YORKTOWN, N.Y. - Weathering hurricanes, Prohibition and a changing agricultural landscape, Wilkens Fruit and Fir Farm in Yorktown has stood the test of time. Now, the family-run farm is celebrating its 100th anniversary and inviting the community to take part.
The farm, owned by the Wilkens-Pratt family, is a go-to spot for fruit picking, Christmas tree chopping and seasonal baked goods. This year, in honor of its centennial, the family is offering special promotions and giveaways, including free bags of apples, bottles of cider and apple cider donuts. The farm has also created a corn maze that spells out “100 years.”
“People love our apple cider donuts,” said Kristamarie Pratt, daughter of owners Randy Pratt and Barbie Wilkens Pratt.
In one of the property’s original barns, which is now home to the bakery, hangs a family tree with photos. In the center of five generations of family portraits is a framed photo of the founder, John Frederick Wilkens, who, in partnership with his sister, Anna Wilkens, and Jeremiah Murphy, purchased 71 of the 180 acres that make up the farm today. Murphy later purchased 105 more acres.
At the time of purchase, the property was a successful all-purpose farm that raised cattle and grew apples and peaches. In the early 1920s, Wilkens built a cider mill on the property. By 1926, John and Anna Wilkens were able to pay off their mortgage to Murphy using money Wilkens had earned selling and delivering hard cider to thirsty New Yorkers during the Prohibition era, thus giving them full ownership of the land.
As the years rolled by, the farm continued to develop and the land was filled out by varieties of apple, peach and other fruit trees. Corn and chickens also had a place on the farm and the cider mill’s production was ramped to 18 hours a day. In 1966, John Frederick Wilkens passed away. His nephew, Johnny Wilkens, and his wife, Barbara Keller Wilkens, took over the business.
Up until 1968, the farm’s goods had been sold wholesale. That year, however, a hurricane swept through the area, shaking fruit off of many trees. The Wilkens’ opened the farm to the public for the first time that year as a pick-your-own operation and it continues to operate that way today.
In the early 1970s, the first Christmas trees were planted to replace dying peach trees and extend the fall season. They were available for cutting by 1976. The only remaining wholesale item on the farm was the cider; however, in the 1970s, juice concentrate emerged and sales dropped. It is still sold at the farm today.
The farm would see more changes in the coming decades, including the death of Johnny Wilkens in 1997 and the third-generation takeover of the farm. Current owners Randy Pratt and Barbie Wilkens Pratt had been learning the ins and outs of the business for a few years. When Johnny Wilkens passed, Manhattan lawyer Randy Pratt traded in his suit and tie for fresh air and more flexible hours.
“I had always had an interest in working outside and wanted to operate a business,” he said. “This was an opportunity to do so.”
Since then, pumpkins were added to the mix, the bakery was developed and five grape varieties were planted. This fall, the farm will open a winery called White Hill Vineyard. Sisters Katrina Pratt and Stephanie Pratt are at the helm of that operation.
“It’s still very much a family-run business,” said Kristamarie Pratt. “We’re all very involved.”
During the week, all family members hold day jobs but help out on the farm during evenings and weekends for the love of it. Barbie Wilkens Pratt is the director of international refrigerated cargo transportation for Maersk Line; Kristamarie Pratt is an assistant professor of physical therapy at the University of Hartford; Katrina Pratt is a structural engineer for Tishman in New York City; and Stephanie Pratt is a recent law school graduate.
The family cannot predict exactly what will happen in the next 100 years; however, Randy Pratt plans to maintain the farm’s main business model and perhaps develop the winery further to include hard cider.
To celebrate with the Wilkens-Pratt family, visitors can stop by through mid-December, daily, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For specific pick-your own times and for other events, visit wilkensfarm.com.