John Bzdil was living it up in Manhattan when the call of home with its central Pennsylvania rolling hills kept knocking. He found himself coming back home to Sunbury often, and decided to move back.
That was eight years ago, and the timing was perfect. His aunt and uncle, Mary and Ken Dries, hired him at their family business, Dries Orchards, in Sunbury to work in payroll, finances, and sales – and a little bit of everything else.
Now, the Dries are in the process of turning over their 60-year business to their daughter, Heidi Dries-Stahl, son-in-law Michael Stahl, and Bzdil to run. To help bring in even more revenue, Bzdil partnered with SEDA-COG’s Procurement Technical Assistance Center to sell produce to the federal prison system. Because of the contracts SEDA-COG helped them secure, Dries Orchards sold almost $48,000 worth of produce to the U.S. Penitentiary in Lewisburg and over $25,000 worth of produce to the Federal Correctional Complex in Allenwood last year.
The federal prison system pays them quickly and reliably, Bzdil said. “They make it really easy – as soon as you deliver those apples, you’re paid within a day. It’s quick payment, and it’s reliable,” he said.
Because of these contracts, the company can sell more apples, increasing sales and providing jobs.
To sell their U.S. No. 1 Fancy Apples to grocery stores, the apples must be the perfect color, weight, and size; otherwise, they’re made into cider. They still have many apples left over – and these prison contracts help them turn a profit for these extra apples.
They can store up to 70,000 bushels of apples year-round by their special cooling system that keeps them fresh as the day they were picked. However, other fruit rots much faster – they need to sell peaches within two weeks after they pick them, so they sell peaches to the prisons, as well as apples, nectarines, and pears.
Whatever they don’t sell, they continue to donate to the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. “In years with robust crops of fruit at our orchard, it’s nice not to see food go to waste. With prison bids and weekly food bank donations, we can provide fresh, local fruit to places that wouldn't usually be able to get local fruit.
“These prison contracts have increased our income at a time of year when cider sales would be down. Because we’re not using those apples as much for pressing and processing, it’s another outlet for differently sized apples. And it provides work since we bring our packing crew in another day a week to pack for the prison,” Bzdil said.
They employ 34 full-time staff, and about another 25 part-time staff for fall picking.
SEDA-COG’s Procurement staff made the process go smoothly. “I couldn’t do it without SEDA-COG’s staff; every time I hit a snag or have a question, I can email (SEDA-COG’s) Kristen Moyer, and I usually get a response within minutes. Kristen has been invaluable, and she’s always there to help,” Bzdil said.
Bzdil still visits Manhattan frequently, but he’d rather live here and visit there than the reverse. “I missed the rural outdoorsy-ness of central Pennsylvania. It’s a better pace here,” he said.
Yet, his typical day is anything but typical, and that’s what he loves about it. They told him up front to keep a change of clothes and boots in his car.
“You never know what to expect – crazy weather, insects, you never know what you’ll be dealing with. You can plan for the easiest day and get a hail storm, apple blight, you never know. I’m often made fun of that I live out of my car with all kinds of outfits, from a tie to my winter coat,” he laughed.
He has to be prepared – he and his 10 staff have one to two months to trim 40,000 trees.
The business began with just over 20 acres. Now, it’s grown to 240 acres of fruit trees that produce apples, peaches, nectarines, pears, strawberries, raspberries, grapes, and sweet and sour cherries.
The industry has changed for tree types, too – the older large apple trees are becoming obsolete because they’re harder to pick. The new dwarf trees are smaller, leaving room to plant twice as many.
His favorite fruit they sell, of course, is “a good, crunchy apple.” He enjoys walking through the early morning mist of fall days in the orchard, biting into a juicy apple. “I do look forward to that, eating a fresh apple on a fall day,” Bzdil said.
Their store is open year-round Monday through Saturday. They sell jellies and jams, apple cider, local vegetables, and fresh baked goods like cookies, pies, and apple dumplings. Their orchard and shop are at 1724 Dornsife Mountain Road, Sunbury. For other locations and more information about Dries Orchards, visit www.driesorchards.com.
SEDA-COG’s Procurement Technical Assistance Center helps companies explore and compete in the local, state, and federal government marketplace. For more information, call 570-524-4491 or visit www.seda-cog.org/ptac/.