A valuable and unique crop

Steve Wood with bins of Esopus Spitzenberg. Like all apples at Poverty Lane Orchards, they are grade picked two and sometimes three times a season.

Handing me a blotchy drab green and red Dabinett apple newly plucked from the tree, Steve Wood encourages me to taste it. I take a big bite. Yuck! Nasty … truly awful. “I’m growing these on purpose!” laughs Wood. “Can you believe it?”

At Poverty Lane Orchards in Lebanon, N.H., Wood grows the usual selection of local pick-your-own favorites such as Macs and Cortlands. However, his specialty is unusual apples. He wholesales a line of heirlooms he calls Uncommon Apples in the Boston and New York markets. Included in the collection are Ashmead’s Kernel, Wicksons, Lady Apples and Hudson’s Golden Gem. Cider apples, like the Dabinett, together with some heirlooms, leave the orchard in corked bottles bearing the Farnum Hill Ciders label. Fermented together (like the high-tannin, high-sugar and very low-acid Dabinetts, Yarlington Mills and Ellis Bitters), or singly (like Kingston Blacks), 40 percent of Poverty Lane Orchards’ apple crop is sold as Farnum Hill Ciders, retailing at from $7 to $25 a bottle.

Coming to cider

Until the late 1980s, the 80-acre orchard Steve Wood has operated since 1973 grew only the usual apple varieties for the wholesale market. However, as demand for the Northeast’s apples diminished, Wood and his wife Louisa Spencer searched for other ways to keep their orchard economically viable. With what Wood deems either foresight or good luck, the two began to look at the possibilities both of fresh heirloom varieties and of hard cider as sidelines to their main wholesale and retail McIntosh business. They traveled to England to meet with traditional cider makers. There they collected all the scion wood they could get. Returning to Poverty Lane, Wood began grafting trials. He also collected all the grafting wood he could get from growers in France and the U.S. Almost all came from soils and climates quite different from those of Lebanon, N.H.

In the heirloom apple section of Poverty Lane Orchards, apples such as these Esopus Spitzenberg are trellised.
An attractant lures apple maggot flies to this red Spinosad-coated sphere.

After observing over 200 varieties of grafted cider and heirloom apple varieties and evaluating their growth habits and the qualities of their fruit, Wood eventually settled on about 15 varieties to grow in commercial quantities. Of those, Golden Russet, Esopus Spitzenberg, Ashmead’s Kernel and Wickson have become Poverty Lane Orchards’ most valuable apples. The four varieties are all marketed as Uncommon fresh apples and are also major components of cider. While Poverty Lane Orchards’ heirloom and cider apples (about two-thirds of its 15,000 trees) are grown not for high yields but for high quality, two of the most valuable have an additional distinction: Ashmead’s Kernel and Esopus Spitzenberg are also remarkably difficult to grow. Apparently, enjoying a condition known as disassociated vigor, these trees steadfastly refuse to grow in any traditionally manageable apple tree shape.

In 1989, Wood planted the first cider orchard at Poverty Lane. In 1992, those trees yielded the first significant cider apple crop. The following year, having by then gained an understanding that the wholesale McIntosh market was fading, Wood began studying cider making in earnest. At the same time, the Poverty Lane crew started grafting Ashmead’s Kernel, Dabinett, Kingston Black and other cider and heirloom varieties onto young McIntosh trees. “By far the best way to change an orchard’s variety if the trees are young,” says Wood, “is not with a bulldozer but with a grafting knife.” In 1995, following several more years of study and experimentation, Farnum Hill Ciders was born.

“Just as serious wine-making requires vintage grapes,” says Wood, “serious cider making requires certain apples never found in the family fruit bowl.” While cider apples should retain a pleasing aroma, they must also be high in tannins (for bitterness and body), high in sugars (for fermentation) and contain enough acid to produce a full and balanced flavor. The combination and amount of acids, tannins and sugars in a cider apple’s juice determines whether it will be described as bittersharp, bittersweet, sharp or sweet. Although apples used in making what is commonly known as hard cider contain a lot of sugar, any sweet taste is often masked by acidity or bitterness. Biting into a cider apple can be, as I discovered, an unpleasant experience.

