Poverty Lane Orchards’ fields were all dairy land till about 1960, when the first apple trees were planted here. Till about 1980, this place produced classic New England wholesale McIntosh and Cortlands of the highest northern-grown quality. The market recognized premium fruit, and paid for it.
Then, New England regional growers began losing market share to aggressively-marketed imports, starting with waxed Red Delicious from the West Coast, then Granny Smith from the Southern Hemisphere, then other well-promoted imports that captured public attention. In Northeastern grocery stores, faraway apple regions with powerful export-oriented systems successfully pushed local and regional varieties aside.
Soon, your local grocery became a punishing arena for Northeastern apple growers, no matter how skilled. Our rocky, hilly landscape can grow some of the world’s highest-quality apples. But the landscape does not lend itself to mechanization, standardization, or other mass-market efficiencies. A lot of superb long-time orchard land was sold off for development. Up on Poverty Lane, we began turning our operation in a bold new direction: backward.
The first big step was to select and plant spectacularly good heirloom apple varieties that virtually nobody was selling. Now we pack Uncommon Apples for wholesalers who send them to grocery and food-service accounts near (Boston, New York) and far (Houston).
The second was to put serious acreage under cider apple varieties grown only for fermentable juice. These ‘bittersweets’ and ‘bittersharps’ are fruits that nobody eats. But in apple-growing regions around the world, people grow and squeeze them for fermentable juice. It takes nasty-tasting apples to make good ciders, just as it takes nasty-tasting grapes to make good wines. Learning how nasty apple can become nice cider took some years and many horrible fermentations, but we had time for small-scale practice before our serious cider plantings began to bear serious tonnage.
So years later, with large cider orchards planted in the 90′s on another former dairy farm on Black Hill in Plainfield, NH, this is a 21st-century fruit farm with a 19th-century variety mix. Just like orchards before Prohibition, over half our acres grow weird-tasting cider apples for fermentation. And, just like old-time market growers, we sell a broad range of apple varieties valued for particular purposes. Their colors, shapes, textures and flavors astonish visitors. Lots of excellent apples vanished from general trade when bulk refrigeration and food photography brought more fragile, more eye-catching varieties into favor.Some of the most popular Uncommons are spectacular ‘heirlooms’ (Jefferson’s favorite apple, etc.) and some just grow so well on our ground that they get by without celebrity endorsements.
So now there’s a kind of three-legged effort going, up here on the Hill: the seasonal Poverty Lane Orchards retail stand, the wholesale fresh packs shipped as “Uncommon Apples,” and of course Farnum Hill Ciders. Before Prohibition, many orchards worked this way. If the Poverty Lane crew could time-travel back 125 years to a big Northeastern apple operation, we’d probably live without power or tractors and manage all right.