Bean There: Comparing Apples to Apples

I have something to confess. For someone in my position it is, well, more than a little embarrassing. An affront, if you will, to my public persona. I have spent money I could ill afford pursuing this, this interest, to the chagrin of my long-suffering children. To this strange compulsion I have devoted long hours when I could and should have been concentrating on the work I am known and respected for. I know this.

And yet … I really, truly, cannot help myself. There is something so absolutely compelling about collecting and growing rare, heirloom apple trees that I will brook no intervention — even though I, a noted vegetable gardener and seed saver (here comes the embarrassing part), am really not very good at it. At all.

 

I hark back to the genesis of this obsession. Over 25 years ago, as a young wife, mother and beginning farmer/seed saver I lived in Southern Ontario, just north of the Big Smoke. I faithfully subscribed to the quarterly magazine of the Heritage Seed Program and read it cover to cover. I came from a suburban, emphatically non-gardening background and I was hungry to meet people who shared my enthusiasm for plants and soil. It was in those pages I “met” Fred Janson, profiled as a famed apple expert and one of the founders of the North American Fruit Explorers, an organization devoted to the preservation of heritage and oddball fruit production. This sounded interesting. And it turned out he lived in Flamboro, Ontario, only an hour’s drive away. Being possessed of nerve and moxy, I phoned him up and asked if it would be possible to visit. He was not encouraging.

“I’m retired now,” he grumbled, “I used to have 600 varieties, I’m down to 200 now. And it’s the wrong time of year, there are only 50 or 60 ready to eat right now. You’d just be wasting your time.”

 

Images from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705
 

For a moment, I was speechless. As a suburban child, I thought apples were primarily MacIntosh, with a large, tasteless Red Delicious in the Christmas stocking. Recovering moxy quickly, I said that I didn’t live far and would appreciate a visit anyway. He reluctantly agreed. I stuffed the baby and toddler in the truck and set off before he could change his mind.

I had been hesitant about bringing the children with such an uncertain welcome, but on our arrival, Fred took one look at three-year-old Rosie and held out his hand to her. “It’s been a long time since I took my own Rosie for a walk in the orchard,” he said over his shoulder as they moved off. His daughter, Rosewitha, was grown with children of her own, but could not visit often.

 

There is nothing more captivating than listening to someone who loves what they do without reserve. The passion they bring is intoxicating, no matter how ignorant (as I was at the time) the listener. Who could fail to be fascinated by the old names? Many were handed down from old Saxon and Romantic languages, like Black Gilliflower, St Edmund’s Pippin, Calville Blanc D’Hiver, Seek-No-Further, Ashmead’s Kernel, Blue Pearmain, Kandil Sinap, Tinsley Quince, Tolman Sweet. I found out that apple blossoms have to be pollinated by a different variety – sometimes even two – to set fruit at all. You could have an orchard of 1,000 MacIntosh trees and get not a single apple unless you had a Cortland or Gravenstein somewhere in the mix.

Penny Mayes [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Some apple varieties need pollination from flowers of a different variety, they are not self-fertile. So it is not uncommon to find odd trees of widely different appearance at the end of some rows in an orchard. (Photo by Penny Mayes, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I learned apples originated in the Caucasus and that wild apple groves still exist there, full of gnarled, twisted seedlings of limitless variety. Some are mere shrubs, others full-size trees, some bitter, some sweet, some unbearably acid, all testament to the boundless creativity of Appledom. I learned about grafting – how such rampant creativity could be harnessed by humans through vegetative propagation, putting small twigs, “scions,” of desired varieties onto the root system of a recipient apple tree or seedling. The top of the tree would grow and produce the apples you wished while the genetics of the rootstock asserted itself in the growth habit, disease resistance, even the ultimate height of the tree. Much of the work of the North American Fruit Explorers is devoted to developing the ancient art of grafting and the exchange of rootstock and scionwood amongst members.

When my brain was full as it could be of apple facts and history, the real revelation began. I had never tasted such a range of flavors and textures. From small, hard russets like Gold Nugget,* syrupy sweet but with so much more apple flavor than the better known Golden Russet, to my first ever bite of Cox’s Orange Pippin, an apple so sweet yet sour, perfumed and complex, it could easily have been that very first, trouble-causing apple. It was as though, after drinking cheap student plonk for years, I was offered a glass of expensive Bordeaux. I was humbled by my untutored palate. My favorite apple of the day was Tumanga, a chance cross related to Cox’s Orange (we think) with a thin skin, melting flesh and tart, tropical tones. A glass of fresh cider made from no less than 12 varieties sealed the deal.

Though at the time, I owned no land and would shortly leave my marriage and Ontario to make a go of it back in Cape Breton, I knew that whatever I did, I wanted to grow apples, just like Fred. His “diminished” collection of 200 was even more impressive when I learned that he did not believe in grafting multiple varieties on one rootstock as many other hobbyists did, but felt that better, healthier trees were obtained by grafting only one variety on each.

