Fruit Exploring: Hunting the Vermont Beauty

Today I ate 6 pears, 11 apples. I tasted 14 pears, 24 apples. I managed to drop off apples at my rendezvous point on time for the delivery guy, and all else after that meeting at noon went down hill. Tis the season to be perpetually late to appointments/meetings due to the abundance of fruit on the roadside.  Also: Tis the season for elevated fiber consumption and trying to deal with it.

I’ve wanted to write a blog post about fruit exploring for ages now, as it is an exciting and integral part of my fruit life. Today’s essay will only be a brief glimpse, as I am writing a book on the subject at the moment. But I wanted to take a moment to tell you about my Tuesday.

Earlier this year, I was putting away the “Pears of New York” book by U.P Hedrick and had this impulse to open it and look at one of the colored plates. When I opened it, the pear I landed on was called “Vermont Beauty.” I’m right across the lake from Vermont and one of the orchards I work with is in Vermont, so I decided to read on…

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From this book, I learned that this pear was a seedling planted out by Benjamin Macomber of Grand Isle, VT…an island in Lake Champlain. I currently live across the street from Lake Champlain! So, I got to hunting. The first step in fruit exploring is research, which occupied an entire Sunday. After having an idea of where to look for this pear, I called my good Vermont friend Meg Giroux and we went fruit exploring for this pear over Memorial Day Weekend.

Fruit exploring involves a lot of cold-knocking. “Hi. My name is Eliza; I’m a fruit preservationist and I have a story to tell you [insert story for specific fruit]…. Do you know if you have any fruit trees on your property?” That is the usual gist of my approach, full of smiling and excitement. Only once, in Georgia, have I been turned away…

We were looking for the remnants of an old 40-acre orchard we discovered through a local Georgia historian who knew a lot about peaches, brandy and a particular Southern family’s plantation drama/legacy. Thanks to his directions, we were right in the epicenter of where the orchard once was and we decided to go door to door knocking, seeking permission to check out the apple trees possibly growing on their property. We knocked on one door and the people were obviously home, just not answering. I left a message on their car about why we were there, how we’d love to look at their orchard (which is the only remnant we could find of the once 40 acre orchard), and my contact information. I got a call later that day: “Hai, I’m lookin’ for Elyyyzuh. My husban’ tol me to call yew and tell yew that yew are not welcome on our properteee.” After I tried to tell her that we were only interested in their apple trees, she kept interpreting/spitting condemning words for her husband, who I could hear in the background.

Upset and saddened by their isolationist/paranoid ways, I wrote the pastor of their church (because we previously talked with the home owner’s mother who told us they belonged to the church on the hill) and asked the pastor to preach a lesson on “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2). And then proceeded to tattle on the couple, because if anyone knows me well, you know that I have band of “angels unawares” by my side.

Anyways, back to Vermont. After knocking on every single door we thought might have a property with fruit trees attached to it, we were given wide-spread permission to look around. We found an old, old pear. An old old apple. Another old property with an old pear and apple, etc. And after finding a map from the 1800s, we found an old, old apple orchard. Excited, I promised myself to go back in the fall when they had fruit. AND BOY DO THEY HAVE FRUIT.

This story will be about the first pear tree we found, which I checked first with fingers crossed in hopes that the fruit wasn’t an early season ripener. Luckily, it wasn’t and the tree was loaded with fruit which had just decided to start dropping (!).

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I had every hope back on Memorial Day that this might be the Vermont Beauty. And, well, it may be. An extension agent recently told me that cooler temperatures instigate better color in fruit. With the downright hot fall we’ve had up until a few days ago, that could be a reason for the lack of color on this pear. Otherwise, it seems to match up decently well with the description found in “Pears of New York.” The flavor is sweet, very fine grained, has potential to be buttery-melty in the mouth once it has been given a chance to fully ripen off the tree.  I might be overly hopeful, but…

I stopped at three other properties on Tuesday, each one tied for having the oldest pear trees I’ve ever seen. Here’s one of the trunks (shoe for scale, it was completely hollowed out and probably close to 4 feet in diameter)…

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And you know what? ALL OF THE PEARS ARE THE SAME KIND!!!  They all taste the same (minus some minor soil differences); They all have that light blush on them; They all have the same shape.

