Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery

Certified Organic Hard Ciders and Apples

All Licensed up!

It took a few months longer then we expected, but we finally received our last license, and can now sell hard cider! Our introduction will be in the spring of 2013 with the product that is fermenting in the tanks right now. In the mean time, if you are in the area and want to try a bottle of our wine-like, dry , still (not sweet, not carbonated) farmhouse hard cider, just call ahead, we still have a few cases left and we would love you to try it.

Hard cider musings

We spent a lot of the Cider Days weekend talking about and tasting hard cider. There are a lot of fine hard ciders available at this time, as represented by the ciders available at the Cider Days salon held Saturday night. One thing that is very interesting to us is the preponderance of carbonated ciders. Why has carbonated cider become the standard, when there are so few carbonated grape wines? We have a book about making cider commercially from 1869, and even then bubbly cider was so sought after that a good portion of the book is focused on how to make it bubbly. We offer a possibly explanation based on the traditional seasonality of cider for people who made it themselves, and pulled some from the barrel in the basement throughout the year. Cider that is fermented using wild yeast ferments gradually, so that by Thanksgiving or Christmas it is alcoholic but still fizzy, with varying amounts of residual sweetness depending on timing and speed of fermentation. A few months later it has completed fermentation, so the rest of the year you would be drinking still cider. Perhaps people valued that fizzy, slightly sweet cider given its limited availability and holiday spirit. Once people came up with technological ways to stop fermentation such a cider could be enjoyed year round, but the market still valued the formerly rare, fizzy cider.

Something to think about the next time you enjoy a glass of cider.

End of season reflection

As usual, our retail season was a blur of constant activity. Since all of our apples are midseason varieties, we are restricted to a short season of availability, so all the work of the entire year culminates in four or five weeks of retail sales. We were happy to have so many people come pick apples here, though we were sorry that the last day we were open there were too few apples left on the trees to offer U-pick. Given how slowly trees grow, we are unable to expand either our season or our volume of apples very quickly. As always, talking with folks about food and sustainability, and watching people enjoy our orchard, are rewards for the hard work we put in. We wouldn’t get any of that by selling wholesale.
Now that the apples are picked, we can finish the last tasks. We had the help of both Steve and Jen’s parents this season, so we were able to blitz the Freedoms after we closed, picking the last apples off the trees and cleaning fallen fruit out from underneath. We were able to do a much better job making sure the orchard is cleaned up thanks to their help. Steve has been pressing for hard cider, so we are filling our fermenting vessels this week. We still have to put the orchard to bed, fitting cages around the young trees to protect them from rodents, and spreading compost to replace the nutrients we removed by harvesting apples. We are also finishing up work that was put on hold during the height of orchard season, like getting firewood ready, and canning applesauce. We do love pick-your-own season, but it is intense, with every second filled. Cider Days comes at just the right time, when we’ve caught up on the tasks we had to put off, and are happy to chat about apples again.


Last Weekend

We had such good pickers this weekend, the trees are nearly bare! So, we will be open tomorrow (Monday the 8th) for pre picked apples, cider, and donuts, and you are welcome to check out the views, but picking is done for the season. Thanks to all who came by the Fall Festival and our farm, it was great visiting with you all.

Last weekend of pick your own!

This weekend the fall colors should be just about peak, as the forest has turned multicolored in the last week or so. So views from the orchard are really wonderful. The Freedom apples, which are the last apple we have available, are sweet and crispy at this point. We will be at the Ashfield Fall Festival Saturday and Sunday with apples and cider, as well as here at the farm from Friday through Monday with cider, apples, Lindy’s jams, jellies, and donuts, and maple syrup. No word on the hard cider as of today; we will keep you posted here and on Facebook when that changes.

It has been a pleasure visiting with our customers this year. It’s great to see all those apples head home with people who will enjoy them in pies, applesauce, and fresh.

Sept 28-30

For the weekend of Sept. 28-30 we will be picking the Freedom apple, most everything else is sold out at this point. The Freedom is an excellent all purpose apple, good for everything from eating, to baking and saucing. Of course we will have our donuts and hot spiced cider, as well as jam/jelly and cider by the jug, all organic. Hope to see you.

Sept 21st-23rd

For the weekend of Sept. 21-23 we are picking Liberty apples only, all of the Cortlands were picked out our first weekend! We are one of the only PYO's around this year so make sure you get here early if you want apples. A lot of local orchards lost fruit due to spring frost damage, so our small orchard is one of the few left to take up the slack. We were pushed to the limits of our infrastructures limitations last weekend but came out ok with lots of people leaving here with some great fruit. The following weekend (Sept 28-30th) our Freedom apple should be in.

