One of the odd things about Western Pennsylvania, as a region, is that there is an urban/rural divide that seems more stark than nearly anywhere else I’ve been. You can travel half an hour outside of town and find people that have lived in the area all their lives, but never been downtown. Likewise, you can find people who live in the city who never find occasion to leave.
This is a shame, because there are things in both places that are eminently worth experiencing. One of the highlights of getting out of town a little bit — especially in the autumn — is the fairly large number of small farms and orchards where you can find great locally-grown produce at reasonable prices. Today, I’d like to tell you about one of them.
Before I get into details, I want to talk a little more about the travel issue. It’s not solely an urban/rural divide. The region seems to have this psychological trait where anything over 15 minutes away is “far.” This is odd to me, because where I come from the threshold is one hour. If a destination is 65 minutes away, it’s “far.” If it is 55 minutes away, it’s close. Here, if you suggest going somewhere more than about 15 minutes away, people look at you kind of funny. “Isn’t that an awfully long way away?”
I can’t say whether this is due to geography, or upbringing, or something in the water. But it interests me — is there a word for this psychological threshold? What is it set to in other places? — and I mention it because, if you live in the city, it’s likely that it will take you more than 15 minutes to get to Schramm Farms, or any of the other local orchards. They’re all worth the drive.
There are a number of farms like this dotting the area around Pittsburgh. North of the city you have Shenot farms and Kaelin’s. In Bridgeville, serving the south and west, is Trax Farms. Further to the south, near Elizabeth, PA, you’ll find Triple B Farms (which also has an enjoyable corn maze every fall). Schramm Farms covers the eastern region. These aren’t your only options by any stretch of the imagination.
Schramm’s is a 470 acre farm in Penn Township, but this wasn’t always the case. It used to be located at Ross Park Mall. Or, rather, before there was a mall where Ross Park is today, there was Schramm’s. In 1981, they sold the property and picked up the farm and moved to Penn Township.
I asked Hillary Schramm whether “moving a farm” was as hard as it sounded, and he looked very, very tired. “It took about 8 months.”
Schramm’s has a store that is open year round, but it really comes in to its own in the fall. This is when the apples are harvested. Schramm’s grows a ton of varietals that simply don’t make it in to your local Giant Eagle (or Whole Foods).
“Fall is the biggest time,” agrees Hil’s daughter, Carolyn, 24. “Our regular customers are all from perhaps 10 or 15 miles away. It’s people that want fresh produce, people that do a lot of home cooking, or canning, or things like that. In the summer especially, people will stop by to pick up whatever they know is fresh. Fall is the only time that we get a lot of people from Pittsburgh or further out.”
This time last year I wrote about my late-discovered love for the Northern Spy apple. All the local fruit mongers tell me that you can’t find them in this area. They’re wrong. Schramm’s Northern Spys come in in mid-October, and I’ll be first in line to buy a bushel. If you show up today, you’ll be able to buy Jonathans, Jonagolds, Cortlands, Honeycrisp, various Delicious varieties, Empires, and several other varietals that have slipped my mind. It is a festival of apples. I bought a peck of superb Cortlands for about $8.50. Schramm’s cider is, regrettably, pasteurized — it is not even legal to sell unpasteurized cider anymore, it’s actually easier to find raw milk — but it’s quite good nonetheless.
It’s not just apples and cider, of course: you can find many fruits and vegetables. Since this is Pennsylvania, and not California, you’re not likely to find anything terribly exotic, but what you do find will be very good. Not all of the produce is local, but it’s all clearly marked (“our own”, “local”, or other) so you can decide accordingly. The squash and pumpkins are great right now.
I know enough about farming to know a few things. I know that I would never want to be a farmer, and I know that I’m very glad that there are people who do. Carolyn Schramm says, “The worst part is the 24/7 job that it is — you can never really escape it, because one, it’s a business, and two, it’s farming. The best part is it gets in your blood. You feel connected to the earth, you feel like you’re doing something useful. You feel that your work is worthwhile, and part of the community.”
So when you buy apples at a place like Schramm’s, you’re getting produce that is fresh, interesting, inexpensive, you’re supporting the local economy, and you’re helping real farmers, rather than Archer Daniels-Midland, earn their livelihood. There is absolutely no downside to the equation.
Schramm’s is currently in the middle of their Fall Festival now, all through October, so it’s an especially good time to visit: pick up a pumpkin, drink some hot apple cider, eat a caramel apple, and generally enjoy the crisp fall air. There are activities and a small playgorund for kids, and an enjoyable atmosphere for everyone. Take a drive out east and buy some apples.
Just don’t get between me and my Northern Spys.
Schramm’s Farm is on Harrison City-Export Road near Jeannette, PA, and they can be reached at (724) 744-7320. For more information, visit their website.