I’ve since done some background research of these properties and they line up with my research as having a connection with Benjamin Macomber, the cultivator of the “Vermont Beauty.” I can’t reveal this connection just yet because it’s a chapter in my book, but just trust me for the time being that they are all connected. The rest is left to old books with descriptions so I can try to key this pear out. The trouble is finding an adequate description of it!  If in fact this is the “Vermont Beauty,” I have just found a lost variety. In order to save it, no matter what it is, all property owners have given me permission to take cuttings this winter from their trees. We might never know the name, but it has proven itself to be resilient for at least 100 years (I think closer to 200), and that is worth saving and propagating.

I hope to graft this tree this year. Some of you might ask for scionwood, which is quite alright with me, but my team and I have been trying to come up with a way to both spread the goods and retain some funding for our future fruit exploring missions.  With that said, the proceeds of this scionwood and future tree sales will go into #thefruitexplorers research fund. We poor-yet-passionate heirloom/resilient fruit nerds will ask that every propagation of this pear (or anything else we find) will spur an on-your-honor royalty donation on our soon-to-be website…and that it’s story be passed on to the new owner (who, if they decide to propagate, will carry on with the royalty donation).

Stay tuned, we have found some amazing specimens this year and there are more to come (we have loads of self-funded research that, of course, costs money). Already, we’ve found a Southern bittersweet crabapple out of Alabama which I think could be the next great Southern cider apple, showing awesome pest and disease resistance. Pending is to see if it has an annual bearing tendency.  Another is a gorgeous, insect and disease resistant (from what I can tell) “sweet” apple that lacks acidity, which Benjamin Watson touts as a great ingredient to blend with high acidity/sugar American heirlooms. Many more…we just need to get our acts together, which is a winter task.

Thoughts? Would love to hear.

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Workshops in NY! Come one, come all (until spots fill up)

The Home Orchard: a series of workshops with Eliza Greenman

May 9th: Fruit Tree Topworking Workshop!

Imagine a single apple tree in the spring blooming with a bouquet of white, pink, red and purple flowers. Imagine that same singular tree with red, green, yellow and russeted apples in the fall. That tree is possible to obtain if you learn how to topwork. Come and learn the art and technique of adding different varieties to a tree. On Saturday, May 9th, heirloom and cider orchardist Eliza Greenman will walk you through the steps necessary to change an apple, pear, or hawthorne tree over to something you find more useful to your lifestyle. Whether you want to convert an abandoned orchard over to different varieties, or you are tight on space and want one of your trees to supply great pie apples for every month of the apple season…the learning starts with topworking.

When: May 9th, 3-5pm
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $15 per person. 15 slots available.
What to bring: Loppers or hand pruners, sharp knife (a single bevel grafting knife is strongly preferred), gloves
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot: egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

June 6th: Growing Low-Input/Low-Spray Apples for Hard Cider

Cider apples are different from your normal grocery store apples. Not just in variety, but also in management technique. Come take a walk through the orchard with heirloom and cider orchardist Eliza Greenman to learn the basics of good and bad when it comes to growing apples for hard cider. We’ll identify and discuss beneficial insects and cosmetic diseases, concerns and triumphs in the orchard, and tips/tricks to deal with these concerns. The goal of this workshop is to have the participant leave with motivation to experiment, make observations, and join a network of people working to supple and make quality products which do not harm local ecology or the consumer.

When: June 6th: 9-12
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $15 per person. 20 slots available.
What to Bring: Notebook
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

June 13th: Summer Pruning Workshop Summer

Pruning is a practice and art of addressing vigor in apple and pear trees. When practiced in combination with dormant winter pruning, a tree is able to produce more fruit and have less disease. Come learn the basics of tree vigor, how soils and winter pruning can interact with the vegetative growth of your apple trees, and how to bring the tree back into balance through summer pruning.
When: June 13th: 9-12
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $15 per person. 15 slots available.
What to Bring: Hand pruners, loppers, gloves
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com  with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

