Boggios Take Pride in the Orchard, Garden and Entertainment Business They Created

Image credit: Putnam County Record
They built the business; who’ll take over?

Everybody knows Boggio’s Orchard is for sale and closed for the season, but the owners have absolutely no intention for it to cease operations.

And, while they’re willing to retire, somewhat, they certainly weren’t behaving like inactive retirees in a recent interview. In fact, they’re planning for their planting and products for their next year in business.

Keith and Denise Boggio rested at lunchtime before he climbed back into the combine to finish picking corn and before Denise headed out with her crossbow to hunt deer.

If they receive the price they’re seeking, and more important, find a buyer who wants to operate the orchard and entertainment business, then they would sell.

“I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t wish this was the last year. But the last year isn’t going to come until that right person comes along,” Keith said.

“We’ve worked too hard to just let it go by the wayside,” Denise added.

Denise is a four-year breast cancer survivor, which made her think more about what she and they want.

“We want to start living our lives a little bit. Every summer we watch people go by with all their boats and all their toys and we’re working our butts off in the fields,” Denise said. “Keith wants to spend more time with the grandkids.”

He interjects: “They won’t be thrilled if it sells.”

“It’s like their own playground,” Denise noted.

It took years of hard work and sweat and callous-building to turn Boggio’s Orchard into what it is today. In addition to selling sweet corn, pumpkins, squash, apples, mums, apple cider, cider doughnuts and pies, the Boggios turned their land between Mark and Granville into a major tourist and family attraction.

On weekends from Labor Day through Halloween, they draw their biggest crowds — 10,000 to 12,000 people sometimes. In addition to selling everything from produce to jam, they set up many scenes for children’s photo opportunities, have a pedal-car track and other activities for the kids, and run a petting zoo with everything from unusual chickens to Carmel the camel.

Keith says he knows the previous camel owner broke Carmel to ride, but he doesn’t even have the camel pull a cart or carry anything. At 1,800 pounds and as strong as a draft horse, he just worries about keeping Carmel fed. The camel’s a star for photo sessions in the petting zoo.

Though the Boggios closed for the season after Halloween — cold temperatures and snow caused crowds to decline remarkably — Carmel still had a professional gig over the holidays, taking part in a live nativity in Walnut.

“He plays a camel,” Denise notes, chuckling.

Keith said there was a time when he told Denise he “didn’t want any part of” offering activities and attractions in addition to selling apples, pumpkins, Indian corn and the like.

“Actually I said I didn’t want my farm turned into a circus,” Keith said.

However, one winter Denise persuaded Keith to travel with her to a convention in Canada, to share ideas and learn from people who added entertainment at their farms.

They continued to travel to North American Direct Farmers Marketing Association events for about 12 years, and continued to add attractions that drew bigger crowds of shoppers.

Keith wound up loving those trips, mining for ideas and implementing them. Looking back, Keith wished they had built their original sales floor larger, and a larger bakery and processing area when they did expansions.

But, the decisions they made helped them make a living without a mountain of debt, and helped them send their kids to school.

“The only limitation in this business is your imagination and your drive,” Boggio said.
Keith said they’re selling, in part, because they’re fortunate enough that their kids have good jobs and don’t need or have the time to operate the orchard business.

How it started

Keith’s dad, Joe, noticed an apple shortage in the early 1970s and decided to plant some of his ground as an orchard.

“This was the only farm ground he owned, so he came up here and planted trees on corn-and-bean ground. At that time, everybody considered him the goofiest person in the county because he was planting apple trees on black land. Anyway, he planted the orchard with the understanding that someday we would be partners with him,” Keith said of himself and his siblings. Then, “the bad economics of the ‘80s nearly bankrupted him.”

So, Keith and Denise pretty much have a self-made business.

“The bank was going to take the farm away from him (debt interest was in the 14 percent range), so we worked out a deal where we would buy 50 acres of farmland from him and the bank and he would get to retain 50 acres from the bank. So that’s how we ended up here,” Keith said. “We were taught how to farm, but we didn’t inherit anything.”

