A taste for heritage apples
by Sally Colby
In 1971, Steve Meyerhans moved northward from Connecticut to work at a Fairfield, Maine, orchard owned by local grower Royal Wentworth. Steve’s wife, Marilyn was in college, and soon joined him, picking apples for $1.50/hour.
“We heard rumors that Royal was selling the orchard,” said Marilyn. “Steve talked with Royal and said ‘yes, he’s selling it.’ Buying an orchard seemed like a good idea at the time but we had no idea what we were doing – we had no experience.”
Marilyn’s grandfather, who had grown apples during the Depression, advised the young couple against purchasing the orchard. Despite that advice and challenges financing the purchase, the Meyerhanses remained determined. They secured financing and purchased the orchard in Fairfield.
Although the Meyerhanses were new to growing apples, they soon learned about some of the potential issues and a historic weather event that became a turning point for the orchard. “In the 1930s there was a big freeze,” said Marilyn. “A lot of the orchards in Maine died, but one variety seemed to withstand the hard freeze – the McIntosh. That’s why Macs became the most common tree around here – they could survive that cold. They also aren’t as biennial as some other apple varieties.”
After purchasing the orchard, the couple relied on a grafting company to propagate trees, using scions of varieties such as Winter Banana, Russets, Macoun, Grey Pearmain, Black Oxford and Canadian Strawberry. Some of the Meyerhanses’ oldest trees are from original New York Cortland grafts, but they’re also growing trees on newer rootstock. Now in their 49th year of production, they have perfected their skills and enjoy cultivating tasty varieties that draw customers.
“Macs have a good flavor and people like them,” said Marilyn. Because many of their first customers were unfamiliar with older apple varieties, Marilyn’s brother took visitors by wagon to the grafted “antique” section of the orchard and encouraged people to try different varieties as trees became productive.
While producing cider apples was the original intent for propagating some of the old varieties, the Meyerhanses soon found that people enjoyed the unique flavors for fresh eating. “They’re wonderful apples,” said Marilyn, referencing the antique varieties.
Since purchasing the orchard, the Meyerhanses have changed entire sections through branch grafting. “We had a whole orchard of Vista Bella,” said Marilyn. “We liked them, but they’re only good for about three days so we turned them into Honeycrisp. To me, varieties like Sweet Red and Tolman Sweet are very bland, but they’re sub-acid apples and people who can’t eat other fruit can eat those.”
Grafting and rootstock details are critical for any orchard, and the Meyerhanses made sure they were planting the right trees in the most ideal locations. The ideal traits for suitable rootstock include mature tree size, disease resistance and the ability to survive -20º in winter.
“Some varieties are delicate and don’t hold up,” said Marilyn. “How big do we want the trees? How much space is there? Are we going to trellis or will they be freestanding?” All trees at the Apple Farm are freestanding, which provides customers with an authentic picking experience. In addition to U-pick, apples are sold wholesale and retail from the farm store.
Although most first-time orchard visitors aren’t familiar with older varieties, they soon become fans. “We have over 50 varieties,” said Marilyn. “It’s hard for people who come in and say ‘I want an apple.’ We always ask people to try different apples when they come to the orchard. We give away a lot of samples and teach people how to use different varieties.” As customers become more knowledgeable about apple varieties, they return for their favorites but are still encouraged to continue sampling.
Marilyn noted that customers who typically purchase apples from the grocery store are getting fruit that isn’t truly fresh. “By the time the customer eats it, it’s been there too long,” she said. “We ask customers what they plan to do with apples and help them learn how to store apples to keep, which varieties can be stored and for how long, and help people learn to eat them in season.”
The Meyerhanses started making cider about 40 years ago, first using the services of a nearby mill. Today, they make 25,000 to 30,000 gallons of cider each season using a hydraulic press on the farm. Marilyn said having a wide selection of heritage apple varieties is what makes their cider good.
Using a recipe she has perfected over the years, Marilyn starts most cider blends with a McIntosh base. “A good cider is 50% Macs and whatever else is ready,” she said, adding that her goal is to incorporate interesting varieties. “I might add Golden Delicious, Idared, Russets and other varieties for a nice blend. At the beginning of the season, the cider is tangy, and some people love that. Later, it’ll be super sweet.” Cider is treated with UV light and jugged for sale. Some of the cider remains unpasteurized, sold locally to makers of hard cider and apple cider wine. Marilyn noted that some hard cider makers want cider made exclusively with Golden Russets, which she can produce if apples are available.
A portion of the orchard is managed and certified organic by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), which allows the Meyerhanses to experiment as well as market fresh and wholesale organic apples. Organic apples are sold at a farmers market in Waterville and directly from the farm. Since Marilyn is in the on-farm store daily, she has ample opportunity to talk with customers about their preferences and help them select apples and other locally produced farm products.
In addition to apples, the Apple Farm maintains a variety of plum, pear and peach trees. “Peaches are tricky in Maine,” said Marilyn. “We’re working with Cooperative Extension with donated trees from around the state to determine which peach varieties will thrive in Maine.” She said their peaches are planted on north-facing slopes to discourage premature blossoming that may be subject to frost.
Marilyn maintains a five-acre organic vegetable garden with a wide variety of popular vegetables including squash, cole crops and potatoes for a farm share program and to supply pumpkins for autumn. Tomatoes and peppers are grown in a hoop house. There’s sufficient acreage to rotate cucurbits for disease management, and Marilyn uses organic controls as necessary for pest management. However, if a crop is at risk and requires conventional treatment to combat insects or disease, she’s willing to sacrifice organic status to save the crop.
The Meyerhanses work closely with Cooperative Extension and often rely on experts in Maine and other states. “There’s some amazing work going on,” said Marilyn, adding that she and Steve track research in several states with similar climates. “They’re taking it seriously.”
Visit the Apple Farm online at applefarm.us.
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