Apples. Hard cider. Weddings. Wine. Hustle. Hope. Debt. It’s all in the mix for the eighth-generation orchard as it looks to generation nine and the future.

TURNER — The new, bright-red Bucher apple press sticks out in the old barn that is the center of Ricker Hill Orchards’ cider operation, a high-tech giant half the size of a dump truck.

In the 1970s, using an old rack and cloth press, “if I worked my butt off all day, I could produce 3,000 gallons,” said Jeff Timberlake, 60. “This thing right here will do 3,000 gallons in an hour and a half.”

Whirlwind speed, at a price.

“This is the $1 million we spent last year,” said Timberlake, walking through the barn.

The farm lost its Hannaford cider contract after buying the press. That stung.

The loss came on the heels of a poor apple crop.


This year’s crop? Not so hot, either.

“Chipmunks and squirrels and turkeys are becoming the world’s biggest nuisance,” Timberlake said . “That’s why we do what we do, that we can hopefully cover the curves.”

Ricker Hill Orchards’ public face is U-Pick apples, happy goats, seas of pumpkins, seas of kids, bags of plump fruit, gorgeous views, a cold beverage on a Friday night and warm apple cider doughnuts made while you watch.

Privately, there’s a lot of investment, hustle and hope.

After a calculated 20-year expansion, the sixth, seventh and eighth generations of Rickers are in apples, hard cider, wine, weddings, grapes, pumpkins, cranberries, vinegar, disc golf, doughnuts and Halloween scares.

“We’re looking for ways to diversify,” said Harry Ricker, 57. “We’ve accumulated many millions of dollars of debt — it does drive the hustle.”



John Swett started farming what’s now Ricker Hill back in 1803.

“They came over on foot (from Buckfield) and cleared that hilltop,” said George Ricker, 86. “They cleared 100 acres, eventually. I’m sure they didn’t clear it all then, although that’s the way the family tells it.”

Swett’s daughter married Albion Ricker, who bought a half-interest in the farm and inherited the rest when John died.

“Virtually each generation expanded the holdings,” George said. “My brother and I were small children when they purchased back the town farm from whence they came, and then shortly after that, Churchill Farm, that lay between them.”

For the first 100-plus years, the farm grew a little of everything, including potatoes and corn, with a small dairy. (The entire herd may or may not have been wiped out one day by a lightning strike, another family tale.)


George remembers reading a 40-year-old speech from the Maine State Pomological Society to his grandfather around 1945, “saying that apples are going to be important, they’re going to remain important, but they certainly never should be considered the main crop, certainly not the whole crop.

“He said, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous.’ I said, ‘Well, you said it.’ It was his grandfather’s speech. ‘Well, I’ve learned,’ he says.”

By the middle of the last century, apples started to reign.

The Rickers today farm 400 acres, 360 of it apples, in Greene, Auburn, Turner, Harrison, Bridgton, Minot and Hebron, making them either the largest or second-largest growers in the state among Maine’s 80 apple farms, according to Renae Moran at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

They trade the top ranking, depending on the latest acquisition, with Cooper Farms in West Paris.

Some land has been bought and some leased as neighbors folded or opportunity arose.


“When my father was quite elderly,” George said, “we were driving along one day and there were eight or 10 apple trees in a little field right beside us. ‘Don’t tell your brother, he’ll buy it,'” George’s father said.

George, a retired teacher and family historian, farmed under duress as a kid. He didn’t want that job. His only sibling, Don, did.

And still does.

He’s 82. As Timberlake sat down in one of two rustic cider-tasting rooms to talk about the family’s vast holdings, Don was outside on a forklift, a regular place to find him, even though his older brother wishes he’d give that and driving tractors a rest.

Not going to happen, Don said, nor is retirement. A few weeks in Florida is plenty.

“You don’t climb up the ladder much,” Don said. “I’m doing the same job I was 70 years ago. Some days, it even gets exciting.”



Don married Timberlake’s mother when Jeff was young, creating a his (Harry), hers (Jeff) and ours (Peter) family. Ask them and they’re all just brothers.

When Timberlake and Harry decided after college they’d like to come back, work included tightening rows of apples and increasing yields to cover more paychecks.

