Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery

Certified Organic Hard Ciders and Apples

Looking forward to another pick your own season

After a wonky growing season, we are getting ready for harvest once again. We have spent the entire season holding our breath, waiting to see what the weather extreme of the moment meant for the apples. The trees had good blossom and fruit set, but dropped a lot of fruitlets in June; then with never ending rain they dropped a lot of leaves too, and while the remaining apples stayed on the trees they did not size up. So we have small apples this year. The rain interfered with spraying schedules, of course, so we are getting the full experience of being an organic orchard in terms of how attractive the apples are. But the season has ended with more sun, leading some trees to open new leaves in September; hopefully that will allow them to put some resources aside for next year. I even saw a tree in a neighboring town in blossom!

What does this mean for apple picking this year? There will be a small crop available on the Libertys our first weekend, September 21-23. We have a heavier Jonafree crop available the following weekends. The Cortlands also have some fruit, and will probably be ready the last weekend in September. We may not have enough apples to produce much fresh cider the first weekend we are open. But the apples should color up well, since light is getting into the trees unimpeded by leaves. We will definitely be open Columbus Day weekend, and since it falls early this year we may be open the following weekend. That will depend on ripening schedule of the Jonafree, and how many apples are still on the trees at that point.

As with any kind of farming, data on past growing seasons is a less reliable predictor of the present these days, as we experience the changes wrought by climate change. Apple crop size is down across our region this year, and the explanations vary widely. Mostly they come down to stresses on the trees that make them less able to commit resources to fruit, and in some cases they are not even surviving the stresses. We explore ways to support the trees in the face of these challenges, with lots of discussions with like-minded growers, so we can continue to grow apples into the future.

Blossom time

We are in the midst of a slow, gradual blossom season. Most of our varieties are flowering well this year, and there has been good weather for pollinators mixed with cool temperatures that have kept the blossoms going for a long time. Our later blooming varieties, including Northern Spy, Golden Delicious, and Freedom are all in full bloom, while the petals are starting to fall from Liberty, Mac, and Williams Pride. Our neighbors' honeybees are visiting, along with bumblebees and other native pollinators. A week from now we should have a better sense of fruit set, but everything looks good at this point for the apples.

It has been great to visit with people who have come to the tasting room hours on Saturdays. We have the time to really talk with folks, which is a pleasure. We love the energy and craziness of pick your own weekends and Cider Days in the fall, but it's nice to have some more laid back retail time as well.

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King blossom


Spring has sprung at last

After a long, cold, snowy winter, we are finally looking at brown grass instead of white snow in the orchard. We had a lot of drifted snow, so were worried about vole damage. Voles can use the snow to move around, accessing things like apple trees to eat without being exposed to cold and predators. The young trees we have wire cages on fared well, with two trees suffering damage. However, we did have a number of mature trees that lost bark to voles, both lower scaffolds of branches and some damage on trunks. Given the number of trees that were engulfed in snow up to five feet deep, the losses were light. We were able to finish pruning while the snow melted, despite a late start thanks to all that snow and bitterly cold temperatures. Now we await dry ground so we can get the pruned wood out of the orchard. Snow melt has been pretty gentle and gradual, so the ground is drying faster than it often does this time of year.

Another task we accomplished to be ready for spring was grafting new trees. We have 200 dwarfing rootstock we attached to tree varieties we want to add to the orchard, as we experiment with growing small trellised trees in our organic, low-input system. If successful, these trees will fruit in a small fraction of the time we have waited for the larger rootstock varieties to mature. It’s an amazing experience to take wood from two trees, bind them together, and watch them grow into a new tree. We received a Grinspoon award that will help us set up this new planting.

Our most recent spring task was bottling hard cider. Our hopped hard cider had taken on the hoppy essence it needed from the dry hops we steeped in it, so we bottled that variety. It was a pleasure to bottle in our new cidery, with plenty of space to work efficiently, knowing we won’t have to carry all those heavy cases of cider out of the basement. What a difference a year makes. We will bottle the Farmhouse cider soon, but the other varieties will continue to age for a while longer before bottling.

We are pleased with how the ciders are turning out this year. The base cider is more assertively flavored this year, which balances the hops in that variety, and the wood tones of the barrel-aged Farmhouse well. We will also have Cyser and Ice cider in small quantities, and we are experimenting with a New England style cider. This is cider augmented with brown sugar and raisins, and was the cider making tradition that survived Prohibition around here. We model it after hard cider we served at our wedding over 20 years ago, which was made by a local apple grower.



A week to breathe

Our last two weekends of pick-your-own were busy and fun, with lots of visitors to enjoy the beautiful fall weather, hard cider tastings, and apple picking. As usual, we had a booth at the Ashfield Fall Festival, selling sweet cider and apples, in addition to U-pick, cider tastings, and farmstand here at the farm. We also attended the Riverside Blues & BBQ beer and cider tasting in Greenfield that weekend. We got to work picking what was left following Columbus Day weekend, and did our first hard cider pressing into our new big tanks. Now the apple trees in our orchard are empty, the ground underneath cleaned up, and we have taken a break from pressing to insulate the new building. We received our second grant from the Mass. Department of Agricultural Resources for this project; the first allowed us to begin the project, and this one is focused on energy efficiency and renewable energy. If all goes well we should have the building back together for Cider Days weekend November 1 and 2, with the walls insulated and possibly a heating system in place. Hopefully by the new year we will have expanded our photovoltaic system to cover the heating needs of the new space, maintaining our home and businesses as net-zero.

