Apple trees may have grounds for a comeback

9 years ago
     More than a century after potatoes became northern Maine’s dominant crop, some farmers see a growing business opportunity in apples, an old fruit in the midst of a renaissance.

     “Apples grew commercially before potatoes,” said John Bunker, an orchardist in Palermo who tracks Maine’s apple history. Farmers in northern Maine, Canada and New England benefited from a kind of northern Johnny Appleseed, Francis Peabody Sharp, who grew, grafted and sold the best northern apple varieties at a Woodstock, New Brunswick nursery opened in 1846.

     “Sharp is the reason why there’s a widespread fruit growing tradition in Aroostook County,” said Bunker, who sells trees through Fedco Seeds. “They were like the Johnny’s Selected Seeds, except they were doing trees.”

     Sharp embraced grafting, the only way to reproduce an exact variety, and experimented with some 2,000 hybridizations on apples from England, France, Russia and random seedlings in New England, searching for varieties that become dormant early before harsh winters, Bunker said. Among others, Maine and Canadian farmers planted orchards with Duchess, Alexander and Yellow Transparent apple varieties, the latter an early ripening apple originally from Russia that still grows across Aroostook County.

     “Sharp knew that people wanted apples,” Bunker said. Today, people around the world still want apples — and northern Maine is a good place to grow both old and new varieties, said Sam Blackstone, owner of Caribou-based Circle B Farms.

     “I’d love to see commercial orchards,” said Blackstone, the largest highbush blueberry grower north of Bangor and with a still relatively young apple orchard. “We have room for it and the knowledge to do it, and the markets are there.”

     Blackstone has about 650 apple trees, as well as some pear trees. About 400 of the trees are the sweet and popular Honeycrisp. Originally bred in Minnesota in 1960, the Honeycrisp can withstand extreme cold, like the 50-below nights that swept Caribou in 2009 and killed 47 of Blackstone’s Cortland trees. And they capitalize on the cool summer and fall nights to help build sweetness.

     Circle B Farms also grows Zestar, Snow Sweet and Yellow Transparent. Local grocers sell the farm’s apples, colleges serve them (via Aramark) and customers come to the farm to pick their own, Blackstone said.

     In Presque Isle, the MSAD 1 School Farm is already running a small commercial apple enterprise, with a 2,900-tree orchard producing fresh apples, ciders and pies sold to grocers, schools and health care facilities across central Aroostook. Apples are the farm’s biggest crop, occupying more than a third of its 38 acres and bringing about 50 tons of apples in 25 varieties. The orchard is probably the largest currently in Aroostook County, estimates manager John Hoffses.

     Blackstone, who until the 1990s grew commercial potatoes, thinks small- and medium-sized farmers could be serving rural regions as well as larger markets if demand grows with trends in the global apple market.

     China is the world’s largest apple grower and is on track to gain export access to the U.S. But probably only around 10,000 tons of fresh Chinese apples will come to the U.S. annually, mostly to California and of the Fuji variety, according to Fruit Growers News. Under a new bilateral trade agreement with China, meanwhile, the $1 billion U.S. apple export could grow by 10 percent and exports to China could reach 100,000 tons annually, at a value of $100 million per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

     If large West Coast apple growers start sending more to China, that could create room for Maine growers to sell more regionally and in eastern metropolitan regions, Blackstone said. Another local market could be the University of Maine System, which has committed to buy 20 percent of campus food from local producers within the next five years.

     There is still quite a bit of competition, however. While Francis Sharp’s nursery in Woodstock does not remain, apples are big business in Canada. New Brunswick farmers cultivate about 500 acres of apples, Nova Scotians about 4,500 acres and Quebecois more than 11,000 acres, according to the Canadian Horticulture Council. Ontario farmers grow almost half of the country’s apples, more than 22,000 acres.

     American apple farmers grow more than 6 billion pounds of the fruit across 328,000 acres, the most being in Washington, New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania, according to USApple. As of 2010, according to the USDA’s latest data, Maine farmers grew almost 30 million pounds of apples, valued at $13.4 million.

     If the fruit’s popularity remains strong, it’s also a chance for farmers to try to make a business out of value-added apple products. “The real money is in apple chips,” Blackstone said. Dried apple for granola, trail mix, oatmeal and more is a preserved fruit product similar to Circle B Farms’ dried blueberry, or “blueberry raisin,” and the frozen blueberries sold at stores across Maine.

     “It’s a totally different school of thought,” said Circle B’s Blackstone, comparing apple farming to potatoes, a crop he left for the blueberry and now apple business.

     There is a lot of hand-picking, although apple harvesting technology isn’t as expensive as large potato machines, said Blackstone, who has one of the few mechanical highbush blueberry harvesters in Maine. More apple orchards selling commercially “would bring jobs,” said Blackstone, who hires mostly locals to help with the blueberry and apple harvest. Apple orchards could also rekindle agricultural interest among younger generations.

     If nothing else the renewed American interest in apples is a good change for farmers to plant a small orchard for a roadside stand and pick-your-own business, as McElwain’s Strawberry Farm in Caribou has done, with Honeycrisps, the Freedom northern variety and others.

     Bunker, the pomologist from Palermo, thinks Mainers should make a point to enjoy the old heirloom apples and try to save them. “It’s our heritage.”

     He thinks there are probably a lot of old heirloom apple trees remaining across northern Maine, waiting to be tended or preserved. In 2001, Bunker and and some other enthusiasts found the long-obscure Hayford, a sweet late-ripening apple, growing in Presque Isle and slated to be cut down.

     “Even if they look decrepit,” old apple trees “are worth growing and will produce fruit again,” with a bit of pruning, some fertilizer or compost, Bunker said.