August 8th: Fruit Exploring and Summer Grafting

Learning from the landscape is one of our best tools in combating climate change and forming a more sustainable agricultural future. If you know where to look and what to look for, the landscape transforms itself into a realm of purposeful human legacies and thriving natural adaptations. Fruit Explorer/Orchardist Eliza Greenman will teach you how to track human legacy through trees, select for wild and thriving genetics, and how to propagate it all through summer bud grafting.
When: August 8th: 9-4
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $25 per person. 25 slots available.
What to Bring: Camera, notebook, single beveled knife (grafting knife preferred), footwear and clothing for walking outside, sun protection.
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

September 19th: Hard Cider 101

This workshop will cover all the basics of making hard cider, from pressing to fermentation. Participants will take home a fermenting kit and a 5 gallon carboy of cider to ferment at home.
When: September 19th: 10-2
Where: Greenhorns Headquarters: 5797 Rt. 22. Westport, NY
Cost: $100 per person. 20 slots available.
What to Bring: Notebook.
How to register: Email Eliza Greenman to reserve a spot:egreenman (at) gmail.com with “WORKSHOP” as the subject

Visiting Jim Lawson, the Paul Bunyan of Bench Grafting

I have an apple bucket [bushel box?] list consisting of people and varieties to find before they disappear. Towards the top of my list of people to find has been Mr. Jim Lawson, an 89 year-old nurseryman from Ball Ground, Georgia. He has been credited for finding a slew of old southern apple varieties and his work has been mentioned in books, propagated by nurserymen/women across the South and planted in many, many yards. He has worked as a professional nurseryman and fruit explorer for much of his life and I just had to meet him.

Last month, I tried to go and visit a *very* old man in Illinois to talk about the nut trees on his property and an hour before we were about to leave, I received a text from his daughter telling me that he had taken a turn for the worst and was going to die. Our trip was cancelled and we never had the chance to talk with him, collect his stories, and tell him how much we appreciated him. Still feeling the sting of that last experience, I decided to embark on an impulsive trip to North Georgia to find Jim Lawson because time is running out. I didn’t have his address and my one attempt at calling him produced no answer, so I reached out to my old college roommate (Cam), who lives a town over, and we tracked him down through the local connection. If I had tried, there’s a good chance we could have tracked him down on a basis of apple tree regularity. The closer we got to his place, the more apple trees we saw in the landscape. Pulling up to the front of his nursery building, there was someone looking at us through the window. It was Jim Lawson. We had found him!

Every now and then, I spontaneously show up at someone’s house and the person I’ve set out to talk with is rather skeptical. I’ve never been turned away, but sometimes I’ve had to really work to stay. This did not happen in the slightest with Jim. He was delighted and excited to meet us.

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About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character. -David Brooks, The Moral Bucket List

I feel blessed beyond words (so much so that I had to take David Brook’s words) to run across people like this in my life. They are continual examples and guiding lights for the type of person I want to be. After only spending a few minutes with Jim Lawson, I knew I had added another mentor to my registry of “people I want to be like.” The thought also hit me that if he didn’t live in Georgia, there would be a real chance that sparks would fly with another life mentor of mine, Anna, who lives on an island in Maine. They would be so cute, just the thought makes my heart want to burst!

Throughout the day, people circulated through his nursery building and with each new addition, we would be introduced as his “apple friends.” Most would come in, sit, and listen to Jim tell us stories. Some would offer up a few words but many just sat, content, until the time came when they had to go. Jim was sad when these people got up to leave and made sure to send them along with a genuine expression of how much their visit meant to him and how he hoped to see them again soon.

Jim Lawson, in the overalls, holding Adele's Choice Hard Cider from Mercier's Orchard in GA

Jim Lawson, in the overalls, holding Adele’s Choice Hard Cider from Mercier’s Orchard in GA

We talked about many topics and I’ve decided to write out the highlights rather than type up the stories word for word (they are recorded).

1.) In his hay day, Jim could bench graft (whip and tongue) 1000 trees in a day. For those of you who aren’t versed in the grafting world, this is nothing short of a legendary feat. These days, he only grafts a few trees every now and then because his hands don’t allow him to do much more. I didn’t press him for a number because I fear it’s probably in the hundreds at a time (what I do).