As many of you who visit here know, we are blessed to have family with fantastic work ethic and a desire to take part in the orchard. Jen’s parents have been on hand to greet and help out when we are open, and they also pitch in with picking and orchard cleanup all season. Steve’s mom makes all the donuts, makes all the incredible jams and jellies, and keeps us fed every weekend. Steve’s dad is a constant presence in the orchard, pruning, mowing, picking, pressing, as well as pitching in to do hard cider tastings and help folks in the orchard when we are open. Steve’s brother pitched in with the building this summer, and staffed the tasting in Greenfield on Columbus Day weekend with Steve’s dad, since Steve and Jen were already staffing two locations. Our sons are also practicing customer service and retail sales, and we hope they can take on bigger roles as they get bigger and older. We are grateful to have such support, as we would not be able to do the work we’ve done without their help.


Looking forward to opening September 19

This has been a hard working summer here, with the new building going from idea to (nearly) complete, on top of the usual work in the orchard, gardens, hard cider cellar, and woodshop. We are just starting to pick the early varieties we have only a few trees of, including Famouse, MacIntosh, Prima, Wealthy, and Williams Pride. Many of these apples will go into the sweet cider for our first weekend we are open, when we will be picking Libertys. The Liberty crop looks good this year, after a low crop last year. Meanwhile, Steve’s mom has been busy with her jam pot, preserving all the berries we grow, including blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, and gooseberry. Those jams and jellies are a great way to enjoy the fruits of summer when there is snow on the ground.

Last year we were picked out so quickly, we felt we had to do something different, since many of our long-time customers didn’t make it here before we were sold out. So this year we have instituted a 2-peck maximum per household. That is 20 pounds of apples, half a bushel. While I know a few of you will be disappointed, most customers only buy up to that amount, so I hope this will be a good change for most of you.


orchard update

Hand thinning on the Libertys, Freedoms, and Cortlands is finished at last, and we are also done keeping clay on the trees to control plum curculio damage. Lots of apples will be able to size up and not run into each other as they grow now, leaving us with more pest-free, round apples. IMG_0301
Robin nest being built

Cluster of apples that need to be thinned


Thinning begins

Hand thinning is one of the aspects of organic orcharding that is undoubtedly more work than conventional systems, where something is sprayed on the trees that causes them to drop some, but not all of their fruit. For us, hand thinning is part of our pest management, since we remove pest-damaged apples and put them in buckets, where they sit until the pests crawl out and die, unable to find soil to pupate in. It forces us to give each tree an up-close inspection, so we assess disease damage, insect pressure, and fruit set. Given the time this takes, we only do this for the pick-your-own varieties. So far the fruit load seems to be about the same as last year, except for our biennial trees (especially Golden Delicious) which were having their off year last year, and are weighted down with fruit this year. We have begun mowing our new/old orchard, so some of the trees there will be accessible for picking this fall (we will be picking there, that is - these are giant standard trees, not suitable for U-pick).

Orchard season work in full swing

It is a busy time here right now. We have finished with protecting the susceptible trees from the fungal disease scab, and have moved on to insect pest management. So, the trees are covered with white clay dust to irritate insect pests so much they leave the tree, especially plum curculio, and we are keeping close records on degree days so we can manage the insects effectively. This year we are spraying a virus that infects codling moth larvae, and later in the year we will spray the ground under the trees with parasitic nematodes that hopefully will infect many of the codling moth pupae in the ground that the virus missed. We are also mowing for the first time this season. Soon we will start thinning the apples on the pick-your-own varieties, to improve fruit size and quality. I hope to start earlier this year, as I was unable to finish the job last year.

Meanwhile, the barnyard is noisy with big machines excavating and laying blocks for our new barn addition/fermentory/cidery. In the next few days, the foundation work should be complete, and we will pour footings and begin building. It will be a very busy summer as this project will take as much time as we can manage to invest.

Surprise planting, llama beans

What a beautiful weekend to spend finishing spring chores in the orchard. We decided at the last minute to take advantage of Cummins Nursery’s end of season stock clearance, and added 16 Roxbury Russets, Newtown Pippins, and Freedoms to the orchard. These trees should grow like crazy, as they were fertilized with aged llama beans. Llamas very conveniently poop in one place, providing their farmer companions with a pile of great fertilizer to be scooped up and used whenever it’s needed. Our newest labradoodle Strawberry was also a big help, as she likes to take part in digging, and rolls in the llama beans and other compost as we put it down. Our sons pitched in too, to finish spreading compost and mulch under young trees, and removing the last of the branches we pruned off from the orchard. They were considerably more help than the puppy was.

