AUBURN – Wallingford’s is a name in Maine that is synonymous with fall apples, fresh apples, and pumpkins. The Ricker family, which has been associated with the orchard and fruit bearer for generations, recently purchased 50 acres of Wallingford and incorporated it into the family farm group, which now includes more than 400 acres of apples, spread across seven cities and three counties. The prize at Wallingford’s is 25 acres of your pick apple trees on the property, which are also home to blueberry and raspberry crops.
Peter Ricker took over the orchard and operation of the store at 1240 Perkins Ridge Road nearly 15 years ago, following the unexpected death of Wallingford’s patriarch, Peter Wallingford. And, according to his word, Ricker did not make any drastic changes. “It was a seasonal run, a very good run, a very respectable one and a half months,” he explained. Wallingford’s is now open from June 1 to New Year’s Eve, although peak season is late August to early November.
Riker says he felt there was an opportunity to offer more recreational value to the local area, to expand the options for their customers. The Rickers also ran Apple Ridge Farms next to Wallingford’s, which had goats, a small bakery, and cherished rows of your apples, which have since been incorporated and expanded into Wallingford’s.
The Ricker family, which also owns and operates Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner and Vista of Maine Vineyard and Cidery in Greene, has been growing apples for more than 200 years, and Peter Ricker said it’s a true family operation, with three generations of Ricker family currently running various aspects of the businesses. The three. Rickers is Maine’s second largest apple grower, and for years they have competed for the top spot with Cooper Farms’ orchards in western Paris.
To say that Wallingford’s is a popular place for families and others to visit is an understatement. Rieker estimates that on the busiest weekends of the fall season, 4,000 to 6,000 people flock to the property each day. They go to let the kids run, feed the goats, pick the apples, meander through the corn maze, sip sweet cider or hard cider.
With the family expanding into hard cider, the next logical step was to create a tasting room for their wine and cider, which you can also buy and take home with you. There is little room for private functions, although Rieker said he likes to keep it small.
As you walk toward the store, the sweet scent of baked goods wafts into the wind and invites you inside – where all the delicious scents come from. A small but functional bakery that pumps out cider, pumpkin spice, and even chocolate muffins, muffins, muffins, and more. The shop has special foods from local farms and producers, and there’s a section dedicated to kids with LEGO, Playmobil, and stuffed animals.
Peter Ricker is a content, if not happy, workaholic. Apple’s growth is a year-round business with a lot of work to spread out, which helps when you have a large family support group. He is at Wallingford’s every day and still has other responsibilities in Turner’s operation as one of the owners. However, he says he enjoys what he does and watching his interactions with the young staff makes clear that it’s casual, but certainly not easy to come by.
“I know there’s more to this, guys,” he says, warning a group of young girls huddled together in the cashier’s hut.
“I enjoy my crew. I enjoy working with my people,” Riker said. “I enjoy the constant challenge of trying to think of how best to make it work…how to do it better.”
Moving from wholesale to retail
Apple growing is risky, and the wholesale aspect of the business, especially in the national scene, pits Maine farmers against larger orchards in the Northwest, New York, Michigan, Ohio, and parts of the South.
“Maine is a very expensive place to grow apples,” Riker said, citing Maine’s short growing season and cool, humid climate, which makes disease control more difficult and expensive. Apples and apple trees are susceptible to disease.
Consumer tastes are constantly changing, and today’s large chains want sweeter varieties, which require a longer growing season, and they buy apples on a cost basis. Therefore, Rieker explains, orchards in the West in particular have lower costs due to heavily subsidized water and less need for chemicals to control diseases due to the dry climate. Labor costs are also more expensive in Maine due to higher minimum wage requirements for agricultural workers.
We can’t compete at the national level either,” Rieker said. Regional business is fine, but he said it’s getting tougher. Therefore, the decision was made to focus more on retail, which can be more profitable, by expanding people’s retail options.
Customers still want a great farm experience
“While you were growing up, one of the things I didn’t want to lose was the idea of coming to an exotic ranch,” Riker said, noting that it’s always hard to find the line between feeling old-fashioned and enjoying so many activities and options for a broad client base.
They added their seven-acre corn maze but lost another, smaller one on new blueberry and raspberry plantations. Then there’s the weed and food truck on the weekends and the escape room, where small groups of people are “locked up” in a themed room and must solve puzzles, riddles, and clues to escape.
But what has only increased its size and popularity is the haunted walk “Nightmare on the Ridge”, which has become more of a haunted village than a haunted house. It takes about 30 minutes from start to finish and they are sold out most Saturday nights and some Fridays, which is why they added Thursday nights. Riker says Nightmare on the Ridge is nationally rated—the best in Maine and one of the best in the Northeast. It is included in halloweennewengland.comThere are dozens of ratings and lists of haunted attractions on the Internet.
All this activity requires employees, which is becoming increasingly difficult for companies of any kind to attract. Riker says he employs between 30 and 50 people, mostly teens and twenties, and many of them work about 20 hours a week or less, because that’s all they want to work for or all they can work by law.
After Halloween business slows significantly, Wallingford’s will post on social media that pumpkins are free to take. “It’s almost scary,” he adds. People line up first thing in the morning and before you know it, they’re all gone. Some take it to harvest the seeds but it is the pig farmers who bring in bigger trucks and collect them all.
Wallingford’s then turns to selling hundreds of Christmas trees planted in Maine and wreaths made by a handful of local artisans. Meanwhile, the goats are returning to the farmer who owns them for the winter, as are the rabbits, and it becomes very quiet on the hills.
One thing Ricker says he would like to find is someone who can add special value to the Wallingford experience. “I’d like an old man to just talk about apples and explain to people, if I could find one.” So if you know an apple-familiar grandmother or grandmother looking for a side party, call Peter Riker.