PENROSE • In case you’ve never been to Happy Apple Farm, here’s a working to-do list. You’ve got to buy some apple cider and maybe a jar of jam. And take a hay ride down the gravel road to pick a pumpkin. If it’s a Saturday, you’ve got to try the homemade apple cider doughnuts and smoked barbecue, preferably while sitting at a picnic table.
And you’ve got to say hello to Tony. You probably won’t have much of a choice, though, before Tony says hello to you.
The owner of the farm doubles as the heart of the place, meaning it’s nearly impossible to visit without seeing him and his big smile.
Tony Ferrara has been here since the early 1980s, when he left his banking job to help his parents on the farm. On any given day, he’s here giving hay rides or in the country store, asking people where they’re from and calling a stranger “dear.” He’s also in the pumpkin patch, telling a little boy to go get an ice cream cone on him. “Tell them Tony sent you,” he says. “Don’t forget your ice cream,” he says as the boy and his parents walk back to the store.
Whatever he’s doing, people find Tony to tell them how long they’ve been coming here. It’s their way of celebrating fall together.
“It’s all about family,” Tony says. “This is a family tradition. And we hope everyone is treated like family here.”
It’s tradition for Ross Jarvis, who visited on a recent afternoon with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. When asked what brings him to the farm, he gestures to the surrounding trees and fields.
“Look at it,” he says.“You’re surrounded by nature. You don’t have to worry about nothing.”
And then he points to Tony.
“There’s the man right there,” Jarvis said, before he speaks truth to Tony’s hopes. “He’s like family. He makes everybody feel like family.”
Each weekend feels something like a family reunion with people coming from Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Denver. And like any big family, Tony confesses he doesn’t remember every face and name, even when someone calls him “Uncle Tony.”
“They search for me and tell me they’ve been coming for 20 years,” he says. “It means the world to me when people tell me how much they love it here. It makes all the hard work worth it.”
Talking about it makes Tony tear up, and he explains it’s because he’s an easy crier (“I think it’s the Italian in me,” he says) and because he’s exhausted.
He often works 16 hours a day. It’s harder when some of the work doesn’t pay off. Like all of those empty apple trees.
Tony answers each phone call to the farm and returns each message. Recently, his boisterous voice has answered with a more solemn tone when he has to break the news to customers.
“We don’t have any apples this year,” he says slowly through a stubborn Alabama accent left over from his childhood.
The farm lost its entire apple crop after an April freeze. This is the fourth year out of six without an apple crop.
“It breaks my heart,” Tony says. “My biggest fear is disappointing somebody.”
At the same time, he’s used to being at the mercy of the weather. “I don’t want to say I’m numb to it,” he says. “But there’s nothing you can do.”
That’s why he learned a long time ago to diversify the farm, which his parents started after his father retired from the military. It was always their dream to end up in Colorado. Now that both his parents have died, Tony wants to keep the dream alive.
“As a farmer, you find ways to survive,” he said. “And you hope it’s better next year. “You’ve got to be positive. You’ve got to be the most optimistic person in the world.”
He says it’s easier to be positive with help from several of his family members who work on the farm. And from his wife, who makes pies and crafts when she’s not working as an ophthalmologist technician at a local hospital. Fittingly, her name is Hope.
“She’s my rock,” Tony says.
When Tony came to town about 25 years ago, he’d go to the nearby farmers market and hand out flowers and bags of apples to get the word out about Happy Apple Farm. His strategy attracted some visitors.
“If we had 10 people a day, we were excited,” he said.
That grew a little each year. Now, he can count on at least 1,000 visitors per weekend. They come for the pumpkin patch and treats at the store. And to see Tony.
So far this year, there’s been more visitors than ever.
“Our opening day was our busiest opening day ever,” Tony said. “And that’s with no apples.”
He thinks the coronavirus pandemic has something to do with it. After being cooped up at home, he says “people are so desperate for something to do outside.”
“I never would’ve guessed it,” he says of the surge in business. “It’s the worst year ever and here’s a silver lining.”
When Coloradans search for a U-Pick farm, Happy Apple is one of the first to come up. Others include the nearby Jenkins Farms, which is supplementing its lost apple crop by shipping in apples from the Western Slope as well as apple cider and local honey. The farm recently opened Western Skies Winery, so visitors also can enjoy wine tastings.
Like Jenkins, Happy Apple Farm also has brought in outside apples and other items to sell, because customers expect some kind of apples at an apple orchard.
There’s one thing that Tony won’t do to stay in business: Take money for admission or hay rides.
“If I charged admission, I’d be a millionaire,” he said.
But it doesn’t feel right. He likes the idea of giving families something free to do.
“To charge someone to come in … I don’t see why it’s fair,” Tony said. “We never have and we never will.”
It’s what makes Happy Apple Farm the kind of place that doesn’t feel commercialized. All the decorations, like those face-in-hole boards, are homemade. And all the workers are family.
Like Dennis Roth, Tony’s brother-in-law, who says visitors have seemed happier than ever to be on a hay ride or walking around a pumpkin patch.
“They maybe kind of forget what’s going on in the world, all the junk, when they’re here,” he said. “I know I do.”