We also did a lot of orchard work last weekend, when the weather was cold, wet, and windy. Steve and Elliot spread compost, while Jen and her parents removed all the wire cages from around the young trees and put them away for the season. Now we are really ready for spraying season; soon we will spray our scab-susceptible varieties with sulfur, and after blossom will have to begin controlling our insect pests. Fruit clusters look good with some of the trees we planted blossoming for the first time. Such an exciting time of year in the orchard.


Spring orcharding

We had a beautiful weekend to be out in the orchard. We pruned trees, shaped young trees, and grafted new varieties of apples on some of the trees in the orchard. A Red Delicious will now grow as multiple local varieties (6 on one tree!), the last Prima has become a golden russet, and MacIntoshes will now be Jonathan and Harrison. The trees are looking good, and as soon as the ground dries up we can push the tree trimmings out of the orchard and spread some compost so we will be ready for the growing season. We now have two labradoodles, Watermelon and Strawberry, who keep us company while we are doing orchard work.

The vole pressure appears to have been extremely high this winter, as they girdled trees in the woods and yard as well as in the orchard. Voles eat the young bark off of trees under the snow, effectively cutting off the plant’s circulatory system. We lost a handful of young apple trees, but given the damage to blackberries, maples, and lilacs on the surrounding property, we are relieved the cages we put around the young trunks did their job so the vast majority of young trees are undamaged. A few mature apple trees had trunk damage, including one tree that was completely girdled. Interestingly, it was only the unhealthy mature trees that were eaten by voles. We ended up having to cut down a few trees that have been struggling for years now, as they succumbed to vole damage, disease, and general ill health.


Getting the orchard ready for spring

This has been a long, cold winter, and with the wind we get in our orchard we have been putting off pruning until reasonably warm weather. We are fortunate that we have such a small orchard, so we can choose not to be pruning when it is in the single digits outside. We have had two nice days with temps over 40F, and due to our new pole saw (think chainsaw on a stick) we have made really great progress. Given this new tool, we have been focusing on reshaping trees on more of a macro scale, which is healthier for the tree and promotes better regrowth patterns than cutting tons of small growth. We still have a lot of snow in the orchard, which means we can’t use ladders, so it’s great to have a tool that reaches up into the tree and means we don’t have to climb them (good for us and for the trees). Hopefully we will have a few more warm days soon so we can finish up. We had a lot of snow cover in late winter, which could mean risk of vole damage to our young trees. We can’t be sure of the extent of damage until we can see the trunks of the young trees, but we have found one young tree that was completely girdled when voles made it over the cage we placed around the trunk. Hopefully such damage is not too widespread.

This year, we have decided to start rehabilitating an abandoned orchard nearby. It is made up of overgrown standard sized, heirloom variety trees, and requires a great deal of work. The site has not been managed for over 15 years so we will be able to get organic certification for it quickly and easily. Our plan is to make the trees accessible and do some pruning to help them be healthy, but otherwise do little management and just glean what apples they grow for our hard and sweet cider. This will allow us to increase the number of apples we can pick while we are waiting for our young trees to mature. Of course, last year was a record year for apples, especially on untended trees, so we may have no apples at all this year at that site. As always, there is a lot of wait-and-see involved in farming. We are excited about having access to more fruit, on land we can certify as organic.


Orchard work

We had amazing weather for the orchard work we undertook this past week - it was a pleasure to have an excuse to be outside. We picked all the Red Delicious and a lot of Northern Spy and Freedom apples, and as we cleared each tree we have taken the time to pick up all the drops for the neighbors’ pigs. We also picked all the pears off our one fruiting pear tree, which we are offering for sale this weekend. The pears won’t keep, so this is the only weekend to buy them, and we will have them here at the farm and at the Ashfield Farmer’s market Saturday October 5 from 9-1. We have apples allocated for whole apples and sweet cider at Ashfield’s Fall Festival (Oct 12-13) as well as here at the farm this weekend and next. We also began pressing for next year’s hard cider this week, and will continue to work on that in the weeks to come.

We have decided to offer a price break on 1/2 case or more of hard cider. People buying 6 or more bottles of hard cider (any varieties) will get $2 off each bottle. This deal will be available here at the farm and at the Ashfield Farmer’s market Saturday October 5.

Harvest is approaching

We had our first peach crop this year that was too big for us to eat all by ourselves. This year, the Reliance peach trees are big enough to give us a few bushels to sell, though the later varieties still need to grow bigger before we can sell any of them. It has been wonderful to have peaches around to eat any time we want. I used Red Havens for canning this year, they peel and split in half so easily I may never can Reliance peaches again. I hope they taste as good as they look. As of yesterday, we sold all the Reliance peaches we had to sell.
We are on the verge of having four hard cider varieties available. We bottled the ice cider, and will be bottling the cyser soon too. The cyser is our one dry, still cider this year, since the sparkling and hop ciders are both sparkling, and the ice cider has some sweetness, since we stopped fermentation by transferring the liquid off of the yeast multiple times.
The apples are coloring up and sizing up well. We plan to open for picking Friday, September 20th, and will be open through Columbus Day weekend (though we are likely to be out of apples by the Monday of that weekend). At the farm, we will have apple picking, pre picked apples, hard cider, sweet cider, donuts, and jams. We have moved our retail area into the barn to give us some more space, as we have outgrown the retail space in the cider mill.
We are experimenting with parasitic nematodes to control some of our pests, namely apple and peach borer (which bore into the young trees until they snap off) and codling moth, the quintessential worm in the apple. Because both of these pests spend time in or near the ground, we can spray the nematodes (which are tiny worms) on the ground under the trees and on the lower trunks so they can parasitize the pests. A number of studies have shown these are effective, though the weather conditions have to be just right. So we are hopeful that this very focused pest management practice can improve apple quality and save our young trees.

