This is a 21st-century apple 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 amaze visitors. 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 cider orchards. 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 some magic to Farnum Hill ciders, but most of the fruit-bowl varieties yield inferior fermentations.
Early in the 20th century, Temperance and then Prohibition of course crushed U.S. cider orcharding. Meanwhile, scores of excellent eating varieties vanished from general trade as bulk refrigeration and food photography brought more fragile, more eye-catching varieties into mass-market favor. Crunch and looks soon beat out flavor and usefulness. 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. 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). 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 loves 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 good ciders, just as it takes nasty-tasting grapes to make good wines. Learning how nasty apples become nice cider took us many years and horrible fermentations. But we had years enough for small-scale practice before our serious cider plantings began bearing serious tonnage. Apple trees don’t just plug in and start pushing out the fruits — 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.