Orchard observations: apple varieties then and now

Aug-3-Applesby Megan J. Humphrey, Shelburne Orchards

Megan J. Humphrey holds a degree in social work with a concentration in Gerontology at UVM. She now organizes the events and oversees the marketing at Shelburne Orchards. In her monthly column she will provide insight into what’s happening at the orchard and in the greater farming community.

When owner Nick Cowles took over Shelburne Orchards from his dad, the primary variety of apple was McIntosh. Trees were pruned every winter but were still allowed to reach a height of about 20 feet. Ladders or pole pickers were needed to pick many of the apples.
Today, apple trees are matched with a root stock that controls their size and height. Because of this, tress are easier to pick from and maintain. The space between each tree is reduced, thereby producing more apples per acre. Plus, it’s easier for visitors to pick apples from the ground (and it’s healthier for the trees).

Apple varieties grown in Vermont have expanded tremendously. Older varieties at Shelburne Orchards include Arkansas Black, Ashmead’s Kernel, Baldwin, Cortland, Cox Orange Pippen, Dabinett, Golden Delicious, Golden Russet, Kingston Black, Macoun, McIntosh, Mutsu (Crispin), Newtown Pippen, Northern Spy, Paula Red, Red Delicious, Red Gravenstein, Reinette Zabergua, Roxbury Russet, Spartan, and Tolman Sweet. Over the years, older trees at the orchard that no longer produced apples were used as firewood to heat Nick’s home. Those trees have now been replaced by some of the popular newer varieties, including Blondie, Empire, Fuji, Gala, Honey Crisp, Jonagold, and Liberty.

Although McIntosh continues to be the top seller at Allenholm Orchards in South Hero, owner Ray Allen has implemented a similar shift. In addition to the most popular apples that include Cortlands, Empire, Macs, and Vermont Gold, he has expanded to a total of 25 varieties to please different palates. “When Empires came along in 1965, I thought they’d take over Macs in terms of sales, but that hasn’t happened,” Ray explained.

People feel strongly about their favorite kind of apple. A poll of the employees at Shelburne Orchard drew varying opinions. Owner Cowles said that his current favorite is McIntosh with his second choice as Golden Russet. Terry prefers Gala, but he changes his mind periodically. Rob likes Ashmead’s Kernel best. Tina favors Rhode Island Greening. I am my mother’s daughter and have never swayed from McIntosh. As friends around me extoll the virtues of Honey Crisp and Winesap (right, Melissa Pasanen?), I quietly go about making oodles of applesauce from peeled and cored McIntosh, adding just a little water and nothing else; it’s simply delicious. My mother’s favorite snack was slices of McIntosh apples and cheddar cheese. Mine is the same.

One of my earliest memories is of being outside on a chilly autumn afternoon with juice running down my hand as I ate a McIntosh; the air and the apple were crisp. My hand was cold, but I loved the taste and smell. I encourage all of you to head to any apple orchard this autumn to enjoy that same sensation – and it’s another delightfully easy way to make a connection with our food. Aren’t we lucky that our food is so accessible?

In September, I’ll be discussing some of the many ways to cook or preserve apples. As we head into our harvest season, Shelburne Orchards will be posting updates on Facebook as well as www.shelburneorchards.com.

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