Pick-your-own began 20 to 30 years ago to bring more people, and revenue, to the farm.

In 1997, they planted cranberries after a national spike in popularity.

“Then the cranberry market went to hell the next year,” Timberlake said. “Everybody put them in.”


They still farm 12 acres of their popular “bigger, better and redder” berries.

Five years ago, they bought land in Greene, planted apples, as well as wine and table grapes, built a tasting room and converted a post-and-beam barn into a rustic wedding venue, opening Vista of Maine Vineyard & Cidery.

“We’ve had eight weddings (a year) the last few years,” Harry said. “Next year, we’ve booked it for 16. I’d say it’s been discovered. More of them are from out of state.”

Four years ago, Ricker Hill Hard Cider hit the market, followed by farm-label wine. The hard cider’s up to 14 flavors, the wine, four.

Three years ago, the Nightmare on the Ridge haunted Halloween walk debuted at Wallingford’s Fruit House, which the Rickers have leased and run since 2008.

“(Peter’s) made it into quite an event,” Timberlake said. “My grandson won’t go on it — all his friends tell him it’s too scary.”


What’s really scary, and the reason for the new ventures: what the apple market’s done the past 20 years.

Since the 1990s, at least 80 percent of commercial apple growers in New England have gone out of business, according to Harry, “and it hasn’t been great ever since.”

Moran, the fruit tree specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Highmoor Farm in Monmouth, said supermarket consolidation gave grocers “more power in determining the price of apples. That really weakens the whole industry.”

Add to that aging farmers and children who didn’t want to take over the orchards and it meant a lot of exits, she said.


When it comes to crop, farmers “always describe it from a different perspective, how much money they’re making and whether or not they can pay their bills. I describe it from a perspective of the quality of the fruit and the size of the yield, total bushels produced in the state,” Moran said.


By her measure, yield is down a little this year, but the quality is better.

Ricker Hill Orchards today sells apples wholesale to Hannaford, Shaw’s and Food City.

“What has been good is the buy-local,” Harry said. “We used to ship to Europe, to the Caribbean, to Central America, Florida on up. Now, 95 percent of our food is sold in Maine and eastern New Hampshire, where we’re local. We’ve evolved to just supplying those accounts, and they’re willing to pay a little bit more so that we can do it.”

They’d like to get the farm’s organic raw apple cider vinegar with “mother” (enzymes and good bacteria left in) back on store shelves. Harry said that sold well for several years until 2012.

“It became very popular for health reasons, (but) ours didn’t mature (in a barrel) for like a year and a half,” Harry said. “We had 5,000 gallons of it. It just wasn’t maturing. Our accounts found other suppliers.”

In 2015, they bought a vinegar acetator to speed up the process, able to make 300 gallons a day instead of a year’s-long wait, but once capable of ramping up, Harry said they weren’t prepared for new charges by grocery stores for room on produce shelves that hadn’t been charged to local farmers before.


“They want big dollars to get back in that space,” he said. “It’s one of the dirty little parts of the industry that you’ve got to understand, you’ve got to figure it into the price. I offer a really low price. I couldn’t offer that price (paying) $20,000 for a slot (on shelves). We never sold enough to make $20,000 profit.”

He has ideas. Maybe sell the vinegar on Amazon, maybe an eBay store. 

“We’d like to increase our online presence,” Harry said. “As we ramp down the wholesale apple business, we need to ramp up other stuff.”

In making the bold moves of the past decade to stay competitive, there’s been risk pursuing reward.

“When we went into the business with Vista, we took on a bunch of debt,” Harry said. “When we went into the hard cider, we took on a bunch of debt. We lost a bunch of money a couple years to create more debt.”

The public sees the family getting into so many businesses and “people think that we’re getting rich,” Timberlake said. “We’ve got huge bank loans we have to pay. We try to survive and try to be good neighbors, because it’s what we love to do.”



Workdays on the farm start at 7 a.m. with a family meeting in a small office with three chairs and seven people. 

It’s a half-hour to catch up on goings-on.

