Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery

Certified Organic Hard Ciders and Apples

Slow food

It gets to be impossible to calculate the ways in which we are harming ourselves, it all makes sense and I feel like we already know it, but it is always amazing to see that it can be measured.

"[Harvard economist David] Cutler and his colleagues ...surveyed cooking patterns across several cultures and found that obesity rates are inversely correlated with the amount of time spent on food preparation. The more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower its rate of obesity. In fact, the amount of time spent cooking predicts obesity rates more reliably than female participation in the labor force or income. Other research supports the idea that cooking is a better predictor of a healthful diet than social class: a 1992 study in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that poor women who routinely cooked were more likely to eat a more healthful diet than well-to-do women who did not. So cooking matters — a lot. Which when you think about it, should come as no surprise. When we let corporations do the cooking, they’re bound to go heavy on sugar, fat and salt; these are three tastes we’re hard-wired to like, which happen to be dirt cheap to add and do a good job masking the shortcomings of processed food. And if you make special-occasion foods cheap and easy enough to eat every day, we will eat them every day. The time and work involved in cooking, as well as the delay in gratification built into the process, served as an important check on our appetite. Now that check is gone, and we’re struggling to deal with the consequences." --Michael Pollan, "Out of the Kitchen, on to the Couch" New York Times Magazine, July 29, 2009.

Thanksgiving harvest feast

We are looking forward to a real harvest meal tomorrow, including cider we put in the freezer, a skillet apple pie that uses our apples, cider, and maple syrup, and no doubt some hard cider! We will also partake of many of the classic dishes, made from ingredients grown ourselves or by local people we know - turkey and gravy, potatoes, pumpkin pie, brussels sprouts, leeks. A day of cooking we can enjoy with family tomorrow, and for the rest of the week. Hope your holiday is a satisfying one!

The fermenting season

The end of the season, or here known as the fermenting season. We have now just finished our last pressings for our season, some for freezing but most for next year's cider vinegar. We already have our hard cider aside for the season (photo).
The most important part of making good vinegar is having a good "mother", the bacteria that converts the alcohol to acid, thus making vinegar. After a number of years of fermenting vinegar in the open air we now have an excellent mother that we are able to use for all our new batches. Getting a good mother is a seemingly random event, you just need to start a lot of different batches going and wait until a good strain of bacteria make themselves at home in one of your jugs of vinegar. The nice part is that once you get a good strain going you can just suck up a sample from your finished vinegar and put it in your next batches. Kind of like sourdough except you don't need to feed it.


That's a wrap

We had amazing weather this weekend for Cider Days. We had a good crowd and it was a great way for us to close out our season. We were able to sell all our apples this year, which is good as we do not have cold storage, and our orchard size is really only suitable to in-season availability. We have a little time now to put the orchard to sleep for the winter. We will be placing orders for rootstock and and some trees (more peaches and some cidering cultivars) as well as a final cleaning in the cider mill in addition to draining the pipes out there so they don't freeze this winter. Our 2010 season starts with our pruning that we begin in late Feb. and March, and then we're off and running again. Right now we have some time to breathe and sit and listen to the hard cider ferment: blub, blub blub,blub......

Orchard animals

Just a quick note to mention the phenomenal number of hawks in the orchard recently! Various Accipiters, including goshawks and sharp shinned hawks, red tailed hawks, and a female kestrel twice. Let's hope they get lots of voles - and no chickens. The big hawks are somewhat worrying, since we mowed the chicken yard so they no longer have tall weeds for cover, and a hawk did go after the chickens one morning. No one lost yet, though. The chickens put up a huge ruckus for about 1/2 an hour after that, with everyone crouched in corners or inside one of their shelters. Maybe they learned?... OK, maybe not - they are chickens after all.

