October 06, 2005

Schramm Farms

by peterb

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.

Posted by peterb at October 6, 2005 05:41 PM | Bookmark This

With all due respect, Pete, you have people who have lived and worked in Squirrel Hill for a decade or more, and who never go downtown.

factoid of the week, by the way, Pittsburgh has the second and third largest urban areas in PA (Philly has the first).

Posted by Mike Collins at October 6, 2005 11:38 PM

Your 'far' definition actually reaches as far east as State College, where I lived for a few years. A little funny, considering the place owes its existence to tens of thousands of individuals who come from around the world. When I announced my intention to pull up stakes and move to the Chicagoland area, where 15 miles still falls within 'near', I was ostracized as one of those fool Bagginses for daring to acknowlege a world beyond the Shire.

We had Way's Fruit Farm out there, similar to Schramm's. Not being a connoisseur I would typically just get a bag of Golden Delicious and take the kids on the hayride to get pumpkins. And throughout the summer, we would stop at many a plywood sign indicating the sale of "bushel sweet corn" and "strawberry's".

I assume the same thing goes on to a lesser extent here in IL, but without the tilting against coal trucks throught a maze of twisting roadways, all alike, it's not the same.

Posted by Tim F at October 7, 2005 08:57 AM

Now is when I do a Nelson-like "ha ha" and tell you that there's a cider mill that sells unpasteurized cider only 10 minutes from me.

And that I have a friend who will give me a bushel of non-commercially sweet apples that I can feed into a juicer (I don't have a cider press, but my wife's yoga instructor has what is basically an industrial juicer). And then I'll have a good mix for making hard cider.

Now I laugh at your Pennsylvania ways and decree that Upstate NY rules.

Posted by Shelby Davis at October 7, 2005 09:12 AM

Man, I love a good orchard. I used to live downtown, and I can say there are reasons some folks never make it there from the surrounding country, not least of which is the giant alligator infested moat around the golden triangle with ungodly traffic over its bridges and tunnels from the south side that are only open and uncongested when the local transportation departments feel generous.

I used to drive down to Bridgeville to go to the movies. Getting back depended on luck.

Now I want APPLES.

Posted by OGHC at October 7, 2005 10:28 AM

"fool Bagginses". Ha. I like that. Except Baggins returned, and this ain't no Shire.

Posted by Amos the Poker Cat at October 7, 2005 10:38 PM

On the isolation of town and farm . . . more back and forth might have correlated to a broader suburban sprawl. (But I don't know whether more back and forth would have CAUSED suburban sprawl, or been a RESULT of it . . . ) In any case, I'm often impressed with how quick and dramatic the transition is between town and farm. You can "get out" of Pittsburgh more quickly than Philadelphia, where you have to wade through New Jersey suburbs, or the Main Line or Delco or King of Prussia or . . . Clearly this is a question of when and what kind and how much economic development the city sustained . . . And if we like it, it's something we might want to be conscious of and preserve. I frankly have no idea if Pittsburgh has any sprawl legislation, as Portland OR does to promote dense growth in city or county limits . . .

PS. What about produce delivery???!!

Posted by zp at October 10, 2005 10:10 AM

Thank you for posting this. Whole Foods sold out of Spys far too quickly last year, and I'd much prefer to buy them from a local farm. Too bad about the unpasteurised cider - I thought it was just hard to come by, not actually illegal. Is this strictly a PA law, or is the FDA responsible? I've only had it once, at an apple festival in upstate NY about 5 years ago.

Posted by april at October 10, 2005 10:08 PM

I've lived in Penn Township m whole life. Not only does Schramm's have great fresh produce, but the girls out there are pretty darn good looking. Woowee!

Posted by Rory at October 11, 2005 08:22 AM

Great weekly organic produce delivery from some fantastic people up around Zelienople:


They also make chicken and beef from some of their neighbors available occasionally.

Not for everyone, but it nice to not have to go grocery shopping all summer long... and also nice to always be eating with the seasons.

Posted by monkeyboy at October 17, 2005 03:07 PM

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