 

I share these reflections now, as I spend midwinter days with seed and nursery catalogs. Twenty-five years later, my apple collection is about 40 varieties, between my own and my daughter’s farm. If all the trees I bought over the years survived Cape Breton winters or all the grafts I tried succeeded, or the sheep had never escaped, or I had not been so busy earning a living farming that the trees were often neglected, my collection would be at least twice as large. My one Tumanga was eaten by moose on the North Shore farm nearly 10 years ago, and I have only just this year found a small orchard in BC that is willing to custom-graft a few for me. As far as I know, there are no other orchards with a Tumanga, and the last taste I had of it was 25 years ago. I learned the hard way to plant more than one tree of the rarest varieties. I learned that even the toughest trees can be felled by neglect and girdled by mice if the winter is hard.

And yet… despite being a haphazard and incompetent orchardist, the trees reward me with precious idiosyncratic gifts. This year, for the first time, many of my rarest trees bore fruit. I got my first taste of St Edmund’s Pippin, its huge, russeted, golden globes perfectly soaking up sugar and butter in Tarte Tatin. I was beside myself with excitement as one after another the apples ripened to perfection from Red Astrachan to the Stayman’s Winesap. My son, often skeptical of my many enthusiasms, snorted, “An apple is an apple.” I made him try a slice of Cortland and then a slice of Lubsk Queen. His eyes widened at the taste of the Queen. “I get it,” he said. “ You’re still nuts, but I get it.”

 

Fred died suddenly in 1997. His wife and daughters were unable to maintain the orchard and land and it was sold and bulldozed in the thirst for southern Ontario housing developments. A small nursery called Woodwinds took scions and grafted as many as they could and for a number of years, apple collectors relaxed, able to obtain almost anything they wanted, custom-grafted onto a variety of rootstocks. But one spring we got a notice informing us that Woodwinds was winding up operations and that small and unguaranteed bud grafts would be made available at a minimal cost in an effort to preserve the collection by dissemination. In a late night phone call, the clearly tearful owner begged me to take as many as I could. I did, and though many did not survive, quite a few lived. Among them, Pink Princess, an apple bred and selected by Fred Janson, with a thin porcelain skin, fully pink flesh, and sweet, subacid flavour. Another of this year’s first time gifts in my orchard.

I never heard how or why Woodwinds ended as it did but it was a stark reminder of the fragility of the heritage of common life. The rise and fall of governments and attendant wars have their histories recorded, revised and annotated at length, but the knowledge and experience of small farmers and gardeners is handed down by family, friends and word of mouth, the ephemeral legacy of love. A single missed generation of growers, a conversation with an elderly friend unluckily postponed, and we struggle to recover bare fragments of their gifts to us.

Honeycrisp orchard, Annapolis Valley, NS. (Photo by MikeyMoose (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Honeycrisp orchard, Annapolis Valley, NS. (Photo by MikeyMoose, own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

This is not an ode to nostalgia, though it is tempting to indulge in that dangerous drug. I find my private concerns often intersect with the public sphere. From 2005 to 2010 the Nova Scotia government paid commercial orchardists to plow up their older trees in favor of planting, for instance, Honeycrisp in large quanities. The apple industry across Canada was losing money badly to such well-promoted introductions as Granny Smith, and to friendlier climates like New Zealand, Washington State, even Chile. The cure, it was felt at the time, was to get on board with this introduction, with full promotion. An emphasis was put on planting super-dwarfing trees that would be short-lived but could be densely planted and came into bearing early. Growers who kept a selection of cultivars like Crispin, Macoun, or Cox’s Orange were left behind. Even Nova Scotia’s noble Gravenstein became hard to find and now Slow Food’s Ark of Taste names California as its spiritual home. How did we lose that one?

The program was not without success. Honeycrisp at its best is a very fun apple to eat. Lots of exciting crunch and sugary spray compensates for a simple taste. But like all “best new things,” government sanctioned or not, the market is now saturated and the public is looking around for the next apple trend or marketing innovation The friendlier climates have their own introductions, and we are again struggling to catch up. Good thing those dwarf trees are easy to plow up and replace with whatever the experts tell us is going to be the next thing.

The agricultural news lately has been full of the genetically modified “Arctic” apple technology (yes, it’s trademarked) developed over 15 years and at great expense by silencing the genes that trigger browning. The apple slices might be days or weeks old, but you can’t tell. Can’t risk having brown slices in the kid’s lunch boxes or on the healthy nutrition break trays of company executives. God forbid we should ask them to actually bite an apple themselves, even one of the non-browning oldsters like Cortland, Empire or the newer Gala – and perhaps paring knives in the shark tank of a board room are not a wise idea.

All this market development activity raises a question: Why are we trying to compete on the world stage with huge players in better climates in a game that is rigged to favor those players, including expensive, high-tech introductions? The best orchard land of the Annapolis Valley is cultivated right to the road, with commensurately high prices per acre, in addition to the urbanization pressure of the Halifax commuters. Variety concentration leaves growers vulnerable, with little resilience from diverse production. Utterly dependent on contracted honeybees for pollination, the specter of hive collapse throws growers into a panic. There are no hedgerows with wild pollinators to take the pressure off. The price of apples has gone up substantially, yet the margins continue to shrink with increased costs. Replacing those expensive dwarf trees with concomitant plant patent fees, for example. Can’t just graft a few more to replace older trees. Sales are widely agreed to be flat.

