What’s old is new: Heirloom apples

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Bill Stone – Dr. Appleseed – at work at Brightonwoods Orchard. Photo courtesy of Brightonwoods Orchard

by Gail March Yerke

Apples have always held an important place in our culture and history. They’re often found as a focal point in song, language and literary works. During World War II, for example, the hit song “I’ll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time” by the Andrew Sisters tells the story of a soldier hoping to return from war to marry the girl he left back home. There are the colloquialisms such as “American as apple pie,” “apple of one’s eye” and “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” An apple took center stage in the famous fable of William Tell proving his marksmanship. But for Dr. Bill Stone of Brightonwoods Orchard, it’s preserving the heirloom apple and its history that’s been his passion for the past 40 years.

Located along the scenic “Rustic Roads” highway network between Milwaukee and Chicago, Brightonwoods Orchard sprawls over 20 acres in Burlington, WI. It began as a three-acre hobby orchard with 25 trees; today it grows 4,000 dwarf and semi-dwarf trees. When Dr. Irving Puntenney, Stone’s future father-in-law, was an associate professor of opthamology at Northwestern University Medical School in 1950, he purchased the small Wisconsin farm. Puntenney wanted a weekend retreat for his young family and shortly became fascinated with growing fruit trees. As the years passed, more “hobby” fruit trees were added to the farm.

Managing an orchard wasn’t Stone’s first career path. In addition to his own practice as an oncologist, Stone served as medical director of the Burlington Medical Clinic and vice president of medical affairs at Burlington Hospital. Even then, he found time to help in the orchard. “I learned how to graft fruit trees at Grootendorst Nursery in Southmeadow, Michigan, in the early 1980s,” he said. “I wanted to propagate heirloom fruit trees to add to my father-in-law’s collection.” He later joined the Cornell University Growers Club, where he sourced unusual apple tree varieties for the expanding orchard. As time went on, more acreage was acquired and more trees planted. Together with his wife Judy and his sister-in-law Paula Puntenney, the family owns and operates the popular autumn destination. The agribusiness offers more than 200 varieties of heirloom apple and pear cultivars, some dating as far back as the 17th century.

Why the interest in heirloom varieties? “Our heirloom cultivars were disappearing and with them much history and great tastes. While some apples look alike, no two apples taste the same,” said Stone. “It probably helped that, as a child, I had both a coin and stamp collection to assuage my propensity to collect things.”

Just a small sample of the apples on display at the farm. Photo by Gail March Yerke

When asked about his favorite apple varieties, he listed them by season of ripening. “I have many personal favorites. Gravensteins is my favorite early eating and cooking apple,” he said. His favorite mid-season is Swiss Gourmet (or Arlet as it is known in France). Despite his penchant for heritage fruits, Stone also grows some of the latest introductions. “My late season favorite is a newcomer called Evercrisp. It ripens in late October and can keep for at least six months at the cooler temperature of 35º.” Evercrisp® is the product of a cross between Honeycrisp and Fuji varieties.

Wisconsin early spring temperature fluctuations affected some of the orchard’s production this year. The warm weather in February followed by 22º days in March impacted their Honeycrisp and McIntosh varieties especially. “Trees at the bottom of even a slight hill have lower temperatures,” he explained. While their Gala crop was okay, they lost most of their McIntoshes and about half of the Honeycrisps. Their typical harvest is 6,000 bushels; this year’s crop is estimated at 2,500 – 3,000 bushels. In addition to on-farm sales, product is sold at farmers markets and distributed to area grocers and restaurants. They do not offer U-pick but they do sell pear and apple trees. Brightonwoods partners with a local winery and grows select heirloom varieties of pears and apples for their hard cider production.

Besides employees hired for the six weekly farmers markets they attend, the orchard usually staffs four employees for picking and several more for cider production. There is additional staffing for the farm retail store, open late August through November. Advertising is focused on social media, their website and the annual distribution of the Southeastern Wisconsin Farm Fresh Atlas. Brightonwoods also advertises in the local Burlington newspaper.

Stone said of his typical workday, “I’m like the orchestra leader with the baton.” A normal day in autumn includes picking, sorting, selling and making cider. He said his job is keeping the staff productive and happy and that he also helps with all the different activities. “I wouldn’t expect anyone to do anything I’m not willing to do myself,” he said. Besides their other sales outlets, Brightonwoods participates in an online service, Milwaukee Farm United. The service delivers farm products directly to consumers and offers home delivery. Their award-winning cider and selected apple varieties are listed in a menu format and sold through the website. Stone said the service contacts them weekly with what has been ordered and provides delivery to customers twice a week. He said they’ve been very happy with how the new program works.

Speaking of new, upon entering the farm property the reflection from the roof of a white building catches your eye. There, on the southern roof exposure, are 77 solar panels juxtaposed against the classic shape of the barn below. The panels provide energy for their cider production operation. “We looked into other forms of energy. Wind turbines were more expensive with moving parts that require maintenance and repair,” he explained. They decided to participate in a federal program that offered solar installation tax credits. He said the tax credits along with depreciation expense will help see the project pay for itself in a few more years and that the solar panels are guaranteed for 25 years.

When asked about future plans for the orchard, Stone commented, “I’ve got one more project in me.” His goal is to establish an international apple museum. With Stone’s penchant for apple history and growing heritage apple varieties, this could be the perfect fit for “Doctor Appleseed.”

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