“Everybody says, ‘How do family businesses survive?’ Well, it’s really hard,” Timberlake said. “We’re all strong-minded, strong-willed, so we look at what each one of us likes and what our specialties are and what is it going to take to keep this family together, because family’s important.”

Timberlake, a state legislator termed out of the House of Representatives this year and running for a state Senate seat, specializes in mechanics and maintenance. Harry, in commercial farming and Vista of Maine. Peter, 45, in Wallingford’s and Nightmare.

Harry’s son Andy oversees hard cider operations and tasting rooms; another son, Sam, is in commercial farming with him. Timberlake’s son-in-law, Steve, oversees farm-wide IT and runs the Turner farm stand.


Don’s in trucking and marketing.

They have 30 to 45 year-round employees and up to 200 workers during the fall apple harvest.

The farm’s ninth generation — now mostly young teens — has started to pitch in.

“They do all the jobs that they don’t want to do,” Timberlake said, like picking up dropped apples.

It’s too early to tell whether any are serious about someday taking over operations and he’s a little wistful about wishing it on them.

“Every farmer wants his kids to be a farmer,” he said. “Then, as you get older, you say, ‘Why did I talk him into that?'”


Working with family has “its trials and tribulations,” Harry said. “Just like anything when you work 80 hours a week, you get tired and grumpy.” But, that said, “It’s nice to look back at the family history and think that we can keep it going.”

Peter, the youngest of the seventh generation, feels good about the future. The current goal is to give attention to the ventures they’re in and make them profitable, he said.

“Everybody has their hill they’ve got to climb every once in a while, and we’re climbing a hill right now just because we’ve had a major growth spurt,” Peter said. “I’d say (I’m) very optimistic.”

Apples are washed on their way to being pressed in the Ricker Hill Cider room in Turner. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Jeff Timberlake poses for a photo sitting on top of his favorite forklift at Vista of Maine Vineyard and Cidery in Greene. Timberlake oversees machinery upkeep for the family farm, Ricker Hill Orchards. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)


An aerial photo of Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner on Tuesday, Oct. 16. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Aerial)

Vista of Maine Vineyard & Cidery in Greene, which includes a post-and-beam wedding barn, was added to the Ricker Hill enterprises five years ago. The property also features a cider-tasting room, apple orchards and grape vineyards. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Vista of Maine Vineyard & Cidery in Greene has booked eight weddings a year for the past several years and already has 16 planned for next year, according to Harry Ricker. He believes it’s a sign that the venue has been discovered. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Harry Ricker describes the process in which Ricker Hill Orchards’ new apple sonogram checks the core of the apple for imperfections and then sorts the apples for packing and cider-making. Jeff Timberlake said the machine was a $250,000 investment for the farm. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Cider-maker Justin Lagassey stands next to the new German Bucher cider press at Ricker Hill Orchards in Turner. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Stephanie Baker works on the line packing apples using new, state-of-the-art technology that automatically sorts apples for packing by size. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)


Workers at Ricker Hill Orchards harvest cranberries in a bog at the Turner farm on October 16, 2018. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Aerial)

Apples head into a sonogram where the insides of the apple are examined and apples are automatically taken out of production if decay is detected. The machine also sorts apples by size. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Ricker family historian George Ricker is a sixth-generation Ricker. He chose not to stay on the farm and instead chose a career in teaching. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

John Swett started farming what’s now Ricker Hill back in 1803. He and his wife, Remember, are pictured above. Their daughter, Sarah Swett, married Albion Ricker, who carried on the farming tradition.

The Ricker family tree’s farmers

First generation: John Swett, clears the hill and starts farming in 1803

Second generation: Albion Ricker (John’s son-in-law)


Third generation: Albion Swett Ricker

Fourth generation: William Ricker

Fifth generation: Albion Ricker

Sixth generation: Don Ricker

Seventh generation: Jeff Timberlake, Harry Ricker and Peter Ricker

Eighth generation: Andy and Sam Ricker, Steve Maheu (Jeff’s son-in-law)


Source: Family historian George Ricker

Albion Ricker, second generation 

Albion Swett Ricker, third generation 

William Ricker, fourth generation

Albion Ricker and his wife, Mabel, fifth generation 

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