Summer orchard

The orchard is looking good, with apples sizing up and decent fruit set on Libertys, Freedoms, Northern Spys, and Cortlands. Golden delicious are taking a year off, as they are on a biennial cycle. A handful of the young trees have a few apples, but none are really starting to bear yet. We had a very rainy spring/early summer, so it was difficult to keep clay on the trees while the plum curculio were active. Libertys in particular are very attractive to plum curculio, so we thinned those quite heavily to remove damaged fruit. Jen is still thinning the Freedoms - between rain and other time commitments, it is difficult to fit in the many, many hours needed to hand thin the fruit. At this point, we continue to thin to keep apples from touching, to minimize insect damage on the fruit. It also gives us an opportunity to keep track of late season insect damage, mostly from codling moth.

We are selling our hard cider every other week at the Ashfield Farmer’s Market this summer and fall. We will be at the market next Saturday, July 13, from 9-1 on the Town Common, and have the Hop and Sparkling hard ciders for sale for $12 per 750 mL bottle. We also offer free tastings; there’s nothing like a little hard cider with your coffee and pastry in the morning, right? Right now, the only way you can buy our cider is at the Ashfield Farmer’s Market or by stopping by the farm. This fall, we will sell hard cider here at the farm every weekend when we are open for apple picking. By that time, two more varieties of hard cider will be ready; a Cyser (hard cider and honey fermented together) and a limited offering of our Ice cider. Looking forward to next year, we are all set up to make more hard cider this fall so we can offer it in a few retailers and restaurants locally.

Almost blossom time

While our apple trees are holding off blossoming for a few more days, our other fruit trees - plum, cherry, peach, pear - are all in full bloom. We are supposed to get frosts in the next few days, though not so cold as to endanger the blossoms. Let’s hope the forecasts are correct. We are relieved to have gotten a few inches of rain in the last number of days. It had not rained since we planted all our new trees, and no matter how well you water plants, real rain does a better job. Nothing makes you attentive to weather like farming! We are thrilled to have really precise weather information with our new weather station. We find the temperatures are really different than those recorded by the Clark Orchard weather station, which is only a few miles away but hundreds of feet lower in elevation. Now we can track our own degree days and wetting periods.
We got labels approved and printed for the sparkling and hopped ciders, and we are now close to contacting retailers to start selling cider. We plan to be at the Ashfield farmer’s market Memorial Day weekend with those two varieties of hard cider. That market is on the town common in the village of Ashfield Saturdays 9-1. We won’t be there every week (unless Ashfield residents turn out to be really thirsty for cider), but expect to attend once a month during the spring and summer. Once the maple, farmhouse, and ice ciders are ready we will add them to the selection.

Spring orchard work

We have been so hard at work we have not taken the time to share what we’ve been doing, hence the length of this entry. We pruned all the trees in the orchard, some on top of snow that let us reach high in the trees, some on snowshoes, and some on the ground. The trees are continuing on their path to proper shape, as each year we allow some branches to grow out and eventually can cut the overhanging branches that grow at weird angles. We also grafted new varieties onto rootstock that we collected from our trees or those of neighbors and friends, which are currently in our refrigerator but will soon be in the nursery bed to grow into young trees. We ordered a few new apple varieties from Fedco Trees, namely Redfield, Campfield, Reine de Pomme, as well as a few more peach trees, grape vines, and blueberry bushes, and all but the blueberries are now in the ground. We are also moving all the trees we grafted two years ago into the orchard, filling in areas where trees died and starting to plant in new areas as well. It feels great to have the orchard filled in at last, though these new trees will not fruit for some time to come. Remaining orchard work, before we see blossoms, include planting the apple trees that remain in the nursery bed and the blueberry bushes, pruning of a few of our giant standard sized trees, removing all the big tree trimmings from the orchard, and flail mowing the smaller branches to return them to the soil. It’s amazing how those chopped up branches disappear.

On the hard cider side, we have also been busy. We ordered new bottles, and bottled most of the 2012 cider as Sparkling and Hop hard cider, with the still, Farmhouse hard cider, Maple hard cider, and the Ice cider continuing to age for a bit longer. We decided to bottle-condition the sparkling and hop ciders by adding just a few ml of maple syrup when we fill the bottles. This adds some bubbles as the maple syrup ferments. We also worked with our artist friend Jeff Grader to design some labels for the new varieties, and we are now working through the bureaucracy of getting them approved by the organic certifier and the federal government so we can get them printed. Nothing is quick and easy when dealing with alcohol! We are looking forward to making the hard cider available at a few local retailers in the next month or so. Updates on that as soon as we have them.

