Person of the Week
Bearing Fruit: Keith Bishop Expands the Family Orchards
Bishop's Orchards may be best known for apples, but co-CEO Keith Bishop is also winemaker for the company. Now proprietor of Connecticut's only commercial cranberry bog, located off Pond Meadow Road in Killingworth, the winery and market can also add home-grown cranberries to its ingredients list. (Photo by Maria Caulfield/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Mention the Bishop name and locals will likely think of Bishop’s Orchards in neighboring Guilford. But unknown to many is that co-CEO Keith Bishop has expanded to Killingworth with his purchase of 4.5 acres of cranberry bog on Pond Meadow Road. Although a separate entity, Killingworth Cranberries, LLC, is the latest addition to the Bishop’s Orchards Farm Market and Winery family.
Originally started by Cyrus Evarts in 1896, the bog on Pond Meadow Road was sold to Keith when other interests prevented the Evarts family from continuing production and ownership. Now, the Bishop family owns the only commercial cranberry farm and bog in Connecticut.
“From a marketing perspective, we’ve got the ability to say, ‘This is local Connecticut cranberries,’” Keith says.
The bog is more than a century old, however, and it presented a few hurdles.
“I like new challenges, so that’s one reason I took that on,” he says.
A perennial fruit vine, the cranberries that were planted in 1911 were still going when Keith bought the bog in June 2012.
“Those cranberry plants were still in production when I bought [the bog], although they were in very poor condition as far as their yield,” he explains.
His solution was to replant a new hybrid developed by Rutgers University called Scarlet Knight. The hybrid produces a larger, darker red berry that lasts longer and results in a better yield well suited for retail fresh fruit sales from late September through winter.
He also redesigned the bog itself.
“I had a cranberry engineer design the new bog system that I developed, so that included a drainage system, ditches around the bog tying in with the existing brook that supplies water through the area, and built a pond that wasn’t there before,” he says.
Keith essentially modernized the century-old bog.
“Now, I have a full pop-up sprinkler system that is remotely controllable [that] tells us electronically and digitally when I need to water [and] set the schedule.”
Because cranberry farming is often associated with water-filled bogs, popular beliefs have spread that cranberry plants grow in water and that the berries are harvested only by flooding the bogs.
Neither is true.
Like most plants, cranberry vines need moisture, but they grow and thrive on dry beds with the right soil conditions.
As for harvesting, the berries can be dry picked using a small harvester that is gentler on the berries, a method Keith prefers over flooding.
“Dry harvest is for fresh fruit sales and wet harvest would be for all non-fresh uses,” he explains.
But last fall, Keith was forced to use the wet method to harvest the cranberries when rains flooded the bog.
“I had to make emergency preparations to do it differently and it resulted in a poor crop quality because of all the rain and the conditions that existed,” he says.
Like most fruit crops, plant development and full production are achieved several years after initial planting. This fall, Keith is optimistic about his first full crop of cranberries since the bog was replanted with the Scarlet Knight variety three years ago.
Taking on the cranberry bog was “another alternative for diversity that adds to the crops that we do here,” Keith says.
Today, cranberries are part of the seven locally grown fruits and some 20 different vegetable crops that are sold at Bishop’s Orchards and Farm Market.
Aside from the local produce and fruit pies baked on-site, Bishop’s Orchards has adapted over the years to become what Keith calls a destination farm. He says that the farm offers “activities for people to enjoy and experience a true farm.”
It has a pick-your-own section for visitors to come and pick a variety of fruits. Families can also take in the farm’s corn maze, hay maze, and pumpkin patch in the fall. It even has five llamas that are an attraction to children.
For adults, there’s also the winery.
As the company’s winemaker, Keith has significantly expanded the winery since its beginning in 2005.
“I’ve got 15 to 16 [wines] that are on the repertoire now,” he says.
The wines and hard ciders he has produced over the years have been awarded more than 300 medals since 2006, he says, including six double gold medals and 24 gold medals.
Members of the Bishop family have long been involved in the business. Keith himself joined Bishop’s Orchards in 1977 as retail farm market manager after he graduated from Cornell with a B.S. in agricultural economics. His second cousin Jonathan is his co-CEO and is responsible for the production, harvesting, and warehousing of all crops on the farm. Together, they make up the fifth generation of Bishop family members leading and managing the orchards and farm market.
Keith’s wife, Debbie, handles payroll and the cash office. Their daughters, Sarah and Carrie, have taken on responsibilities at the orchards as well: Sarah serves as COO and oversees operations and strategic growth, while Carrie serves as CFO and oversees the financial management, accounting, human resources, and IT functions of the business. Their son, Ryan, joins the business this year after working for six years at another orchard in New Hampshire.
Walking the Walk
The business is not the only thing that holds Keith’s interest. He is also involved in multiple nonprofit organizations and charities.
One of his causes is the improvement of the lives of individuals with special needs. He and his family support SARAH, Inc., an agency that seeks to enhance and enrich the lives of persons with disabilities through employment and other activities. They have been key supporters since the 1980s and major sponsors of the organization’s annual gala.
Keith explains that SARAH has work crews that perform developmentally appropriate tasks. Bishop’s Orchards employs the services of these work crews to support the organization and help advance the lives of special-needs individuals.
Perhaps even more, he and his wife walk the walk: They are legal guardians to Larry, a special-needs man who has been employed at Bishop’s for more than 20 years.
Keith’s accomplishments are a testament to his dedication, altruism, and work ethic, but he is quick to put credit for the success of the farm and the bog on his family and his team of workers.
“It’s not just one individual that makes this work. It’s the family, it’s the employees, it’s the whole team,” he says.
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