Season winding down

The past week or so we have finally found time to do some orchard cleaning by picking up drops and clearing the last of the Freedom apples off the trees for Cider Day cider. We had a few very cold nights, which softened the Freedoms a little, and between the cold and the wind, many started dropping off the trees. Waste not, want not - those fresh drops will be our own hard cider and vinegar for the season, as we had very little time to put cider away for ourselves while we were selling cider. We have also managed to can some applesauce, with more to come, and Steve found a Golden Delicious tree at a job site that had beautiful apples on it, with no one to take advantage of them. So, the homeowner allowed us to pick some, which will be added to the cider mix in November. They are some of the best drying apples, so we will pick some of the most perfect and dry them. Fun fun!

pick-your-own all done

We had an amazingly busy weekend. We started with our last Shelburne Falls Farmers Market, which was very busy and we sold out both cider and apples. Then we moved on to the Ashfield Fall Festival, where we sold a few bushels of our own apples and some of our neighbor's low spray apples from Clark Orchard, as well as many gallons of cider. Meanwhile, while Steve was at the festival Saturday and Sunday, Jen was at home for pick-your-own customers. Saturday was fairly quiet thanks to the on-and-off rain, but Sunday was so busy I couldn't keep track of the number of apples people took home. Even today, Columbus Day, we had a steady stream of visitors, selling out of the cider Steve pressed in the morning and picking the last of the Freedoms. All told, we made 15 batches of cider - at least 160+ gallons - and sold every half gallon. We don't have a single bottle right now!

It was great fun talking with so many people about apples, farming, sheep, chickens, and other topics. We will be at the Ashfield Farmer's Market with some cider (cold and hot) this Saturday, and will be open here at the farm for Cider Days November 7th and 8th. If you need a cider fix we will have some then, along with baked goods.

Season drawing to a close?

Despite wet weather this past Saturday, we sold plenty of cider and apples, both here at the orchard and at the farmer's markets in Ashfield and Shelburne Falls. Our Freedom apples are ripening and looking good, and we look forward to the coming weekend, when we will have the last Shelburne Falls Farmers Market on Friday, apple picking at the orchard, and a tent at the Ashfield Fall Festival, which is held Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 5pm. With any good weather, we are likely to be low on apples by the end of the weekend. Therefore, at this point we think that the following weekend, October 17-18, will be our last weekend open. So, if you've been meaning to drop by and stock up on apples and/or cider, time is running out. We will be open again with cider and baked goods for the Franklin County Cider Days event on Nov. 7th and 8th. Hope to see you there.

On to a new apple variety

As the apples mature, we switch from earlier to later varieties that are available. This coming weekend we will have the Freedom variety available for pick-your-own, rather than the earlier Liberty. Freedom is another scab-resistant Macoun relative, good for pick-your-own since it doesn't require fungicides to reliably have good apples. Freedoms do not appear to have the pest damage the Libertys did - we will assess this for sure just before the weekend when we pick our cider apples, but at this point we expect the quality of these apples to be good. Still organic, etc. so not grocery-store perfect, but much better for you!
What are Freedoms like? A good sweet-acid balance, crisp and super-red. They will be early in their season this weekend, so more acid this coming week than in later weeks, when the sugars will take over the flavor. They work well for fresh eating, baking and saucing.
As for the cider, the super-ripe Libertys will provide a lot of sweet aromatic juice at this point in their season. A good time for thinking about hard cider! Since you know what happens to all that sugar when the yeast get busy... We should have a good cider blend with apples at different points in their season balancing sweet, tart, and aromatic.

First weekend of the season

After two farmers markets and one day of pick-your-own business, we are finally into our apple season! The cider has been fun to press, and we ran out at our Saturday farmers market despite getting up early that morning to press another batch. We will have to make more on Friday to get ready for the farmers markets next week. I have to say, it has been great to have fresh cider around once again to drink for ourselves, and our customers seem to be enjoying it too. As for apple picking, we have been disappointed with the apples on the trees - there are plenty, but not the perfect apples we were hoping for. Thus, we will be discounting pick-your-own apples this season. Most of our customers have that organic-food mindset that allows for some tolerance of imperfect fruit, so hopefully you won't be too disappointed if you come get some for yourself.

Down to the wire

As the orchard is not our only 9-5 job (we have a few) this time of year can get crazy for us. We are still trying to get all of the drops out of the orchard (and to the sheep or cattle) to help keep down pests for next year. We are mowing, getting signs up, getting bag and boxes together, and judging apple quality and readiness. Pests and weather in the spring and summer made for some rocky times this season. The fungicide that we use is not as effective ( toxic ?) as those used in conventional orchards. That combined with the very wet spring and summer weather means that we will not have as many varieties to offer that don't have scab scarring on them. These however do make for good cidering apples.