2.) At 89 year old, he wants to learn how to graft walnuts. So much so, that he’s going to join the Northern Nut Growers Association this year to be a part of their network and hopefully learn more.

3.) He has the “Big O” crabapple, which he will let me come and take cuttings from this summer. He knows everyone in the southern apple world and whenever someone would find or breed an interesting variety, they would give him a call. This is how he got the “Big O.” It’s a great keeper (stores for quite a long time).

4.) In addition to the “Big O,” he thought I’d really like to try the Craven crabapple. The Craven was being grown by a man somewhere in the South (again, the exact story with details is voice recorded) and Jim Lawson received some scions of this tree in the mail. He then started to propagate this tree and spread it far and wide though his nursery. Years later, he received a disgruntled letter from the old man who said that he had plans to patent the craven variety and was upset that Lawson had propagated the tree without his permission. Lawson sent him two Craven trees along with an apology and he never heard anything from the man again. Rumor has it, the man’s original tree had died and if it wasn’t for Lawson propagating the tree, it would not currently exist.

Jim Lawson then got up and walked to a back room in his shop. When he emerged, he was holding two shrunken apples: craven. He gave them to me with exclamations of how well they keep and told me to plant out the seed. My old college roommate must have been rather confused to see me get so excited about receiving two in-edible apples. I can’t wait to plant out those seeds!

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5.) In order to find old varieties, he’d just ask people. If he was driving somewhere, he’d pull over when he saw an old apple tree and knock on the door. It didn’t matter if they had names or not, if the apple was something he had never seen and looked good, he’d take a cutting and name it after the household name or address. Many of these varieties today still don’t have a true name. Sometimes, people would contact him looking for a specific apple variety and he would help to track them down given his local connections. To this day, two varieties elude him (I’ll update later on the names of these). He’s optimistic that they’re still around.

6.) One time, a man bought two of every single tree he had and planted them on a hillside in North GA. These trees have grown seedlings and are now a thriving habitat for deer. He hears from many hunters about how wonderful and appreciative they are for that planting of apple trees.

7.) He prefers to pour apple brandy over his pound cake.

When we were leaving, we gave him a bottle of hard cider from Mercier Orchards. The type of cider was called “Adele’s Choice” and when he received it, he exclaimed “I knew Adele! She would be so happy to know that they put her on a bottle of hard cider. Oh, this just makes me so happy.”

There’s really something to staying put. However does someone with insatiable wanderlust do such a thing?! I guess the answer will one day be (when/if I settle down to a single area): those people with wanderlust will just have to come and find me!

Putting in my notice.

On my one year anniversary here, I put in my notice that I would be leaving by the end of the year.

It’s an exhilarating feeling to put in your notice, there’s a certain thrill when it comes to “what’s next.” At the same time, I’m in mourning. I had so much hope and energy to be here, had told myself that it was going to be a permanent move. I spent all of my savings on erecting a greenhouse and starting a nursery business, taking any security blanket away and throwing me into this crazy world. I have learned many things this year about myself, running a business and working with southern heirloom apple varieties. I had some really awesome days and some days where I felt so miserable that I wanted to just disappear. I have never been more stressed out, sleep deprived or lonely in my life, yet I still thought this was where I needed to be. I attribute this to my often ridiculous love for the trees, which blinds me at times.

When I worked with a very old man in Maine managing his 100 variety orchard, he had me spraying a fungicide on the trees with a wand sprayer as he drove the tractor up and down the rows. Having never sprayed this fungicide before, he assured me that wearing a rain coat was sufficient. I got so much of the fungicide on me that that my skin started to burn intensely and I felt physically ill (vomiting). I was confined to the bed for the remainder of the day and didn’t feel right until about a week later. The smell of this particular fungicide makes me ill to this day, much like certain hard alcohols make others feel after one bad night of overconsumption…you know, our body reminding us to stay the hell away.  I know that I was improperly clothed, but I vowed then and there never to be in a situation where I had to spray anything like that again. I also vowed to never be in a management position where I have someone spray those chemicals.

