Oh, the Joys of Apple Season! Exploring Local Orchards

Not many activities are a better indicator of fall in the Upper Valley than apple picking time. Strawberry picking in late spring, blueberry picking in mid-summer, and apple picking in the fall are favorite pastimes of those who love fresh, local produce. The Lebanon area is a prime destination of those who enjoy fresh cider, quality hard cider and crisp, tasty, homegrown apples.

At the Riverview Farm in Plainfield, owner Nancy Franklin says she and husband Paul have grown and sold apples from the farm for 35 years. About 11 acres of the farm are devoted to growing about 2,000 apple trees.

The Franklins sell their apples at the Lebanon and Norwich farmers’ markets, as well as at the farm. Riverview is a “pick your own” destination, and visitors flock to the farm from the end of August until late October to pick and buy their favorite varieties. Some of the varieties found on the farm include McIntosh, Cortland and Ginger Gold. The most sought-after apple variety they produce is the Honeycrisp, Franklin adds.

At Walhowdon Orchards in Lebanon, Barb and Matt Patch produce several apple varieties, including Paula Red, McIntosh, Empire and Idared. They have 20 acres of mature trees producing apples, and recently planted 1,600 new trees to add to the mix of varieties. Some of the new varieties include Honeygold, Fuji, Gala and the popular Honeycrisp.

Though the current orchard at Walhowdon has been producing about 35 years, the farm itself has been worked since the 1770s. Currently, the seventh and eighth generations of the same family work the land at Walhowdon, says Barb Patch.

Much of the apple crop produced at Walhowdon is sold at area grocery stores, including Hannaford, Price Chopper, and the Co-op Food Stores in Lebanon, Hanover and White River Junction. Barb Patch says the Walhowdon apples found at these grocery stores are always fresh, as the apples are picked and transported to the stores almost immediately.

As is true at Riverview Farm, the apples are ready for picking at Walhowdon in late August; usually between August 20 and 25, says Barb Patch. At Walhowdon, visitors can buy apples at the farmstand, but pick your own is not an option here.

So how is this year’s apple crop shaping up?

“It’s a little on the light side,” says Nancy Franklin, though she adds there will be plenty of apples for those showing up to pick their own. The warmth during the winter followed by a cold snap combined to affect the quantity of apples this year, though not enough to have a great impact on the crop.

Barb Patch confirms that assessment, saying, “The quality will be the same, but the quantity will be a bit less.” Other apple growers in mid New Hampshire and Vermont have voiced these same sentiments regarding this year’s crop.

The relatively dry summer has not adversely affected the orchard at Riverview Farm, says Franklin. There has been enough rain to hold off the drought, and the mature trees have a deep root system that allows them to get adequate moisture. The farm has an irrigation system in place for the younger trees, Franklin says.

Steve Wood runs both Poverty Lane Orchards and Farnum Hill Ciders

Steve Wood runs both Poverty Lane Orchards and Farnum Hill Ciders

At Poverty Lane Orchards and Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, owner Steve Wood says the growing season has been good, despite the early concerns about warm winter weather followed by some very cold early spring nights. Wood says he had some serious concerns for his trees with those cold spring mornings, but they came through fine.

Wood says he has spent many years engaging in trials of various varieties to not only find the best apples for making his hard cider, but those that do best in the climate and terrain of the Upper Valley.

The pick your own process at Riverview makes for a very festive time, says Franklin. On weekends during the picking season, there are horse-drawn hayrides and a corn maze to challenge visitors. The popularity of picking apples is often evident on weekends during the fall, as Franklin says that 60 to 80 cars will fill up the farm’s parking areas.

Of course apples are not the only popular product these farms produce – apple cider is another important part of their season. Walhowdon cider is well known throughout the Upper Valley. Barb Patch says cider production begins on their farm about two weeks after apple picking commences, meaning cider productions starts early to mid-September.

Walhowdon cider is found at stores throughout the area, while the cider from Riverview Farm is only found at the farm or farmers’ markets. Nancy Franklin says “we do our own fresh cider,” but as they do not pasteurize the cider, it is not sold through other outlets. Riverview will also do custom apple pressing for individuals who have an apple crop.

Cider is king at Poverty Lane Orchards and Farnum Hill; that is to say, hard cider is king. Owner Steve Wood devotes much of his 65+ acre orchard to growing apples geared for making hard cider. This category of apples, called bittersweet, are not grown for eating, but are used strictly for producing their high-quality hard ciders.

The majority of the apples used in the production of Farnum Hill’s hard ciders are grown at Poverty Lane. The apples go directly to the fermentation process in the fall, with the final hard cider product ready for consumption about eight months later. In comparison, Wood says the big hard cider producers churn out their product in three to four weeks. Comparing Farnum Hill hard cider to the mass producers’ products is like comparing a high-end Cabernet wine to a wine cooler, Wood says.

Anyone who has observed the shelves and coolers at a local market or liquor store knows the offerings of hard cider have boomed over the past few years. “It’s been a real explosion,” says Wood of the hard cider industry.

Though Wood does offer his hard ciders to distributors around the country, much of the product sells close to home. “One of our best wholesale markets is the state of New Hampshire,” says Wood, adding “New York is also a good market.” Ciders from Farnum Hill are available at food and specialty stores, and at New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlet Stores.

Honeycrisp is gaining popularity

Honeycrisp is gaining popularity

Hard ciders from Farnum Hill are also available at some restaurants. Retail sales of the product at the farm consist of growler sales held on certain days throughout the year, and regularly during fall apple season. Customers may buy a refillable growler bottle from Farnum Hill and purchase their favorite hard cider to take home.

Though these farms count on apples, and cider, to attract customers, other crops are offered to add to the draw. Poverty Lane, for example, has a pick your own raspberry season. Though hard cider production is a mainstay at Poverty Lane Orchards and Farnum Hill, they do offer a farmstand, pick-your-own apples, and host many school groups that visit the orchard in the fall. At Riverview Farm, Nancy Franklin grows late-season blueberries. As cooler weather prompts apple pickers, Franklin says the late blueberries attract customers in late August and early September, when some apples are ready, but people are not yet focused on apple picking.

by Frank Orlowski