This spring has been nice and gradual, with no weird heat waves in March like we had last year. We see no vole damage on any trees this year, perhaps due to the long cold period before we had snow this winter. Hopefully pest insects were knocked down by that cold as well; we are looking forward to seeing whether cold, dry winter periods reduce pest insect pressure. Every year is a new adventure, we’ll have to wait to see what this one will bring.

Orchard reflections

On this snowy day, when pruning is not an option, I have been thinking about the orchard as a component of our local habitat. The Northeast Organic Farming Association spring publication focused on the role of organic farms in supporting the biodiversity of our local communities, noting that one goal of the organic standards is to promote biodiversity and ecosystem health beyond the farm.
The notion that our farm is part of the local ecosystem is one of our prime directives as orchard managers. We foster elements of the ecosystem within and around our orchard to integrate our non-native fruit trees into their ecological community, both to gain benefits from that community, and to provide resources in return. For instance, we encourage a healthy soil ecosystem by maintaining a diverse understory, feeding the creatures in the soil with compost and tree trimmings, and avoiding use of materials that might harm those soil inhabitants. Those creatures in turn make nutrients available to our trees, aerate the soil, and keep conditions such as water retention and pH in balance. We also are thrilled to host predators of all shapes and sizes, from the mind-boggling diversity of spiders in and around the orchard, to the mink that spent much of this winter hunting little mammals on our property, to the hundreds of birds that feed their babies with insects from our orchard each spring and summer. Without these helpers we would be overrun with pests that would kill our trees and damage our fruit. And while our property is just a small piece within a large area of forest and other open land, the mix of pasture, orchard, forest, wetlands, and gardens offer resources to a broader range of creatures than one habitat could provide. So, we hope our management strategy is mutually beneficial, to us and every other creature we share space with.
This strategy does sometimes come with costs. That mink killed a chicken before we tightened up the coop. Rodent populations can spike, leaving us with girdled, dead trees. Various insect pests have gotten out of balance, damaging substantial numbers of apples. An orchard is not an intact ecosystem, after all, so we do need to intervene to a degree. But we hope to always improve our capacity to manage the orchard in a way that will improve the health of our trees, the quality of our apples, and the value of our property to everyone else living here.

The winter orchard

So far this winter, we have had a lot of cold weather, some of it when there is snow on the ground but also when the ground was mostly bare. Before we started taking care of the orchard, we noticed that some years insect damage was worse than others, and thought that cold periods when the ground was bare might have some connection to that. Given that many of our pest species overwinter in the top few inches of the ground, cold without snow to insulate the ground could kill a lot of overwintering pests. If this is true, the coming season might have quite low pest pressure. This would impact plum curculio, codling moth, voles, and possibly apple and peach borer. I sure hope it works that way!
As for the mammal pests, we have new fox tracks in the orchard every day, and a big mink has taken up residence, so that should reduce the number of voles and rabbits for next season. I got to see the mink kill a rabbit right in our front yard, and we found another he had probably stashed in a snowbank. I say he, since it is mostly male minks that kill rabbits - they are bigger than females. This mink is very dark sable, almost black, so is very noticeable in a snowy world. He also got into the chicken coop one night and killed one of my chickens, but we buttoned up the coop and he has not gotten in again.

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!

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.

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.

Cider Days is here!

We are looking forward to a fun weekend filled with Cider Day events. We will be here at the farm making cider and chatting with those of you who stop by 10-5 Saturday and Sunday; we’ll have cider and donuts, and Michael Phillips (the author of The Apple Grower) will be talking about organic orcharding on Sunday at 10 AM. We are heading to the Cider Salon and Locavore dinner on Saturday night in Deerfield, maybe we’ll see some of you there too. One word of caution - we did get over two feet of snow last weekend, and while a lot of that melted, boots are still a necessity if you want to walk in the orchard.

Contemplating drops in an organic orchard

We have customers every year who ask us if we offer drops for sale. We do not, despite not using them for cider or anything else, because our drops are full of holes and other damage. The other day I was remembering picking drops in my childhood, and how the ground was littered with perfect quality apples. We never bought tree-picked fruit. The contrast between those apples and the ones we pick up in our orchard is pretty amazing, and makes me realize how sterile those orchards of my childhood must have been. I can’t even imagine what was used on the orchard floors to keep the drops from being eaten. Our drops usually have some kind of damage - most drop off the tree in the first place because they were damaged by an insect pest, so they start their time on the ground with some kind of hole. Then once they are on the ground, they are quickly nibbled on by voles, slugs, and ants. If the ground is wet, fungus can start to grow on the apple almost immediately. We see this in action despite our best efforts to pick up apples within a week of them hitting the ground, to prevent pests in the apples from continuing their life cycle.
To be fair, the apples I picked as a kid were MacIntosh, which drop off the tree the minute they are ripe. Nonetheless, I just don’t remember the underlayer of rotting, nasty apples we would have if we left apples on the ground for a week or more.

Holy cow! Where did the apples go?