Joe had gone into the farming business with his dad, Keith’s grandfather, in the 1950s, helping to operate a vegetable farm on Boggio’s Hill west of Mark as well as sweet corn and other produce fields along old Route 26 on the north side of Hennepin.

Keith and Denise quietly launched their business in 1989, selling apples from a tent and also selling to local grocers such as Ferretti’s, Denler’s and EconoFoods. They did not start selling right away at their Route 71 location because they agreed to not compete against the Boggio’s Country Market produce business at Hennepin. They opened their first building to serve customers in 1992.

Now Keith and Denise have about 1,800 apple trees in an orchard that’s a half mile long. He is planning to plant a high-density orchard for guests who increasingly ask to pick their own apples. Adding a high-density plot with 400 trees per acre instead of 100 should make the property more attractive and valuable to a buyer, as it should get into production quickly and satisfy visitors’ request for “you-pick.”

Denise and Keith don’t need to fertilize for their trees to flourish, and actually they employ a lot of help to rake up clippings and branches when they trim excess growth off the trees in the orchard in late fall.

“Our land is so fertile that the trees grow twice as many branches,” Denise says.

A source of frustration

The Boggios plant produce on land near the business on Route 71 as well as the large gardens in Hennepin south of Old Highway 26 and west of Route 26 near Keith’s sister’s restaurant.

This year, deer ate almost all of their beet plants and almost 1,500 of their muskmelon plants at the Hennepin garden — they left the watermelon alone.

“The deer in town are horrible. They know where to go,” Denise says.

Denise is aggravated because the village enacted a rule against anyone shooting a bow and arrow within village limits between Coffee Creek and Old 26. Denise says year after year, does bring their fawns to eat in their vegetable gardens, and then those fawns grow up and bring their fawns, and so on.

Keith says they’ve gone from having six deer in the garden at night to 20.

Deer also eat some of the sweet corn, but nothing like the destruction of the melon plants.

The Boggios are preparing to plant again next year, no matter what.

“This will be my 42nd year in farming, and when you plant something, you know the animals are going to eat some of it and you can tolerate that. But when they wipe out an entire crop …”

Even if the business sells, Keith does not intend to get out of the sweet corn business. He said he worked for years to develop his techniques for growing and picking what he thinks is the best sweet corn, and he’d like to keep going to shows.

He said he was at a farmers market in LaSalle County once when one vendor was dealing with a buying frenzy, and he wasn’t selling much sweet corn. Boggio still laughs, because the vendor had purchased Boggio’s corn to sell.

A source of pride

The Boggios also take pride in lessons they’ve taught employees through the years. Denise said they pay their employees a good wage, and “most of them come back every year.”

They both said they like to start employees when they’re entering high school so they can train them and they can learn and become proficient by the time they stop doing season work after high school graduation or a year at college.

“You teach them things that school doesn’t,” Keith says, mentioning tasks that take a bit of math, such as calibrating a sprayer. Their employees also can get an informal, hands-on taste of some of the trades.

“They can learn everything,” Keith says, listing a few such as how to do some wiring, how to grease equipment, some mechanical skills, even concrete work. “You have to be willing to learn.”

Both Keith and Denise say it’s harder to find high school-age help today than it was 20 years ago — many of the hard-working kids are heavily involved in sports and activities. Some of their returning workers lately have been involved in FFA, such as, this year, Carter Trone, who’s one of the Putnam County FFA officers.

Denise takes great pride when former employees come to see her after growing up. She also has had parents tell them they were good influences on their son or daughter.

She leafs through a scrapbook filled with photos from constructing buildings, Keith’s dad, Joe Sr., on the antique Allis Chalmers G rear-engine tractor they still use for cultivating.

Denise comes across a letter from Sean Egan.

Egan had worked for four years for the Boggios and was in Iraq, finishing a box of apple juice. It made him think of apple cider and the Boggios.

So, the member of The Banshees (Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squad) requested that the U.S. flag be flown over camp that day in the Boggios’ honor. He then shipped the flag to them.

Source: Putnam County Record