Many of my ambitions at the age of 6 are still the ambitions I show today… To explore, climb trees, be fiercely independent (proving that girls can do anything boys can) and eat fruit. Though I have conceded to men being better at lifting heavy things, my life since the age of 6 has been a long and winding road guided by trees. I majored in forestry, traveled around the United States on behalf of different forest ecosystems, traveled abroad to Germany for trees, and at the age of 25, I landed on a small island off the coast of Maine. Trees got me there and that island is where I found my life-long passion: Apples.
If you know what to look for, you’ll see trees producing edible fruits and nuts all over the country. On this little island in Maine, apples were everywhere and easy to see because all of the other trees were evergreens (spruce and fir for the most part). I didn’t think much of apples at the time, but when my friend Lindsay asked me if I knew how to prune an apple tree, I decided that was something this tree nerd needed to know… so I found a wonderful man from the mainland to come and teach an apple tree pruning workshop to the islanders.
Up in an apple tree armed with a saw, loppers and basic knowledge, every cell of my body suddenly knew this is what I was meant to do. I had found my calling. I also found love in that apple tree (there was a really cute guy next to me), but I won’t get into that because it’s off topic and ultimately dramatic. My worlds of forestry and food had collided into one amazing package: the apple tree.
I asked people if I could prune their trees to learn. I collected apples off wild trees and pressed cider with my dear friends. I learned of known apple varieties on the island and asked the island elders what they used the apples for. I watched youtube videos on how to bench graft and top graft apple trees and with almost no experience under my belt, I taught workshops. The fact that I taught workshops then is slightly terrifying in hindsight, but I embrace it today. I actually advocate it…just do it for free and be passionate about it.
After my two year fellowship on the island was up, I moved to New Zealand to avoid winter and managed (with that guy in the apple tree) a small permaculture farm with apples, olives, figs, feijoa, avocado and other trees. Though the wonderful Mediterranean micro-climate and figs are an attractive prospect, apples and Maine still won me over. After 8 months in NZ, I returned to the States where I had an apprenticeship lined up through the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) with the apple guy of Maine, John Bunker (and his wife, Cammy).
Though I didn’t learn much about apple orchard management with John, I did eat a LOT of different apples… Probably in the realm of 400 different varieties. This opened me up to a completely new world. I ate apples that tasted like a grapefruit spritzer, cherries, , licorice, coconut water, grapes and pina colada. Some with acidity that burned my tongue and others with no acidity at all. Some apples looked like potatoes (russets) while others had a skin so thin that just holding it would almost cause a bruise. Some apples had a red flesh inside, others yellow, white, nearly green and pink. Apples were useful, too! These old varieties were known for their products like molasses, pies, hard cider, sauce, mincemeat, dried apple rings, etc. The list could go on.
Wanting to continue down the road of heirlooms and explore a trade, I then apprenticed with Diane Flynt (owner) and Jocelyn Kuzelka (cider maker) of Foggy Ridge Cider over the winter (in my home state of Virginia). Diane has 35 or so varieties of heirloom apples on her farm which she includes in her blends to make award winning hard cider and I had to be a part of that, if only for a little while. So, I spent the winter pruning cider apple trees, becoming a cider snob, learning tricks for my home-brew batches, and also discovering that I don’t want to make cider for a living…I want to grow apples and be an orchardist!
I had an orchard management gig lined up in Maine that spring, so I left Foggy Ridge to join 96 year-old Francis Fenton of Sandy River Apples. Working and living with Francis Fenton, a war veteran, former custodian and second generation apple orchardist, was quite the experience. I could tell dozens of stories about our relationship and what it’s like to live, work and learn from a 96 year old, but that had better be saved for another entry. Francis’ Sandy River Apple orchard had a little more than 100 varieties planted on standard-sized trees in a willy-nilly fashion across 5 acres of land. It was beautiful, chaotic and a lot of hard work. I invested myself and pushed through the long and exerting work days knowing that an apple crop was coming. That made me happy and satisfied.
Many young farmers have an experience that nearly crushes their spirits and causes them to quit. This happened to me at Sandy River Apples. Francis’ daughter came to town from her home in San Diego after months of me taking care of the orchard and, in a way, taking care of Francis. Despite my differences with Francis over his (illegal) chemical use and his constant mantra of “there’s no money in apples,” I loved Francis as a mentor and he loved me as his pupil. His daughter saw my interactions with him as me disrupting his “twilight years,” and 3 weeks before the first apples were to ripen on the tree, she told me that I was no longer welcome (to put it nicely). After spending the last 5 months with Francis, investing myself in the apple crop to the point where I felt like those apples were reflections on my personal self, I was kicked off the orchard. With no earnings from the future harvest, no apples, and a lost identity, I was angry, poor, and at the lowest point of my life. I was ready to walk away from it all.
For months, I lived in a depressed state of not knowing what to do with myself. My life didn’t have much meaning; How could something I love so dearly treat me this way? Then Diane (Foggy Ridge), who at this point didn’t know anything about my situation and expected everything with me to be apple-y, reached out and invited me to an apple conference in New York which focused on cider. I went and reconnected with a part of myself that I feared I had lost.
As it turns out, apples ARE a part of who I am and how dare I let anyone try and take that away from me! Nietzsche’s saying,”What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” is so true. I believe I’m more of a force now than I could ever have been had I not lived through that experience. Armed with a level of cautiousness that can only come about if one is severely burned, I’ve got skills, experience (good, bad and interesting), and a life fire that makes me who I am today, an apple farmer.
To fast forward, I moved back to Virginia last fall to become a full time presence at Foggy Ridge Cider. In addition to being the cider orchardist, I’m also a new business owner and beginning farmer. I’ve started fruit tree nursery called Legacy Fruit Trees and have plans for my own orchards to happen in the very near future.
This blog is about my experiences as an orchardist and a business owner. It’s about the balance between acquiring knowledge and diving in head first. I hope to share all of the good, bad, ugly and WTF moments of my experiences. Basically I want to share how I am(so far) making this work.