Ally, Cynthia, Henry (#8), Ruth, Huff (#9), Judy, Lizzy, Sarah. Submitted photo.

Children, in-laws and grandchildren—Cynthia, Sarah, Huff (the ninth Henry), Judy (Huff’s wife), Lizzy, Ally and Henry (number ten)—all have a role in the ongoing business, brought up to recognize their commitment to the community, Cynthia said. She leads the company’s retail operations, Huff (with his father and his son) oversees the farming, Sarah works in quality control and safety, Judy manages the office, and Ally took over the management of the farm market at Chiles Family Orchard in March. 

In recent years, the family has taken steps, led by Huff, to reduce their energy consumption, placing solar panels at Carter Mountain Orchard, on the rooftop of Chiles Peach Orchard’s Farm Market, and at the production facility in Covesville. 

If you’re a member of the Chiles family, how do you apply for a job in the family business? “Well, it varies,” Cynthia said. “We all work at something to do with the orchards, the packing or the sales from a young age, so we know what to expect.” The family considers each member’s strengths and finds the best place. “Some of us have worked outside the business for years and come back with new skills. Others know from the start that they want to join us. It all depends.”

Dylan Loughheed stocks apricots at Chiles Farm Market. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

There’s never a shortage of jobs. The family employs nearly 200 people in the summer, 60 to 70 year-round. Like other local employers, they’re experiencing a staff shortage presently. Besides growing and marketing the fruit, the family has a sunflower operation and sells fresh vegetables in the summer, presently green beans, cucumbers and zucchini.

Shortly before publication time for the Gazette, the family made the final steps to launch a new product. As fruit experts, the family has grown grapes and sold them to wineries for the past 30 years, Cynthia said. “Now we’ll be selling wine with our name on it.”  You’ll find wine under the Carter Mountain label at the newly opened wine shop at Chiles Peach Orchard, in a tasting room adjacent to the farm market every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with hours to expand as more help becomes available. They chose local super-star winemakers, Matthieu Finot of King Family Vineyards and Michael Shaps of Michael Shaps Wineworks to transform their grape harvest into a Rose, a Chardonnay and a Petit Manseng, with more varieties to come later in 2021. Later this summer, the public will also be able to visit Chiswell Farm, the historic Greenwood estate that will serve as a winery and scenic destination to sample Carter Mountain wines. 

For a sweet week, many fruit seasons overlap at Chiles Farm Market. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

The successful business is not without its risks. Erratic weather is always a problem. The family has learned over the years to plant a couple of dozen different varieties of peaches to lessen the devastation of a late frost. The cold might wipe out the early bloomers, but there are others that have not set their buds yet. “In a perfect year, we’ll have some kind of fruit ripening from May to the end of September,” Cynthia said. There are rarely perfect years, but the veteran farmers have learned a few tricks, like the strategy they employed this spring of using underground irrigation to encase the buds in ice. This works only when just a few degrees of warmth are needed. 

They all know in their hearts that nature is the boss, she said, “Truthfully, there’s a lot of old-fashioned hoping and praying.”

Cynthia said the parents and children, sisters and brothers all see each other at least every few days as they travel from orchard to orchard or conduct family business. Is that sufficient family contact? “Not really,” Cynthia said, “We love to get together for family dinners, birthdays and holidays.” 

Pick-your-own customers at Chiles Peach Orchard. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

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