Opening soon!

After a lengthy process, we have our Board of Health certification for the cider mill - we don't actually have the piece of paper in hand, but should by the middle of next week. Just in time, since we plan to open for business SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 19 selling cider with some early Libertys available for pick your own. We plan to be at the Shelburne Falls Farmers Market Friday, September 18, and the Ashfield Farmers Market Saturday morning, September 19. You may have noticed that many commercial orchards open by Labor Day, but our current trees are all mid- to late-season varieties so we open a little later. We have planted some earlier varieties, but it will be a few years yet before they start fruiting.

We had just enough apples ready this past weekend to try out our new cider press, and it works really well. It's fun to finally produce some cider after investing a lot of time, thought, and money into this whole venture. And that trial run will help us press cider more efficiently when we start making cider for sale next week.

We continue to pick up drops under the trees in our quest to reduce the pest pressure for future years. As the apples ripen and the grass quality declines, our sheep are more and more happy to chomp down those apples for us. Otherwise, we are spending our orchard time getting things ready for those of you who will be visiting us to pick apples or buy cider.

orchard inhabitants

Once again, we are spending regular time throughout the orchard as we pick up drops to control next year's pests, and encountering the animals that live there. Some deer are helping to pick up drops near the top of the orchard, and there is someone - perhaps a porcupine? that leaves the core and pieces of apple spread around when they eat the apples. Slugs, ants, and other invertebrates can eat an amazing volume of apple for such tiny creatures. And perhaps feasting on some of those animals, I saw a Northern water snake under one of the trees. I hope it eats voles too! Come winter time, voles can strip the bark off a tree trunk or branches that are under snow, killing a tree in one winter, so anyone who eats voles is welcome. Most birds have finished with their nests for the season, so we no longer disturb irate parents when poking around in the trees.

current tasks in the orchard

Our current focus is picking up dropped apples. Apples that drop before they are ripe are generally pest-filled, so if we pick up as many as we can, those pests will not develop into next year's problem. Our sheep LOVE almost-ripe apples, thankfully, so they are happy to clean up the apples we pick up. They were not interested in the apples earlier on, when we were thinning the tiny apples in June/early July, so we are glad they like these more ripe apples. Any coddling moth (CM) or apple maggot fly (AMF) larvae that the sheep eat now are individuals that will not damage our apples next year. Ideally, these pests can be fully controlled by this method, although in our area there are a lot of unmanaged, old apple trees on neighboring property so we may always have some AMF and CM pressure. If there are too many apples for our 6 sheep, our neighbor's cattle love them too!

We just returned from a trip to Washington DC and Monticello, where we attended a fruit-tasting event of fruit grown at Monticello. We tasted a number of old apple varieties, as well as grapes, peaches, figs (too bad we can't grow those!), heirloom tomatoes, and others. It is interesting to consider Thomas Jefferson's fruit growing experience - very few American varieties were available at that time, so he experimented with European varieties, many of which were not very well suited to Virginia growing conditions. He was certainly growing without chemical help, but since apples were grown almost exclusively for cider making at that time, apples didn't need to be picture perfect. We also visited Albemarle Ciderworks, a small family-run orchard in Virginia that has just begun to sell hard cider like Colonial-era drinkers enjoyed. We enjoyed a cider tasting in their new building - some very fine cider indeed. We feel very inspired after this visit, having talked with other farmers who are passionate about apple varieties and traditional cider. And we may need to plant another variety of apple...

Cider mill is finished

The cider mill is finished. We have had our initial Board of Health inspection as well as plumbing, and will have the the many final inspections in place well before we need to start. Not to worry, we are providing business to all branches of bureaucracy this season.

As we have mentioned it has been quite a difficult summer for disease and pests. The cold wet weather has made it hard to keep up with all that is going on up there - sprays that should discourage pests or prevent fungal growth get washed off the trees, and the cool wet weather has been fantastic for insect pests as well as fungus. Even conventional apple growers have had trouble with the fungal disease apple scab this season. We do have a lot of good apples, but not in as many cultivars as we would like.