This is why I decided to head down the cider apple route. As an apple orchardist with an heirloom niche, it was a perfect transition for me to manage trees in a way that I thought would be more responsible for the farmer, the consumer, and the environment. It was a way to grow ugly apples and have them be valued for their flavors and nutritional content rather than their looks. Every tree is different and these old genetics have a thing or two to teach us, so I was excited to learn from the varietal collection here. Over the past year, I have learned a lot from the trees, some subtleties and some big picture items. Enough to have me convinced that I can grow within my own personal/environmental ideologies in order to produce a fantastic and all together healthy product if given the opportunity to keep working with the trees in what is nowadays seen as a careless, ignorant, and improper management approach.

At this time, “This is a business” is not a good enough excuse to get me to spray things I don’t believe are necessary given the goals and objectives. Especially when only 20% of apples in the cider are from the orchard (Aka: Why not use this opportunity to grow apples for cider, since the cider will still be made without them). I can’t concern myself with the now and turn a blind eye to what my impacts might be down the road on this landscape and other people.  That’s not responsible, I can’t let myself spray a tree with pesticides, fungicides, hormones and other chemicals without first knowing what the tree’s genetics and natural associations are capable of producing. Perhaps that is the definition of a radical these days.

Yesterday someone from a University came by the cider house and asked me what I had sprayed earlier that day. I hadn’t sprayed anything. She was smelling the residues left behind from the previous pressing of apples brought in from a conventional orchard. When I had walked past them last week, I could smell fungicide residue from 50 feet away.  Had there been any question, one could just go and look at the dusty film on the apples to confirm suspicions. Apparently this smell can linger 3 days in a parking lot, which is disturbing on a variety of levels.

I’ve been told that I should seek out this conventional dessert fruit orchardist’s advice, the one who delivered the above mentioned apples. I should have him look at my spray schedule in order to help me adjust it and make the right decisions, they said. Perhaps I’m just really naïve or ignorant, but it’s hard for me to believe that this person and I have anything in common other than the fact that we’re growing the same fruit that has more than 7000 known and genetically different varieties.

Eliza is very (might be tragically) wrong, but smart and innocent.”

That’s from an email haphazardly forwarded to me from a person concerned that I didn’t know what I was doing, so they sought out professional advice.

I will be the first person to tell you that I’ve only just begun to trust my gut when it says to go one way rather than another. This has no scientific backing without my ability to explain it in a scientific language, which I’ve only started to do.  I have an understanding of conventional horticulture, but I question many of the processes. I have no idea what is actually the right way to be doing things, given the broad scope of human-caused tragedies. But to be called “tragically wrong” when pushing the envelope… man, that makes me want to defend myself.

And I did. Without hesitation.  I called him up, read him what he wrote, and asked for him to please describe what he meant when he said those things. “You weren’t meant to read that,” he said. I grilled him on what he knew about the soils, the cultivars, the humid temperate rainforest climate in this area… “How could you say those things about me without walking in these shoes, knowing this soil, growing these cultivars? You have never experienced these conditions. In your statements, are you implying that all is universal?” He was upset that I was sent that email. He appeased me, but later called me disrespectful. Which I was, because I stooped to his level. I regret stooping to his level.

After having that confrontational conversation, I made the decision to accept those who will always criticize me and doom me to failure. Hell, in time, I might also find room to love these people because they don’t understand. Maybe they are right. Maybe my work will never amount to anything. But I’m not giving up because these people think this way and have these opinions about me and my work. I’ve only just started and this is my life’s fire.

Deep down inside of me, there is an unexplained energy that propels me forward with all of this and gives me a voice. It’s the same feeling I had 6 years ago when I was up in the tree, learning how to prune for the first time. It’s a purpose, as if every cell in my body thinks I should be doing this. I will keep learning from the landscapes and people around me. I’ll keep following my gut and trying to decipher why it steered me in that particular direction. I’ll do more fruit exploring in order to learn from the trees and the people who planted them 100+ years ago. I’m going to continue to ask hard questions, be insatiably curious, look beyond the orchards for solutions, and convince people to eat cosmetically blemished fruit (#eatuglyapples).

I’m prepared to fail terribly in pursuit of potentially valuable/viable horticulture gains.  With that, I put in my notice.  Lookout, world.

(we set a record this year for harvest, 7 tons per produceable acre. It was a good production year, but that number I just gave you, 7 tons per acre, was the amount we pressed. )