Amazingly, despite the wet weather these last two weekends, our pick-your-own customers have picked all the apples we have available this year. We have probably a third of the apples we had last year. We are saving apples for the venues we have committed to - Ashfield Fall Festival Columbus Day weekend, Cider Days in November, and the Sanderson Academy’s Local Goods fundraiser. We are very sorry to miss those of you who didn’t get to come while we were open; perhaps we will see you at Fall Festival?

Happy to be selling apples at last

After a season of working on and worrying about our apples, it is reaffirming to have folks come and be happy to pick and eat them. By selling directly, here on the farm, we get to talk with our customers about what they want in their food, what they believe is best for themselves, their kids, and our planet. We also strongly believe people should have the opportunity to know exactly where their food is coming from, and it is great to provide that for the crop we have to offer. This is something we would not get if we sold wholesale, and I’m not sure if we could continue the work and worry part without that sharing of values with the people who eat the apples. So, to all of our customers, thanks for coming!

Opening late

There is no arguing with Mother Nature. We have been waiting and watching the apples, hoping they would be ready this weekend as we had planned to open then. However, the apples are delayed and will not be ripe this weekend. We should be all set for next week though, so we plan to be at the Conway market Thursday, Shelburne Falls market Friday, the Ashfield market Saturday, and pick-your-own all weekend, September 24-25.

Orchard work

We had a satisfying couple of days fitting in orchard work amidst nonstop food preservation and firewood gathering. We picked up drops in a large portion of the orchard, especially under varieties that are susceptible to apple maggot fly (which we control solely via picking up drops). These apples are now sitting in buckets so that if any pests crawl out of the fruit to continue their life cycle, they will not find the soil they need to do so. We also cleared around the young trees and refitted cages around their bases, for protection from voles this fall and winter. We found two trees infected with apple borer, which eat the inside of the tree until it snaps off. Out of a few hundred trees, that is not a bad rate, but sad nonetheless. We will endeavor to be more vigilant about this pest, which must be caught before it can burrow too far into a tree. Our boys helped with these tasks, and we all got to enjoy the many monarch butterfly crysallises we ran into while clearing around the trees. Our dog Watermelon also enjoys orchard work; she alternates between digging giant holes after voles, and running up to the brook for a quick dip.

Unscathed by Irene

The orchard was unharmed by the hurricane. We got 11 inches of rain but little wind, and the trees are perfectly happy to get some rain. Most of it ran off the hill really quickly, forming torrents and eroding any human-shaped areas (such as driveway and road) but the turf-covered orchard just got wet.

We are heading toward orchard season - apples are sizing up and turning red, though they are a ways off from ripe yet. We will be sticking to our pick-your-own schedule from last year of Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and will be at the Ashfield, Shelburne Falls, and Conway farmers markets when the apples come in. Stay tuned for which weekends that will be.

Organic certification

So this year we decided to get certified as organic growers. Our apples, cider, and cider vinegar are now certified organic, as well as any other tree fruit we decide to sell. We have been hesitant to undertake this process, since it requires some hours in paperwork and annual inspections, but we decided the word organic allows our customers to know something about how we grow apples without each one of them needing to ask us about how we grow apples. Of course this has not changed the way we grow; we have been growing to, and beyond the organic standards since we started. Growing apples organically is certainly a challenging job in many ways, and we want to be able to let folks know without pussyfooting around the “O” word. So, we now have the legal right to say our apples are ORGANIC! We are still more than happy to talk about exactly how we grow apples, since organic growers use many different practices (and there are pesticides allowed under organic certification that we are unwilling to use). So feel free to ask.
There was a really large application, asking many questions that we couldn’t answer, like what our crop rotation practices are. But the certifying agency (Baystate Organic Certifiers) were very helpful, the inspection was thorough but pleasant, and the process went quite smoothly. We are happy to have one more bureaucratic hurdle down. Amazing how good you have to be with legalese, tax law, etc. to be a farmer. Any small business owner needs those same skills I guess.

A beautiful day in the orchard

Thinning was a wonderful way to start the day yesterday. It was sunny and breezy, the dogs were playing, and it smelled like the wildflowers that grow under the trees. A chipping sparrow yelled at me with a beak full of insects, and when I looked around, there was a delicate little nest with tiny new chicks opening their mouths. I was thinning near the sheep pasture, and they came up and yelled at me until I trimmed some apple greenery for them to eat. They ate a few of the larger apples too, but they really prefer them riper. Thinning of the pick-your-own varieties should be complete today.


