This is a 21st-century apple farm with a 19th-century variety mix. Just like old-time market growers, we sell a broad range of apple varieties valued for particular reasons. Their colors, shapes, textures and flavors amaze our fall visitors as early-ripening varieties are followed by mid-season and late varieties, every one differently delicious!
Also, like orchards before Prohibition, over half our acres grow weird-tasting cider apples for fermentation. With large cider orchards planted in the 90’s on another former dairy farm on Black Hill in Plainfield, NH, we’re the biggest grower of inedible cider apples in the U.S. (That will change — growers in other regions are finally planting for cider. Their apples will taste different from ours: true regional cider character will eventually re-emerge from American soil!) A very few old-time eating apples also contribute major magic to Farnum Hill ciders. But by and large, most of the good fruit-bowl varieties yield blah-to-bad fermentations.
Starting early in the 20th century, scores of excellent eating and cooking apples vanished from general trade, as bulk refrigeration and food photography brought more fragile, more eye-catching varieties into favor. Crunch and looks eventually beat out flavor and usefulness. On the cider side, the temperance movement and Prohibition of course crushed U.S. cider orcharding. So U.S. apple growers faced constant adaptation and change.
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, local and regional varieties lost value and space to fruit from faraway apple regions with powerful export systems.
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. By 1980, up on Farnum Hill, we began turning our operation in a bold new direction: backward.
The first big change was to find and plant heirloom apple varieties that would reach shockingly high quality on this ground. Now we pack Uncommon Apples for wholesalers who send them to grocery and food-service accounts near (Boston, New York) and far (Houston). 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.
The second was to put serious acreage under cider apple varieties grown only for fermentable juice. These ‘bittersweets’ and ‘bittersharps’ are fruits that nobody wants to eat. But in apple-growing regions around the world, people grow and squeeze them for real cidermaking. It takes nasty-tasting apples to make the best ciders, much as it takes nasty-tasting grapes to make the best wines.
Learning how nasty apples become nice cider took us many years and some horrible batches, but we got here. Meanwhile we found that a few of our acidic heirloom varieties contributed beautiful characteristics that now make our American blends unique in the world. We had years enough for small-scale practice before the serious cider plantings began bearing serious tonnage. (Apple trees don’t just plug in and start pushing out the fruits right away — but that’s another story.)
So now there’s a three-legged enterprise 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 manage all right, though we’d surely pine for power and tractors and pizza.