 

Obtaining rootstock is no longer as easy since the last specialty supplier, Traas Nursery in BC, closed about 15 years ago, after the owner failed to find a buyer willing to take on the business. I spoke to the owner a year before he quit, on his cell from the seat of his tractor. I was looking to buy some semi-dwarf MM7 and M106 to try my hand at grafting. After some discussion, he agreed to send me some if I was willing to pay for the phytosanitary certificate required to ship them from BC.

“How many thousand do you want?” he asked. On reflection I replied humbly that about a hundred little seedlings would do. When he finished laughing, he agreed to send them anyway, provided I sent him a picture of my milk cow. Money, certificate and photo were duly sent and I have small stooling beds regularly harvested for my poor attempts at grafting.

Nowadays, rootstock comes from the United States, with as much paperwork and permits as you can imagine for cross-border transport of soil and plant material. Nor is that a bad thing. Even a robust apple industry could not withstand a carelessly introduced disease or pest. If they can find a friendly nursery or orchardist, hobbyists sometimes have a backdoor supply. Traditional rootstock is still available but newer industry introductions are heavily weighted to those superdwarfs. Hobbyists can, of course, graft onto wild apple seedlings, faute de mieux, but the results will be unpredictable.

 

To my mind, the present day orchard industry represents not a rejection of nostalgia, but a failure of imagination. Instead of building on our strengths – informed by our unique history of settlement and development and geographic character – could we not have found a more creative path for this agricultural sector? They began the Honeycrisp hysteria at the same time as other sectors were embracing ideas like taste and terroir, niche markets and direct-to-consumer supply. There are a few places currently experimenting with, for example, traditional hard cider, with house blends of unique apples, but few of them are found on shelves of the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission or otherwise in the wider public eye.

There are small inroads in this area, including the 2011 establishment of the Kentville Apple Biodiversity Collection in the Annapolis Valley, a collaboration between Agriculture Canada and Dalhousie University, with over 1,000 varieties. It is not clear whether the general public will be able to obtain scion wood or whether access will be limited to larger industry players and researchers, who often must consent to non-disclosure agreements. The similarly run Potato Gene Bank in Fredericton NB, a branch of the government known as Plant Gene Resources Canada, is mostly used by big industry (think McCain’s for example), which also provides some of the funding.

Particularly in the last decade, all the PGRC banks found it difficult to convince politicians of the financial need to preserve large amounts of genetic material for the public interest. Yet, as a publicly operated institution, they do devote some resources to serving private citizens and allow at least some limited access to their collections. Obtaining material for research and development, especially for potatoes, however, can be fraught with complicated legal mechanisms satisfying big industry secrecy needs. There is certainly tension between industry’s desire to guard intellectual property rights and its market advantage and the principle of a wider dissemination of publicly funded research. I suspect the Kentville collection will be subject to the same tensions once out of its infancy.

 

In ecstasy over my own small, eclectic harvest this fall, I decorated my booth at the Mabou Farmer’s Market with a large bowl of the currently ripe beauties and a sign that said “Apple of the Week,” listing the varieties. It became more than a conversation piece as people stopped in their tracks at those old-fashioned names and tasted the resultant pastries. They, too, became loyal subjects of the Lubsk Queen. Instant apple converts demanded to buy the whole bowl and pouted when I declined, jealous of my own supply. One young man told me wistfully that tasting a Cox’s Orange Pippin was on his life list, the way a mad British birder yearns to add a rare feathered sighting.

Michelle Smith at Mabou Farmers' Market (Photo via Mabou Farmers' Market website) http://www.maboufarmersmarket.ca/

Michelle Smith at Mabou Farmers’ Market (Photo via Mabou Farmers’ Market website)

We can’t compete with the huge, industrially managed orchards elsewhere, with deep pockets to ram through high level innovation and marketing programs. But we have land, at least outside the Valley, at sane prices. A climate that, though changeable and chilly, is nevertheless at that “sweet spot” of cold-enough winters and snow cover needed for the best-tasting apple varieties without really severe weather limitations. There are small, hilly farms unsuited for large field production but supported by a healthy population of wild pollinators that could accommodate the small, idiosyncratic production habits of older trees.  Most importantly, we have people with tastebuds tired of the standardized, simplistic flavors we are fed by Big Food. Studies have found that one reason the French eat well but not too much is that the subtle, complicated flavors of really good food tend to satisfy more deeply and lastingly than the sugar-salt-fat triumvirate of highly processed food.

With encouragement from my phlegmatic son, I am once again expanding my orchard with 12 more varieties; two of each, five of the especially rare ones. I vow to try to get really, really adequate at grafting. At my age, I may not be the one to work this orchard when it comes into full bearing in 10 to 15 years. But I don’t mind. I don’t want to live in the past, I want it to inform the future.

 

*Golden Nugget was developed by Nova Scotia apple researchers in 1932 and introduced in 1964, but never fully promoted. In the 1980’s it was rediscovered and promoted by hobby enthusiasts like Dorothy Pottie of Glendale.

 

 

 

Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.

 

 

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