First Weekend

Here we go! The weekend of Sept 14th, 15th, 16th we are picking Liberty and Cortland apples. We will also have sweet cider, hot and cold sweet cider by the cup, and baked goods.

Getting ready for fall

We have been moving along with the bureaucracy of farming, including the hard cider permits, board of health inspections of our cider mill and kitchen, and making sure we have bags, bottles, etc. so you can take our apples home with you, in one form or another. We are all set to sell jams and baked goods this fall, and we are hoping the paperwork will be in place so you can buy hard cider as well. Apples are looking fantastic - a good crop on all the varieties that fruited, and even the scab-susceptible apples don’t look bad. We are feeling so fortunate given how many regional apple growers were completely wiped out this year.

The apples appear to be ripening on a fairly normal schedule. This means we anticipate being open for pick-your-own the second or third weekend of September, through Columbus Day weekend. We will keep this web site and the Facebook page updated with specifics about that. When you want to pick apples depends on what you are doing with them. Those picked on the early side, when they are really hard, will likely keep better, but if you want sweet apples you wait until the end of their season. Libertys will be ready first, with Freedoms following around the first of October. We haven’t decided about offering pick-your-own on the Cortlands or other varieties, we need to really survey them to decide what shape they are in. We’ll let you know!

Cider work

We have been working hard on lots of different orchard tasks. We received our federal winery license, and indeed the people were very helpful and it was an easy process. We will send off the state winery license in the next day or two. We also have paperwork involving organic certification of the hard cider, and approval of hard cider labels by two different offices. Phew! This hopefully brings us closer to selling hard cider in the foreseeable future. In anticipation of this, we bought more fermenting vessels, including used glass demijohns from our friends at Green River Ambrosia, and we are trying out a whiskey barrel as well. We also bought a larger press, still the same bladder style but with larger capacity so we can press more cider in less time.
Another new venture for us is selling jams and baked goods when we are open on the weekends. This requires getting our kitchen certified, which means, yes, more paperwork and inspections. We expect to have this in place for this fall so our customers can enjoy some of Steve’s mom Lindy’s fabulous cooking.
Finally, we have even done some actual orchard work outside. We have been keeping grass down around the young trees, checking their trunks for borer damage, and picking up drops under the early variety apples we have. Our one Astrachan tree is just about ready, we will press those apples for vinegar in the next week using our new, bigger press.

Baby chicks

We got a batch of chicks in the mail yesterday, and as we happen to have a broody hen, we tried to give the chicks to her. At twilight when the chickens can’t see but we can, I picked the hen out of her box and plopped her down in the chick enclosure. She was pecking at the chicks until I started stuffing them under her body. Then, it was like a switch was flipped, and she started her mama clucking and nestled down on the chicks. The chicks, for their part, quit alarm calling and burrowed under the hen as soon as they were in contact with her. This morning, 24 chicks were out of sight under mama, and one was resting against her chest in front of her. The amazing power of instinctive behavior patterns! And let’s face it, there’s nothing cuter than a mama with chicks. We are excited to finally pull this off. We are hoping our mystery chick (Murray) is a rooster so we can allow some of our broody hens to hatch and raise next year’s chickens. Murray looks like an Australorp, which would be a good breed for producing egg layers.

Paperwork ensues

Another task we are plugging away on is getting all the legal bits of paper needed to sell hard cider. We sent off our federal winery license application last week, and once we get that we will move on to the state paperwork, then work on local permissions. No telling how long all this will take. The federal application can now be submitted online, which is supposed to speed up the process considerably. We submit it through the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau or something along those lines (TTB for short, I don’t know where the A goes) and apparently the agents you deal with are truly helpful and really get you through the process. We will know more when we get some feedback on our application.

Thinning, thinning

I have been slowly working my way through the pick-your-own varieties. Libertys are finished, and I am halfway through the Freedoms. Once those varieties are thinned I will do a little thinning on the other varieties, but that is not essential given that the season is marching along. We are not seeing much codling moth damage, so we are hopeful that the pheromones we spread throughout the orchard are doing their job disrupting codling moth mating. By the end of the season we’ll see if the moths are just delayed, or whether this method really works for our orchard.

Lots of bird nests and parent birds with beaks full of bugs. The more the merrier! Though they are not very happy with me as I poke around near their nests. I am waiting to get to the tree with the kingbird nest in it with some trepidation - they are territorial and mob anyone who gets to close to their nest. I saw one with bugs in its mouth, so I know they have nestlings to protect. Their tree may not get thinned very well.