We have been enjoying apples from our single 100-plus year old Red Astrichan tree in recent weeks. It is our first apple ready for personal use and always a nice sign of what is to come. It is a tarter apple with good fruity flavor, and makes for some complex eating and drinking. We also like it for the tannins it adds to our hard cider when blended with other dessert apple cider we make later in the season. We grafted Red Astrichan onto rootstock this spring, so we can share this apple with our customers in the future.

real food

This is something of a rant, set off by a machine I saw in a catalog that treats maple sap with UV light. Why might you run maple sap through UV? Sap is boiled for hours to produce syrup, arguably an hours-long pasteurization. The reason is not food safety, but consistency. The maple flavor is actually produced by bacteria in the sap, and the longer the bacteria are active, the more maple flavor the syrup has. For a producer to have a consistent product, big operations keep sap chilled and zap it with UV to neutralize those bacteria. The result? A full season of "Fancy" grade syrup, pure sweet sugar with minimal maple flavor. And for those who like their maple syrup to be dark and maple-flavored? We had better hope that small producers using traditional methods continue to make syrup that we can get our hands on.

Why am I writing about maple syrup? Because this is illustrative of one of the impacts of our industrial food system. Consumers expect that something labeled "maple syrup" from a specific producer will taste exactly the same every time they buy it. This runs counter to the traditional method of producing maple syrup, in which flavor varies depending on the temperature and when in the season the maple sap was flowing. By using UV light and refrigeration tanks we lose that variability - one more aspect of the spectrum of flavor in natural foods that we lose without ever knowing it existed.

This all applies to our cider and apples. Many people ask us to describe the apples for each variety, and I find that difficult, because the apples vary so much over the course of the season. Cider is the same way - we will make cider from one apple variety a number of times in the season, and each time it will be very different. Minimal processing and eating foods as fresh as possible allow you to enjoy the subtle variations of these natural foods, whether that be an apple off the tree still warm from the sun, or a glass of fresh pressed cider that has gone from apple to cider in two steps (grind up apples, press out juice). In addition, organically raised foods encounter richer, more diverse soils, allowing the food to be more complex, more nutritious (check the Rodale Institute for studies that confirm this), and arguably richer in flavor as well.

Our industrialized food system has worked hard to make foods conform to rigid definitions that serve the purposes of marketing and distribution, not nutrition and flavor. People used to celebrate the differences in foods over the course of a season, or from region to region. I encourage all of us to seek out the diversity of flavors to be found in natural foods.

cider mill update

The cider mill is coming along. The structure is up, floor poured, interior trim and walls done, painted inside and out, and sinks are installed. Now we wait for the electric and plumbing to be finished and all the various inspectors to come and approve it. We are also waiting for the company Orchard Equipment Supply Co. (OESCO) to finish building our grinder - they are located one town over, so very local! the press is made in Europe (bought through OESCO) and we will pick it up when the grinder is done. Stay tuned for pictures of the new equipment! We hope to test it with apples from our one Astrachan tree, which will start to ripen in a week or two.

Finished thinning, bird nests, AMF traps

Fine weather this holiday weekend allowed us to finish thinning apples. Here are some of the wonderful things we saw while thinning...

chipping sparrow chicks

kingbird eggs; notice they are using wool from our sheep in the nest!

We also put out traps for apple maggot fly - these are red and yellow traps (the AMF favorite colors!) covered with sticky goo that the pest sticks to, with lure that smells like super ripe apples to help attract these flies before they lay eggs on our apples. This is the first year we have used lure; so far, the traps with lure are the only ones to have caught flies. Let's hope they do a good job Happy

Thinning and animal update

Given the current downpour, I have time to write an update. We have been fitting apple thinning in between rain storms, and have (almost) finished the Libertys and Cortlands, as well as our early varieties. The ever-reliable Libertys are covered with fruit; we thinned at least half a bushel of tiny apples off each tree. Given the wet, cold weather this year, the plum curculio weevils were active for a longer period than usual - they started damaging apples at their normal time, but were still active while we were thinning. It has also been a challenge keeping clay on the trees to fend them off, but the apples we left on the trees look good. We still have the Freedom variety to thin, and the old-fashioned standard trees, most of which are fruiting very lightly this year for various reasons. There is some scab on the vulnerable varieties, but nothing like last year. The down side to using less-harmful controls is that we can't eradicate scab, we just try to keep it down to a dull roar. The next break in the rain we will put up our sticky traps for apple maggot fly, which will start to enter the orchard very soon. We use lures that smell like ripe apples and traps that these flies are attracted to to target this control measure specifically to this pest.