As we started thinning apples, we realized that plum curculio were still active so we had to spray clay once more at the end of June. We have never had to spray clay after the 15th of June, but it has been so rainy and cool I guess the little buggers have been delayed. Thinning with fresh clay on the trees is difficult and unpleasant, as the clay makes the apples hard to see, and of course it rubs off on you as you move through the tree. So, we have taken a short break from thinning. It rained a bit last night, so I will start thinning once again over the next few days. The crop on the Freedoms is certainly thin, but the Libertys look ok (not much hand thinning to do though Happy, and the Northern Spys look great. Interestingly, the scab-immune varieties seem more attractive to plum curculio - some of the Freedoms and Libertys are really covered with PC-scars and need to be thinned off, but the older varieties - Northern Spys, Golden Delicious - have much less PC damage. I guess there is always a tradeoff; if an apple was immune to scab and unattractive to all insect pests, it would probably taste terrible and have no nutrients.
Soon we will be hanging traps to monitor apple maggot flies. This is mostly to give us an idea of the pressure in the orchard, since we don’t have any way to deal with AMF at this point in the season. We can only hope our orchard sanitation last year was good enough that we don’t have to deal with this pest. Still, it’s satisfying to see those little flies stuck to the traps - each one is one fewer to damage the apples.
Our little ram lamb Gimble is growing incredibly fast. He is fat, fat, fat, despite not having started eating anything yet. His little horns are growing, and we have had to work on keeping him from butting us - not a good habit for him to develop. We are making every effort to keep him tame, unlike the rest of our sheep, so he enjoys lots of petting and getting picked up. We will try him on a halter soon, he is almost big enough for one to stay on I think. I have never seen a Shetland sheep who is well halter trained, even the ones people show tend to lay on their backs when they are led on a halter. Worth a try though.

orchard season moves along.

We are starting into the thinning season, when we pull off a lot of tiny apples to leave room for the biggest, healthiest ones. Many of our varieties have reduced fruit due to poor pollination this year so we expect this will not be as time-consuming a task as it is most years. Our Northern Spys are fruiting heavily for the first time, so we are watching to see how much of the fruit will fall off without our assistance before we start hand thinning. Some varieties self-thin more than others, and we don’t know the tendencies of the Spys. We have seen a small amount of the fungal disease scab on some of the Cortlands, but not on our other scab-susceptible varieties (the two MacIntoshes we have left have very little fruit on them, so I haven’t checked them very carefully). Over the next few weeks we will gain a much better idea of the fruit we have, or don’t have, on trees this year as we thin. We are approaching the end of spraying trees with clay too, which is always a relief. Since the clay gets washed off when it rains, we have to reapply a lot some years (and this was one of them).

Farmer worries begin

We finally have some sunny, warm weather, and most of the trees are done flowering. We had really excellent flowers, but they bloomed right during a period of cold and wet - poor weather for pollinators. It looks like our midseason apples - so the vast majority of our fruit - had lowered rates of pollination, and our fruit set is lower than we’ve ever seen it. We are going to keep taking care of the fruit, but it’s possible that we will have a smaller crop this year. Certainly we have less thinning to do than most years. Our one late season variety, the Northern Spys, were covered with flowers this year - a first for us, and they bloomed later than the other varieties so may very well have fruit. We’ll see how they do this season, maybe we could even sell some! They have been extremely reluctant to fruit, preferring to become giant, impenetrable shrubs, but maybe years of ruthless pruning is finally having an effect.
We have started to spray clay on the trees to ward off plum curculio and other insect pests. The trees will be white for about a month, forcing plum curculio to lay their eggs in the fruit on our trap trees (a few scattered trees in the orchard that are not sprayed with clay). We can then collect the damaged fruit from those trees, reducing the numbers of plum curculio in the process. The clay must be re-applied every time it rains, so our current dry spell is welcome.
So, we will just have to see how things go - at least we have some fruit. We feel particularly grateful as we know another orchardist who has already been hit with heavy hail damage, and of course many orchards had little to no fruit due to a late frost last year. Hope must spring eternal, when you are a farmer.

Rain, rain, go away

We have had rain, fog, and drizzle almost steady for the last week, right during peak bloom for most of our trees. This leaves us to worry about pollinators - will our hardy native bumblebees, mason bees, and other native species be up to the task in the cold and damp? We are thankful we are not reliant on honeybees, which are not as willing to go out in cold weather. At least some of the blossoms I checked today were pollinated, as the little swollen base of the dying-back flower can attest.
Our other concern is the fungal disease scab, since we are right in the middle of the primary infection period for that disease. Scab spores can only infect the apple leaves when wet for a certain number of hours in a row, so this time of year we spray our scab-susceptible varieties with sulfur when we expect a sufficient wetting period. We are not sure what a week-long wetting period means for scab infection, though it’s quite possible that a higher-than-average percentage of spores were able to infect leaves due to sulfur washing off the trees. Fortunately all of our pick-your-own varieties are scab-immune, so we should have a good crop despite this. Also, last year was an exceptionally low scab year owing to little rain during the infection period, so there should be fewer scab spores available than in many years. We will look for signs of scab infection over the next week or two.
Today I took advantage of a short break in the rain to ruthlessly cut off the flowers growing on our one-year-old trees. We need these tiny trees to invest in roots and wood, not fruit, so must get rid of their flowers before they spend too much energy on them. I was happy to see ladybug larvae and spiders patrolling the trees already. I didn’t see any aphids for the ladybugs to eat, but there were some insects like tarnished plant bugs and one ant for the spider to live on. Go predators go!

