Thursday, October 27, 2011

How About Them Apples?

Can you believe Fall is nearly over? Where did summer go?  We made the most of this East Coast Fall, with its crisp mornings, crackling leaves, and the crunch of fresh apples and pears. In Spring, we wrote about pruning the overgrown fruit trees that had not been touched in 20 years. After a busy summer planting test gardens, tending hops and mending farm buildings, our attention finally returned to the orchards.
Arial view of McCollum Orchards from 1958 shows many trees
Family documents show that McCollum Orchards was a roaring business as early as the 1880s. During high production in the 1950s, the farm grew over 10,000 trees in several varieties of peach, plum, apple, pear and cherry. Over the decades, farming slowed as the family changed location and production costs rose. What remain are about two acres of apples and an acre of pears – about 150 trees total.

The fruit yields are not up to commercial standards, but still impressive considering they haven’t been properly maintained in over a decade. On a lovely fall afternoon, a friend helped us clear out the cut branches leftover from pruning, load the salvageable pieces on the trailer and stack them on the old loading dock of the packing shed. In the end, we collected several hundred pounds of apple and pear wood that we plan to chip, dry and package for BBQ grilling wood-chips. 
A friend helped clear out the good wood and "deadfall"
 Easy as Apple Pie
Baking a Maple Apple Pie
The trees produced a Fall buffet. We humans might have been the last in line, after the deer, turkey and insects, but we still got our fill. Recently, we celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving with friends in Ellicottville – a ski town south of Buffalo. With a dear friend visiting from San Francisco, we baked an apple pie using our own apples and added a hint of maple syrup in honor of our northern neighbors.  The two apple varieties in the orchard, Rome and Northern Spy, are perfect for baking and cider-making.  As they say, ‘Northern Spies for your pies.’ 

 Here’s our Maple Apple Pie recipe
  • Preheat oven to 425F
  • Line a pie tin with a Betty Crocker pie crust (or make your own), cut a second pie crust into strips for lattice top
  • Mix 6 cups of peeled thinly cut orchard fresh baking apples into a bowl of the following: 1/4 cup white sugar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of flour, 1/2 teaspoon of gound cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg, 1/8 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 cup of local maple syrup
  • Pour the filling into the pie crust, tuck 4-5 chunks of butter around on top
  • Make a lattice top with the strips, brush them with milk and sprinkle cinnamon and sugar on top
  • Rim edges of pie so they won't burn, bake for 40-50 minutes until the inside bubbles and the top is browned
  • Serve and enjoy!
 An Apple a Day, We’ll Find a Way
This month, we had informative meetings with ag agents from the Cornell University Cooperative Extension. Our most pressing question was which trees, if any, could be salvaged and brought back into production. What we feared (but were not surprised) to hear was we would be better starting afresh with new trees and production methods.

The Extension agents think we are in a good position to start with a high-density trellis system with dwarf tree stock. Here is an Oregon Extension description of high-density pear orchards. This system is common in Europe, but only just catching on in the U.S. Unlike traditional tree planting, which has as much as 30 feet between rows and takes about five years to produce fruit, high-density planting gets 800-1,000 trees per acre and yields within two years. It uses fewer resources per tree, requires less labor-hours and spray is more localized.  An upside to being new farmers is that it is easier to learn the technique from the start instead of having to un-learn an old technique. After seeing the hops trellis and irrigation system that Rich designed, they said he has the engineering mind needed to construct a high-density orchard.  You could almost see the gears in his head starting to turn at that moment.
Trellis Design from Ontario Ministry of Ag, Food and Rural Affairs
If we decide to go the U-Pick operation route, the high-density system might be the best option. It would minimize the area that might get sprayed, making it safer for neighbors, and take advantage of our urban location. We heard that McCollum Orchards is one of the last two farms in the city limits. The downside is that popular dwarf cultivars and rootstock from the best nurseries are backlisted for two years or more.

In our conversations with the Extension agents and discussions at the Niagara County Farm Bureau Annual Meeting, we’ll have to take into account three major issues affecting this region’s agriculture, especially fruit and vegetable production, in our future business plan:
  1. Labor – Migrant labor is harder to get. Domestic labor is non-existent. The Farm Bureau has successfully lobbied for state laws that take the agriculture business into consideration, but nonetheless this is a hot-button issue. The cost of labor is high. How many hands on deck will ultimately determine how much we can produce.
  2.  Land – Land scarcity seems ironic in this county, but it is a consideration. At the ground level, the quality of our soil on our finite area of land is our greatest asset no matter what we plant.
  3. Climate Change – Regional weather patterns are changing. They cannot predict when harvest is going to be one year to the next anymore due to the drastic swings. Sixty years ago at this time, there would have already been snow on the ground. Yet, it was 80 degrees last week. (As this is our first winter, we’re not complaining!)
This winter, our main goal will be to develop a solid start-up business plan and learn all we can from local farmers. The motivating question right now is: How can we grow excellent produce with maximum efficiency of water, fuel, time, back muscles and finances?  Due to the numerous uncertainties, including the ones we can’t control like the economy and the weather, there are no second chances when it comes to starting a fruit-tree business.  It’s time for us to do our homework and get it right the first time.  Now if we could just find some dwarf rootstock…

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