In the 1950s, James and Julia Norkus were tired of the city life in Pittsburgh, so they left in search of peace and quiet in the country. They wanted to live on one of three different kinds of businesses: An orchard, a golf course or a pig farm. Their son, Mike Norkus, is eternally grateful they chose an orchard over a pig farm. He would have been OK with the golf course, though.
And ever since, in Salem, Ohio, the Norkus family grows the best peaches around – and apples, too.
Talk a little bit about your family farming history
James and Julia Norkus put down roots in Salem, Ohio after leaving Pittsburgh in search of life in the country. They didn’t know the first thing about farming but they wanted to raise a family away from Pittsburg and have a more natural way of life. They bought the orchard where the family still lives and learned from the previous owner of the land how to grow peaches and apples. They also got advice from other nearby growers, who were friendly and free with their help. Norkus Orchards started in 1954 and its still family run.
What makes your orchard unique?
At Norkus, they are known for the freshest, sweetest juiciest peaches you’ll ever eat and there is a reason why they are so tasty. The Norkus family waits until the exact right moment to pick their peaches – they won’t pick them when they are green. They pick them just before they are ready, when they are still firm but will ripen – and soften – in a few days so when they arrive at the grocery store, they are absolute perfection. They pride themselves on the taste of their peaches because they pick them properly – and it’s a nerve-wracking time waiting on the perfect day to pick. Peaches don’t hold their freshness, which makes them persnickety. But they are worth it.
And growing “kitchen sink peaches,” meaning people eating them have to lean over the sink so the juice doesn’t drip down your front, is why they do what they do. That, and hearing their customers say their peaches are the best they’ve ever eaten.
Talk a little about your processes
There’s always something to be done at Norkus Orchards, and there really isn’t any downtime. There is always planting, pruning, spraying, mowing and checking on the bees to be done. And peaches are a lot of work, meaning you can’t just let them blossom and grow. You have to make sure you only are growing the right amount of fruit per tree, or you’ll end up with small and tasteless fruit.
What’s your seasonal growing schedule?
Peach season kicks off in early July and wraps up around early September, and so thus, overlaps with apple season. Norkus has peaches and apples as well as some nectarines and plums, too. When peaches are done in September, they are done for the year. But with cold storage, the Norkus family can pack and ship apples well into March. They grow 21 varieties of apples, including Honeycrisp, Evercrisp and Pink Lady.
Tell us about the members of your modern family farm
Mike Norkus is the self-described No. 1 in command of the operation, and he’s assisted by son James. The father-and-son team work together on food safety, planting, pruning, spraying, picking and packing.
Daughters Amanda and Jessica also work part-time for the family orchard, picking and packing apples and peaches. Amanda also does the books.
And you’ll also find some grandchildren around helping out too, when they aren’t in school.
How has Fresh Forward helped your business?
James Norkus Sr. was a member of the organization that became Fresh Forward almost from the beginning of his farming journey. The family is grateful to the co-op, as they are a wholesale farm – although they do have a small, local farm stand for loyal customers and peach enthusiasts. Fresh Forward’s help, especially in the last few years, has proved invaluable and allowed the family to focus on growing fruit.
What is the future of the family business?
The future of Norkus Orchards is secure, with plans to expand always in the works. James Jr. will take over one day and they are at a point where they could sell more fruit than they currently grow and so the family is looking for more land to rent or buy to expand operations. Even during the COVID-19 global pandemic they thrived and keep chugging along.
What skills do you have that makes you successful at farming?
Their success boils down to an intense focus on quality. Everything they do, they do to provide people with the best quality fruit they can. And that means they focus on the small things, like knowing the precise day to pick peaches and how to pack apples just so. Lots of people can grow fruit, but the Norkus family knows how to pick it and pack it so you can enjoy it – just like it came from your backyard.
Norkus Orchards is at 36500 Perry Grange Rd in Salem, Ohio. They are mostly a wholesale farm, and you can find their peaches and apples in many local and national retailers and grocery stores.
Fresh Forward is a family farm cooperative representing members who grow, package and distribute apples and other produce across the Great Lakes region. Founded in 1957, our vertically-integrated organization continues to lead the way in buyer education, product brokering and purchasing, quality control and safety standards. We foster strong partnerships with produce growers who have cultivated their land for generation after generation. Together, we remain rooted in our commitment to deliver fresh, healthy produce to our consumers’ plates.