Orchard is starting to bloom

With some warm weather, the trees are awakening, with flowers that are at the pink stage in most of the orchard. A few apple trees have even opened their blossoms, joining our plum and peach trees which are covered in flowers this year. We finally have accumulated enough degree-days to spray sulfur on our scab-susceptible trees, in preparation for the rain forecasted to fall tonight. With that rain, all the matured spores (like seeds) of the scab fungus will try to grow but the sulfur will prevent them from doing so. Meanwhile, many birds are courting and building nests in the orchard, including the bobolink and Baltimore oriole that we saw in the trees today. The oriole was busy hunting around the blossoms, presumably eating the little caterpillars we have seen that eat some blossoms before they can open. The more birds, the better! Even species that usually eat seeds or nectar feed insects to their young, so we are thrilled to have lots of nesting birds here for many reasons. Every year we see nests padded with wool from our sheep, very fun.

The orchard is in good shape, as we spent last weekend spreading bark mulch around the young trees and removing the big branches we pruned off earlier. Smaller branches remain in the orchard where we mow them to return their nutrients to the soil. Most of the trees are blossoming heavily, even our reluctant fruiters the Northern Spys. We’ll see if that translates into fruit set later on. A good start to the growing season.

Spring arrived at last

With a smidgen of good weather, we have planted our new trees, set up the nursery bed for newly grafted trees, and should be done pruning this weekend. Just in time, since the trees are showing some green at last. Now we need to begin counting degree days so that we can track disease and insect development. The season begins!


In 2010 we had 1/4” green tips on April 7th, very early. This year we still had complete snow cover in the orchard on April 7th, and today a winter wonderland. We only have a little left to prune, and a bunch of new trees to get in. However, the weather is not making it easy to wake the orchard up so far this year.



This week is our pruning week, when Jen has a week off from teaching and we can work together to trim the trees. We have been blessed with two beautiful sunny days so far (and one horrendous slush-fest during which we did indoor tasks), and have pruned a good portion of the orchard. Our work of shaping the trees in previous years is paying off this year, as pruning is far easier than it has been in the past. Part of that might be that we are more clear on what we are trying to accomplish, as well. Steve will need to go back through with a ladder for the tops of some trees when the snow finally melts, but we can get to a good portion of the semi-dwarfs.
This is also our chance to see how the orchard fared during this long, snowy winter. Snow increases the risk of vole damage to trees, since they can stay all cozy and safe under the snow and eat bark off the trees. Indeed, many of our full grown trees show some areas of vole damage, hopefully not enough to hurt most of them. But a few of our new trees were girdled, since the snow was well above the level of the wire cages we surrounded them with. Most of the new trees have avoided damage, though. No sign of damage from cold, ice or other weather, as is usual for apple trees.

Taking advantage of the snow

Today I took advantage of the snow day, and the feet of snow in the orchard, to do some orchard management. Each spring, every tree is covered in flowers, and if all goes well most of those flowers turn into tiny fruits. The tree can’t possibly support every fruit, so many are abandoned by the tree. Most varieties of trees drop these abandoned fruits right away, but for some reason Cortlands hold onto these dead fruits by the hundreds. Each one of these dead fruits becomes something like a biobomb - the fungi and other microorganisms that decompose dead fruits are now to be found up in the tree rather than on the ground, and these decomposers can infect living fruit if the dead fruits remain on the tree. We pick off the dead fruits when we thin in July, but we can’t get every one. Every time I go by the trees in summer and fall I pick off dead fruitlets, but I can’t reach those high up in the tree. Right now with feet of snow on the ground I can reach nearly the entire tree. I just have to be careful not to step on and damage branches under the snow, and I don’t want to push into the tree, as branches are much more brittle this time of year. So, thanks to the snow, I can reduce the disease pressure the tree will have to fight this coming season.

We have some help in the orchard with vole management this year, as a fox has been frequenting the orchard. We saw it dig up a rabbit and trot off one morning this week - that doesn’t help the orchard much but is a relief for the kitchen gardens the rabbits discovered last year. Hopefully the fox is eating its share of voles as well. It must be eating well, as it is incredibly healthy looking. We have heard a lot of fox barking and screaming at night, perhaps part of courtship? I hope for a nice den of kits somewhere nearby to work on our vole population. We will have to be careful of the chickens though!

feeding the trees

We spent a beautiful Saturday last weekend feeding compost to all the trees in the orchard, returning some nutrients to them in return for all the apples we have harvested. This compost is leaf and wood based, coming from a local landscaper, which is perfect for trees - all the fungi and bacteria are wood-based species, so they will hopefully continue to be happy and productive in the orchard. Feed the soil, feed the tree.

We have also been surrounding our baby trees with wire cages, to keep the rodents from girdling them. Voles killed most of the trees we have had to replace, so this is an important safety measure. So, the orchard is ready for winter. Our next task will be ordering any new trees or rootstock we can’t resist this winter, and then pruning next March. Thank heavens this is a seasonal venture!

On this day of Thanksgiving, we are thankful for all of you who support our orchard and allow us to keep it in production. A few years ago, we faced the choice of taking care of the trees or chopping them all down, and it’s thanks to you all that we can justify the time and care we put into the orchard. There is nothing more satisfying than growing food.

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