by Garrett Heaney
MONTPELIER —Working in the produce department at the Hunger Mountain Coop, my colleagues and I have a singular view of the seasons that revolves around the fruits and vegetables we see everyday. For many people, this is the end of summer. For us, it’s the end of local watermelon and Amish peach season, and the beginning of the most prestigious and diverse season of them all: apple season. With a mapped genome of over 57,000 genes, the apple has almost twice as many genes as you or I (humans have just 30,000 genes). This leaves a lot of room for variance in flavor, color, shape, size, texture and nutritional content.
At the co-op, we’ll see some 70 varieties of apple come and go over the next couple of months, each with its own unique appearance, flavor profile, purpose and name. The naming of apples is a story in itself — where do all these names come from? Some are easy to guess: Ginger Gold and Honeycrisp are dead giveaways, but what is a Gravenstein? Where is Cortland?
We actually sell a book by Calais author Rowan Jacobsen called “Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics, and Little-Known Wonders.” It’s a pretty big deal. Spoiler Alert: Gravenstein is the German name for the Danish town of Gråsten where the apple tree either first sprouted in 1669 or was brought from Italy as a gift unto the Duke of Gravenstein. It’s the National Apple of Denmark as of 2005. And Cortland is a county in New York, near the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva where it was cultivated in 1889. A cross between the McIntosh and the Ben Davis apple, it’s got a bright flavor and softer flesh that does best in desserts and sauces, but is considered an eating apple now in September.
Which brings up an important aspect of any apple: its purpose (or prefered means of human consumption). What is it good for? Eating, cooking or cider are the usual designations. Eating apples are typically sweet and crisp. Who likes a mouth full of mushy apple? Well … that’s a trick question, people who like applesauce do, and that’s why Cortlands rank in the top 15 for sales in the U.S. — it’s used mostly as a “cooking” or “baking apple.”
So what are the good Vermont eating apples? Good is a relative term, but based on things like sales, prices, word of mouth and crazed customer interaction, we have a pretty good idea. The aptly named Empire is, and has been, the Co-op’s best selling apple for a number of years. That’s got to be my favorite detail of all — someone had the confidence to just come right out and declare this apple’s destiny — ‘this apple will be an Empire.’ It’s actually a hybrid of a McIntosh and a Red Delicious, so it has almost a perfect ratio of firmness, sweetness, tartness and storage capability.
Robert Kirigin, produce manager at Hunger Mountain Coop for over 20 years, tells us that the Honeycrisp (a newer variety) is the second best-selling apple at the co-op, which is quite a feat given its much shorter availability. Whereas local Empires are available (literally) every day of the year, we only see Honeycrisp for a few months, in which time they generate enough sales to put them squarely on top of Macouns (the co-op’s number-three apple) and Cortlands and Macs (which are tied for fourth and typically around most of the year).
So where do all these apples come from? The co-op, like most eco-conscious apple retailers, get their apples from three sources: Scott Farm and Dwight Miller Orchards down in Dummerston and Champlain Orchards of Shoreham.
Scott Farm grows over a 100 varieties of apple its orchardist, Ezekiel Goodband, is a legend in his own right. The 62-year-old Goodband, or ‘Zeke’ as he is known throughout the state (and nation after gaining a well deserved spot on NPR last year) has been the orchard manager at Scott Farm for almost 15 years. The previous orchardist, a man by the name of Fred Holbrook, grew McIntosh almost exclusively and it is through these trees that Goodband has successfully grafted so many varieties of heirlooms.
Kirigin tells us Zeke “tries to sell out by Thanksgiving before the apples start to lose any of their amazing flavors … We buy almost exclusively from Scott Farm from August to November and then switch over to Champlain Orchard when Scott Farm runs out of apples.”
Dwight Miller, of the same small town in Windham County, a little north of Brattleboro, is distinctive in that it grows certified organic apples. This requires a lot of extra work and most people who are serious about organic produce are willing to shell out the extra money. According to Kirigin, they produce anywhere from 10-20 varieties each year, and the co-op buys them as long as they’re available.
Champlain Orchards, like Scott Farm, has a large selection of ecologically grown apples, meaning they’re not certified organic, but employ a limited spray approach, and only when needed. Unlike commercial growers who spray just about anything, in any amount, all over their trees to yield the most fruit for the market, both Champlain and Scott Farms do spot treatments, and do so sparingly enough to maintain their eco-certification.
One advantage that Champlain has over the competition is a state of the art storage facility that keeps their apples good all year round. When I first started working at the co-op four years ago, they hadn’t upgraded yet, and we’d run out of local apples early in the winter, spring if we were lucky. Now, we still have Champlain apples on the shelf throughout the summer until the current crop is ready to pick.
But now is that time, and we’re starting to see an onslaught of new apples each week. At my last count, we were up to 15 varieties from Zeke and a few organics from Dwight Miller. It’s an exciting time to be a Vermonter, and being in the proximity of it all makes me feel like a lucky man. Cheers!
Garrett Heaney is a local artist, author and self-proclaimed Certified Organic Banana Handler at Hunger Mountain Coop. His art can be seen online at ahny.us or purchased directly at Buch Spieler Records in downtown Montpelier.