On the animal front, the killdeer hatched last night - the chicks are tiny tiny duplicates of their parents, running around my garden and the driveway. Last year I saw the family occasionally for the rest of the summer in the same area that they hatched; I look forward to keeping an eye on this brood as well. And now I can weed my garden! If it ever quits raining, that is. As for our little lamb, Fifi has developed amazingly in the week she has been alive. Her four front teeth all came in at five days old, and she has been practicing running, jumping, leaping, so she is now as fast as the adults. She has started checking things out with her mouth, so when we pick her up she now will gently taste our skin in addition to sniffing us. She won't eat anything for some time yet, but will be playing with the idea. We try to pick her up every day at least, so she remains unafraid of us and will learn to enjoy eating from our hands, being petted, etc. Of our 5 adult sheep, I think only one got this kind of attention as a lamb, since one asks for petting and will eat out of our hands, while the others run from us like wild animals. Taming adult sheep is a much bigger challenge than taming a baby.

Happy birthday little lamb!

One of the sheep we got this spring came with a surprise - a two-for-one special! Our ewe Blondie seemed fatter than the other sheep, and lo and behold there was a reason for that. Blondie's daughter little Fifi (named after the chimp, not the poodle Happy ) was born this morning with no help from us, and mama and baby are doing very well. Blondie did "bag up" (develop udders) a few weeks ago so we had warning that this was coming, but since we had no idea of the conception date, we've been on pins and needles for those few weeks.

Good job Blondie, and welcome Fifi!

Thinning apples

We have come to the point in the season where we get to know each and every tree in our orchard well. Apple trees have clusters of flowers that all turn into apples if the pollinators do their jobs, so on a healthy tree there might be 5-8 apples every few inches along many branches. We shoot for one apple every 8 inches, to lessen the fruit load on the tree - that's a lot of apples to pick off. We especially want to keep apples from touching, since many pests make themselves at home anywhere an apple is touching something. Hand thinning gives us a chance to be choosy about the apples that ripen, so that most of the apples left on the tree are free of bug bites or other blemishes. Larger-scale orchards use chemicals that shock the tree, causing it to drop many apples.
While hand thinning take a lot of time, it gives us a good look at all the trees to see what pest pressures are like this year, any signs of disease, and what the fruit set seems like now that apples are sizing up. It also gives us an excuse to be in the orchard, finding bird's nests, cool insects, and just enjoying this spot we live in.

Mama Cucu

Mama Cucu, our hamburg hen who raised two broods of babies last year, has done it again. We knew she was laying eggs under Steve's parents' deck, but didn't realize she was brooding eggs already until yesterday, when she came out with two tiny chicks. She stayed under the deck with them until this morning, when I looked out the window to see her scraping the mulch away from my tomatoes in the kitchen garden. I then tried to herd them toward the chicken yard, but had to resort to picking up the chicks, and then RUNNING from irate mama until I got near the coop. I put them down outside the yard - mama needs to orchestrate introducing her chicks to the other chickens, which I think she will do if only to get to the food inside the coop. I did put down a chick waterer, which mama hen promptly started showing to her chicks (she is a very good mama!).

fyi, cucu is Swahili for chicken - an incredibly apt name for them at times! And Mama is the form of address for mothers in Tanzania - like Mrs.

We also have a killdeer brooding four perfect eggs in my big garden, which makes weeding exceptionally difficult. Killdeer (a bird related to plovers; think shorebirds) are tireless in their egg defense displays, which include ear-piercing calls and constant "broken wing" displays, where a parent pretends to be injured in order to draw you away from the eggs. The killdeer pair successfully brooded four chicks in my potatoes last year - this year it's the carrots.

