HAMPTON FALLS -- There were many years when Peter Wagner wondered if his family’s apple farm would survive.
The tough years of the 1980s and 1990s brought bad weather and bad crops for the 100-year-old Applecrest Farm.
But as they have for generations, the family hung on. They diversified their crops, started offering more public events, and grew their business instead of watching it disappear like many of their friends.
In September, Applecrest Farm celebrated its 100th birthday and announced plans for a major expansion.
A 12,000-square-foot farmstand, expanded bakery and farm-to-table restaurant is scheduled to open next fall, leaving the 200-year-old barn in which the market currently resides available for back-of-the house operations.
Peter Wagner still runs the farm with his son, Todd Wagner, the third generation of Wagners to run Applecrest, with a fourth coming up the line.
“It’s great relief. We’ve gone through some extremely difficult years,” Peter said about the farm’s continuing success.
He said his son has brought new energy and ideas with him to the farm over the last eight years, after he returned to the family business after working in film.
“I was born and raised on this farm. It is definitely in my blood. Same with Peter, and now my son is living in his old room,” Todd said.
Peter said he and his son both went to college and pursued other careers before returning to the family business.
Todd said the first apple trees were planted on the farm in 1913, and many of those trees still stand. Of the 40 varieties of apples sold at the farm — through their retail stand, at farmer’s markets, and on the wholesale market — there are some unique heirloom and antique varieties, including 100-year-old Baldwin and Golden Russet varieties.
The Wagner family took over stewardship of the Exeter Road farm in the 1950s with Peter’s father, William Wagner, at the helm.
Back then, almost all the product was shipped out to markets in Boston and New York.
It was Peter who began diversifying the farm, adding peach trees, blueberry and strawberry fields and a variety of beans, tomatoes, gourds and other vegetables. Today more than 400 varieties of produce are offered throughout the harvest season, primarily through a direct retail market.Todd said there has always been a farm stand for selling apples, but it has just continued to grow over the last 30 years.
They also added hayrides, a petting zoo and live bluegrass music during weekend festivals about 35 years ago, long before most farms were offering agritourism activities.
Peter said the change over to agritourism created a whole new life and vitality for the orchard.
Todd said over the past five years especially, there has been a growing awareness in the area of what it means to eat and buy local.
“The eat local (movement) had a dramatic impact, I feel, on people’s relationship today to their local farm,” Todd said.
Today, the Wagners’ farm covers about 220 acres in Hampton Falls and employs more than 100 people each harvest season.
Four years ago, they started a community supported agriculture arm of the business that now sells shares to about 200 area families during the 20-week season each year.
“They see not only the dollars and cents value, but … they like to see Peter and talk about what fields the food came out of instead of what aisle at the supermarket,” Todd Wagner said.
Through those conversations, the family is also trying to collect stories from long-time visitors and employees as part of their “Your Farm Story” contest. They hope to compile many of the stories into a book, with the winning storywriter receiving a $1,000 award. The contest is open through Oct. 19.
One of the orchard’s most famous farmhands, renowned international author John Irving, recently wrote his own memoir for Applecrest’s centennial, which was read aloud during the Sept. 29 anniversary festival.
Applecrest Farms is located at 133 Exeter Road and is open through Christmas Eve.