The season progresses

In the last few weeks, we have had good news/bad news show up in the orchard. On the bad side, we learned that the models we use to control the fungal disease scab were not accurately reflecting reality this year, thanks to bursts of warm weather early on. Apparently scab spore release is not actually caused by degree days, but in a normal year they correlate fairly well with degree-day models. This year, however, there were lots of spores active after the models predicted that all spores should have been released and no longer a concern. This means that our scab susceptible varieties have signs of the disease on their leaves, and will likely have poor fruit quality this year. Once again, we are thankful that our primary pick-your-own varieties are still scab immune, so they look just fine.

As for good news, we were worried about plum curculio damage since we had over a week without the kaolin clay (Surround) on our trees due to rain. However, now that we are beginning to thin the trees, we can see that plum curculio damage is not worse than it has been in previous years. The apples have really sized up, which means we had to begin thinning while we still have clay on the trees. Thinning involves pulling off fruit that is damaged, leaving apples evenly spaced on the tree. There are several benefits to this. First, with fewer fruits, the tree can invest more in each, leading to bigger fruit. Second, any place where two apples touch invariably ends up harboring insect pests, generally ruining both fruits. Finally, we selectively take off damaged fruits, many of which have insect pests inside them. Since we keep these thinned fruits in buckets, the insects can’t get to the soil in order to continue their life cycle. Hopefully this reduces pest pressure over time as we prevent some pests from reproducing in our orchard.

What's going on now in the orchard

We are into plum curculio season, so the trees are now white with kaolin clay. The bugs are certainly active now, and given the heat should get through their egg-laying season quickly. That would be really good, since the apples are sizing up very quickly this year, meaning we will have to start thinning soon. Thinning with clay on the trees is difficult and unpleasant, so we usually start thinning when we are done spraying clay. We have already had to mow in the orchard, since the grass has grown long already.

Two of our varieties, Northern Spy and Red Delicious, appear to have lost their blossoms due to frost. All the other trees have plenty of fruit showing, but very close to all the blossoms have fallen off those two susceptible varieties. We don’t offer pick-your-own from those trees, but we do use them in cider, so we are sorry to miss them this year.

Around the farm

A little update on our animal companions. The sheep are enjoying eating fresh grass after a winter of hay. Our family group - mama Blondie and her daughter Fifi and son Gimble are going to be ranging around the property, with their range house and moveable electronet fencing. Gimble gets out of the 5-wire fence we have around the main pasture, so he can’t be in there, but the electronet keeps him safe. The llama Fern and the remaining sheep will stay in the main pasture, as the llama needs access to the barn to get out of the sun. We block off portions of the pasture and move them around in that space. Our year-old Red Star chickens are laying up a storm, as are many of our older hens. Even the 5-year old silver-spangled Hamburgs are laying still. They are really amazing birds, too bad they are so good at escaping from fences. We bought chicks from McMurray’s hatchery, Red Stars once again. Chickens must be a booming industry right now, by the time I ordered chickens at the end of March, Red Stars were the only breed we could get early enough to start laying this fall, and we had to order them separately from the meat birds. We ended up splitting orders with other people so we shouldn’t be too overrun with chickens. Some of our older birds will be living around our trap trees this year, hopefully eating lots of pests and reducing pest damage for future years.

Our gardens are pretty much ready for planting, which will happen over the next few weeks. The crops I have already planted - wheat, lettuce, carrots, beets, chard, peas and a few potatoes for summer eating - are all coming up. Unfortunately we have some herbivorous visitor, probably a rabbit, that is chomping chard and pea plants as fast as they put out leaves. Time to pull out some of the hardware-cloth cages we put around the trees in the orchard and set them over my plants.

a visit to the orchard

This morning when I went outside to take care of the animals, it was so warm and beautiful I had to continue up the hill into the orchard. The petals have begun to fall, but there are still a lot of blossoms on the trees, so the orchard is an absurdly pleasant place to be. Birds are everywhere, the Baltimore oriole, kingbird, catbird, and song sparrow the most obvious. No doubt lots of nests are being built right now. We will begin spraying clay on the trees to irritate the plum curculio weevil soon, but right at this moment we don’t have work to do in the orchard so we can just enjoy its beauty.

The infection period for the fungal disease scab is pretty much over. Due to the long period of dry this spring, most of the spores were released in only a few rainy periods, so we were able to spray sulfur on our scab-susceptible trees at those times. If the degree-day models are correct, we should have killed around 90% of the spores this season. We have low scab pressure anyway, thanks to good management in past years, so it will be interesting to see what the scab-susceptible apples, like Cortland and MacIntosh, look like this year.