Cider mill + plum curculio

Well, the cider mill has most of the siding on it and we should be pouring the concrete for the floor in the next week or so. We have had our first plum curculio (PC) in the orchard, and they are now in full swing. We are trying to keep a good covering of clay on most of the trees in the hopes that they will move to the trees we left for them without clay (trap trees). The fruit is starting to size up now, some perhaps 3/4" and more.

Rainy day reflection

A good rain yesterday and today should allow the remaining scab spores to release while there is still sulfur on the trees. With luck, we are past the point of worrying about scab for this season. The rain also washed all the clay off the trees, leaving them susceptible to insect damage until we can spray clay once again. Fortunately, it's awfully cold out there, so the insects should be pretty slow right now.

The orchard is a favored spot for birds, many of which are building nests right now. An organically managed orchard is a buggy place, since we tolerate insects, even apple-damaging ones, unless they cause significant damage to the crop. Some birds eat bugs all the time, while many others rely on insects to feed their babies even if they eat mostly fruit or seeds as adults. We have nesting pairs of robins, Baltimore orioles, tree swallows, kingbirds, indigo buntings, cedar waxwings, a half-dozen warbler species, and an array of other birds helping to keep the insect populations under control in our orchard.

More clay

We added more clay yesterday morning and now have good coverage to try and keep the Plum Curculio out of the trees. It can also help keep Codling Moths' from laying their eggs, thus knocking down their first generation.

Apples forming on the Cortlands, with clay on them.



We put on our first heavy coating of a super refined kaolin clay today, a product called Surround. We use it as a deterrent to keep certain bugs from damaging the fruit. The particles come off on the bugs as they try to move through the tree thus irritating them and hopefully making them want to move on. It can be a pain as it can wash off easily in the rain so for the next 4-6 weeks we will have to keep reapplying after heavy rains.


Sprayed sulfur again (2nd time) this morning, there are some blossoms on almost everything at this point except the Northern Spys which are always late. We have holes on the ground for the foundation of our new cider mill. It is not going to be very big, look at it as scaled to the size of our orchard. At 14' x 18' it should allow us to make and store as much fresh cider as we can/want with an orchard our size. Very exciting!


The Liberties are furthest ahead now.


First spray

The trees are nearly at the pink bud stage, and with the very warm weather we had earlier, apple scab, a fungal disease, starts to become a worry. We sprayed sulfur last night for the first time this year and are hoping that it will be the first of only two or three times that we willl need to do it. If we can time it right. We use a product called microsulf, a micronized sulfur that is registered for organic production. We are setting out white card traps to catch insects to see what is coming into the orchard now. The pear trees are covered with pollinators and I saw my first bumble bee, all good signs.

Red tip

Most of the trees are at, or near, open cluster with red tips just showing through. We should have good blossoms showing through soon. All of the new trees we put in this year have great looking leaves that are developing. The cherries have tons of blossoms, and the peaches are also looking good.

New trees

We have planted many new cultivars this spring including, Esopus Spitzenburg, Wealthy, Golden Russett, Williams Pride, Cox Orange Pippen, Baldwin, and an exciting new release called Frostbite. In addition we have grafted existing cultivars to new rootstock so that we can begin to fill in gaps in rows. We are adding more Golden Delicious (older variety good ones), Freedom, Red Astrachan, Fameuse, Cortland, and Liberty.
This is all very exciting now, however growing apples is an exercise in patience, it will be at least 3-5 years before any of these start to fruit and 8-10 before a lot of them will really start to produce.

Spring is here

Spring has arrived. Very warm weather has pushed the trees into overdrive. The swollen buds have turned into this seasons leaves and the blossoms are beginning to form, a little pink can just be seen. It is nearly time to start worrying about our first seasonal threat, apple scab. In the next week or so we will have to do our first round of spraying using sulfur. We use it in small amounts and hope to only need to spray it 2 or 3 times during the season. It is not seen to be as effective as the chemical fungicides, but it is much less toxic. Small amounts of sulfur combined with healthy living soil, which makes a healthy vibrant tree that is able to help fight scab on its own, should make for some good fruit. We have a number of varieties that have been selected to be scab resistant ,these are great because it means no sulfur for them.
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