Growing cider apples

Within the heirloom varieties section of the orchard, apples are grown on dwarf rootstocks and are trellised. The branches of some, like Esopus Spitzenberg and Calville Blanc d’Hiver, reach out along the wire, scrawny arms stretching away from their trunks. Unlike the heirloom apples, the cider varieties are planted on self-supporting rootstocks and are freestanding. Cider varieties, like Harry Masters Jersey and Yarlington Mill, grow tall and compactly, forming a high hedge.

“By far the best way to evaluate a new apple variety or change apple type on a young tree,” says Wood, “is not with a bulldozer but with a grafting knife.” Here Ashmead’s Kernel is grafted to McIntosh stock.
“I’m growing these on purpose! Can you believe it?” says Wood of these Yarlington Mills.

At harvest time, cider apple trees in many other parts of the world are shaken and their fruit picked just once. At Poverty Lane Orchards, cider apples, like apples to be sold fresh, are grade picked two and sometimes three times a season. Unlike the fresh crop, however, cider apples are allowed to lie on the ground while they attain maximum sugar content. For that reason, there are no weed-free strips under the trees—a layer of grass is encouraged to grow so that the fruit will lie in grass, not mud, as it attains maximum sugar content. Apples may be in the grass from several days to several weeks before being picked up. Dabinett, for instance, can be in the grass two weeks without being hurt. Compared with eating and cooking apples, this seems a long period, but as Julian Temperly, a Somerset, U.K., cider maker reportedly says, “More cider has been harmed by apples spending too little time on the grass then ever will be harmed by spending too much.”

Although others may find that leaving apples on the ground encourages voles, Wood has not found this to be the case. He sanitizes only when there is a specific reason to do so, picking up rotting apples if there is an infestation of insects or disease.

Managing pests and diseases

Bright red spheres hang on apple trees around the periphery of Poverty Lane Orchards. The orchard is participating in a USDA research project exploring ways to control apple maggot flies. The upper part of each red apple-like sphere is coated with Spinosad and sugar. Next to the sphere is a tiny vial of attractant. Once lured by the attractant to the bright red spherical traps, the flies are killed by the Spinosad. Wood particularly likes this control method because no other pesticides need be applied for the rest of the growing season.

Constantly astonished by the little dramas that happen everywhere—including the pests and the things that are eating the pests—Wood has long been a proponent of an integrated approach to pest management. He tries to manage pests in ways that cause minimal environmental disruption, although he notes that an orchard in and of itself substantially disrupts the environment.

Experimenting with different apple varieties, Wood first grafted onto this McIntosh tree to evaluate a new kind. Having decided the new variety was worth growing, he then made multiple grafts in order to create genetically identical trees. From those grafts he later cut scion wood to be sent to a nursery to be grown on.
Farnum Hill Ciders and Poverty Lane Orchards.

Selecting agents to manage pests and diseases that he believes will do the least harm to the total environment, Wood makes no distinction between naturally occurring poisons and other pesticides. He notes that every one of these substances kills. Elemental sulfur, a naturally occurring fungicide, is an example. To be effective, elemental sulfur must be applied in huge amounts. Those large amounts, however, may also kill earthworms and acidify soil. Another example is the particle film marketed as Surround. Surround is 95 percent kaolin, a clay-like substance. Because Surround works by coating a surface, creating a barrier between the pest and its host plant, it would take huge amounts to coat one tree. In addition, maintaining the protective qualities of Surround requires reapplication following rains. Kaolin residue may then become an environmental issue, as may the diesel fuel consumption and soil compaction of a tractor driving through the orchard multiple times to deliver the product.

“For this crop for this part of the world,” says Wood, “IPM offers the best ecological approach to growing apples. Our practices are ecologically gentler than if we were growing to current organic standards.”

An expanding market

Reviews in fine food and wine publications are unanimous: Farnum Hill Ciders are great, the best in North America. The reaction of food and wine people to Farnum Hill Ciders gives Wood great pleasure. “The cider we make takes a great deal of its character from having been grown here. We know we’re making something very good.”

It is Wood’s hope that more Eastern apple growers will take up cider making. He sees the market for cider expanding as distinctive American orchard-based ciders become more generally available and people become accustomed to serving them. While he occasionally uses a few trusted colleagues’ apples in his cider, Wood is not seeking more fruit. Rather, he encourages other potential cider makers by giving them scion wood for their own orchards.

Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and editor and a frequent contributor to Growing and other agricultural publications. She lives in Henniker, N.H.