Some of the young trees we planted are flowering for the first time this year, including Honeycrisp, golden russet, Williams pride, frostbite, baldwin, Cox orange pippin. We won’t get more than a few fruit off each tree, but are excited to find out how these varieties taste when grown here.

management via confusion

Our orchard is now a cloud of female codling moth pheromones, which will hopefully lead the males so astray they can’t find any females to mate. This weekend we put almost 800 little pheromone dispensers in and around the orchard, with the remainder to go in tomorrow. We are relying on this mating disruption to control this pest rather than the Bt we have relied on in previous years, since a) Bt kills any moth or butterfly caterpillar that eats it, which is not as directed a control method as we would like, and b) Bt is not very effective on codling moth, since they spend most of their time eating inside apples, where there is no way to dose them with the Bt. Mating disruption is well-tested in large, flat expanses of orchard, but some growers with small orchards have had good luck as well. Our site presents a number of challenges - slope, wind, lots of untended apple trees in the neighborhood - but we figure it is worth a try, since the alternative doesn’t work that well. We will continue to pick up and store all damaged apples until the caterpillars die - our thinning buckets always have codling moth larvae in the bottoms when we dump them out.

Some apple blossoms have opened, and we appear to have escaped the cold temperatures of the last few nights with very little damage. This is despite lows of 27-28 degrees, which should kill 10% or more of the blossoms. We have so many flowers on the trees this year, a little frost thinning would be ok. While we still have a month to watch for frost before that danger has passed, we are glad to have gotten through this cold snap with apples still growing.

A great day to work in the orchard

With the gift of a beautiful Saturday, we accomplished a lot in the orchard. We moved the big branches we cut off when we were pruning, so we can get through the orchard with a tractor when we need to spray. We also got all the vole cages off the young trees, so we can keep an eye on the trunks to protect them from boring insects. And we are “training” the young trees, tying their branches down so they will fruit rather than continue to grow tall, and form them into a shape that will be good for the future.

We have a few changes in management this season. We are going to use mating disruption for controlling codling moth. To do this, we tie pheromone dispensers throughout the orchard, thereby keeping male moths from finding and mating with females. We hope this method will work in an orchard of our size, but there is no way to find out except to try it. We are also hosting some bees, who belong to a local beekeeper and who will stay here during our blossom season. It was very cheery to have bees flying around the orchard in such numbers while we were working today.

Nice weather for pruning

Given the beautiful weather the last two days, we dropped all other commitments to focus on pruning. We chose to start with our hardest trees this year, the Northern Spys, which continue to grow immense amounts of wood every year. Hopefully now that they are fruiting they will slow down on the wood production. Once we were done with those trees, our other semidwarfs are a breeze! Steve’s parents Rich and Lindy are pitching in too, so we should be done soon. We will have to be, given the crazy warm weather. Buds are swelling already. Last year we had all of April to prune, but I don’t think that will be the case this year. A few more good days and we should be finished.
The orchard fared well this winter, with no vole or deer damage that we have discovered so far. Late last summer and fall were so wet, there is some fungal infections on the trees, but they have recovered before so we hope they will do so again, weather permitting. The trees struggled with fungal infections when we started taking care of the trees. Pruning helps the tree get more air, so the work we are doing now should help the trees dry out and become less hospitable to the fungus.

Solar power

We have at last taken the plunge and are installing photovoltaic panels to cover our electrical use. It will be grid tied and is a big enough system to power our home, orchard, and wood shop. With all three uses we use about a third of the average family in this country, so we didn’t have to invest in a giant system. We are looking forward to generating our own power in the near future, rather than relying on the nuclear and fossil fuel-sourced power that is provided through the grid.

For those of us living in Massachusetts, now is a great time to invest in grid-tied solar power. Massachusetts has set up a market for SRECs (Renewable Energy Certificates) in a way that really benefits the small producer. We get SRECs for every watt of power we generate, whether we use it or feed it back into the grid. These SRECs have a guaranteed price for ten years, and may pay off at a higher rate depending on the market for them. Power companies buy them to include our power as part of their renewable energy portfolio, which they need to increase over time by law. Our system will pay itself off in less than 5 years, given the SREC sales, tax credits and other rebates available to us in Massachusetts. Then it will continue to generate SREC revenue for 5 years. Meanwhile, we get enough electricity to cover our needs, and possibly enough to sell the surplus to a neighbor. Truly a win-win situation.
© 2006-2018 Williams/Gougeon Contact Us