Kretschmann Farm Apples

Beginnings-- Nearly three decades ago when Becky and I were first beginning our farming adventure we rented two different farms.  At that time nearly every old family farm had a small orchard of a dozen or so trees.  It was also quite common to see big standard apple trees in someone's front or backyard.  It's been sad to see these friends--productive old trees--disappear over the years and to see people prefer planting lawns and decorative ornamentals with newer homes.   In the fall as our season wound down, we would harvest this fruit and make cider of it at nearby custom cider presses.  We had many small orchards and trees we could count on harvesting for free or in trade for a few gallons of cider.  We called it our "cider conspiracy".  

Our Own Orchard: When we moved to Beaver County and bought our own farm in 1979 we continued to harvest many of the old repertoire of trees and added many more here.  In 1985 we planted the first of our own trees with the idea that we would be happy to have apples good enough for cider.  At that time, there wasn't much hope for growing organic table apples in the East because of various insects and the disease pressure of the humid environment.  It was about that time that breeding research programs at a number of major universities had yielded the first fruits--several scab immune and resistant apple varieties.  These were the varieties we selected and continue to select because scab accounts for more chemical sprays in the East than any other reason.  Our first planting was of Prima, Priscilla, Liberty, and Jonafree apples on the dwarfing rootstock Malling/Merton VIIa.  The young high school boys who helped dig the holes now have children of their own and can see mature trees which have yielded thousands of bushels of apples over the years.  We were very surprised to see that some of these apples were good enough for table use. 

More Trees in 1996:  Having seen which varieties were successful and with even more scab immune varieties available, in 1996 we planted another block of trees.  About half of these were Liberties, which we had seen were the most reliable of the original scions.  New additions were Williams Pride, Pristine, Redfree, and Goldrush. 

Third Block on Trellises in 2006:  By now, we were beginning to see that the dwarfing rootstocks had a definite productive life--about 25 years--and that to keep trees in that state, you had to keep planting periodically.  In the fall of 1999, we had also experienced a severe hailstorm and saw firsthand that next pruning season what we had never hoped to see--fireblight.  This disease slowly debilitates the tree over many years, and is one of the banes of apple growers, organic or not, because you can only slow it down but never eradicate it once you have it.  We had been reading about the work of Jim Cummins, an apple breeder at Cornell University in developing fireblight resistant rootstocks.  Jim had retired and with his son started a nursery.  For our new planting in 2006 we got some of the first resistant rootstocks with our preferred scab immune varieties grafted on.  We really liked the two yellow varieties from the '96 block--Pristine and Goldrush--which extended our season both early and late.  Also in the 2006 planting were a few Enterprise and Dayton so we could see what those were like.   

The Oldest Permaculture: Humans realized very early on the potential for tree fruit.  It is not only far and away the oldest form of agriculture, but we moderns are also realizing it's one of the best of all "permacultures" which inherently conserves soil because you aren't always disturbing it and laying it vulnerable to degradation.  Orcharding also allows the other forms of soil life free range to colonize, attain balance, and maximum site specific genetic evolution.  Apples have an extremely high genetic variability which means there's virtually no chance you'll get anywhere near the same apple by planting one of it's seeds.  Thus apples have always been propagated from cuttings of an existing tree--they're all clones. 

Apple ID's are on our website.

We'll share a few of the major tasks and seasons in apple our production...

 

Planting Apples
   

  We have selected our orchard sites in perhaps not the most common way.  Because we're primarily vegetable farmers, we hate to lose level fields which are easy to work, to orchards, which do equally well, perhaps better, on slopes.  These are prone to erosion if tilled anyway.  We test the soil and apply any seriously lacking nutrients the year prior to planting.  With earlier planting we experienced shallow rooting and some trees literally fell over with a heavy crop.  With our latest planting, we subsoiled the summer before in the rows where the trees were to go.  Then in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked, we till a strip incorporating a goodly amount of peat moss and vermiculite into the soil where the holes are to be dug.  Thus the soil immediately around the new roots resembles a heavy greenhouse mix.  We soak the bare rooted trees in a solution containing seaweed extract and endo-mycorrhizae to stimulate root growth and advance the symbiotic relationships.  Hand digging the holes ensures that new roots aren't constricted and the mixed soil is watered well around the roots for a fast start.  Trees are "headed back" so the top growth matches the root capability.   
 
 

 

Pruning
   

 Pruning is essential to the production of fruit.  Without pruning, the tree very quickly ceases production and becomes a wild growth of closely spaced branches.  You can see it easily in untended trees, and also in improperly over-pruned trees.  With young trees, we select for a few good scaffold branches, with older ones we're constantly thinning, renewing, and controlling.  We're also cajoling the tree--much like a young child who needs bounds to grow into something.  It's at a time of the year when we're not so busy, and can be a great time to meditate and is often a spiritual experience.   

 

Bloom
   

 This is one of the most magical times on the farm.  The grass has just become a vivid green backdrop to everything going on.  The buds of the trees swell and as they just begin to show the green of tiny leaves.  Then you see them--little swelling orbs of tightly closed flowers--seven in a cluster. The king (center) blossom opens first, followed by all the others over several weeks.  Bees and pollinating wasps are everywhere.  Flower pedals carpet the orchard like a the most magnificent bridal walkway. 
 

 

Insect Strategies
   

 I've heard it said that apples are one of the most challenging foods to grow because they are also a favorite food or hatchery for nearly every moth on the planet.  We use quite a number of different natural products and strategies--all organic.  One of these is to put out little plastic twist ties impregnated with pheromones put out by the female of several pest moth species.  The males are highly attracted and come looking all over, but because the entire orchard smells like females, they can't find any single one to mate.  Thus no fertile eggs are laid and no worms hatch out for coddling moths, oriental fruit moths, or oblique banded leaf rollers!  Frustrating life for those poor guy bugs!   

 

Sprays
   

  We used to do literally no spraying because we didn't think it was possible to grow nice looking organic apples.  It's still extremely difficult, as judged by the hundreds and even thousands of organic vegetable growers in the area, but virtually no organic fruit growers.  I know of only a handful in the entire Eastern part of the country!  We've never been fans of nor big practitioners in the use of the sprayer, thinking that one doesn't see this in nature.  Plants are fed through the root systems, and damaging insects and diseases are kept at bay by naturally occurring substances and predators.  While it's too soon to know for sure if it's making a difference, the last few years we have been developing a regular spray program incorporating the use of neem oil, seaweed extracts, fish emulsion, and chelated calcium.  The neem (long used in India and Africa)  is both beneficial to  soil microorganisms and acts as an inhibitor to insects by preventing them from molting and reaching adulthood.  Seaweed gives a wide variety of micronutrients while calcium and fish emulsion feed the tree.  In drought situations we also will spray a kaolin clay spray to act as kind of a sunscreen and prevent water loss.
 

 

Harvest
   

  The first apples picked are the Pristines, which mature in late July.  They go from nubbins to full sized apples seemingly in the blink of an eye.  These juicy tart yellow apples make the best pies.  In short order come the Williams Pride, Redfree, and then Primas.  Next are Priscillas about the end of August.  Mid-September really begins the main apple harvest with Liberties.  About this time we're beginning to tire of that bent over position when picking so many of the other vegetables.  It's a revelation to straighten out, stand up, and to pick apples on a tree and appreciate the deeper blue and lower hanging clouds of the fall sky. 

  About this time, too, it becomes a bit of a race to get all the apples picked.  Bushels no longer seem matched to the task.  "Big bins" are handier for the large quantities of Liberties and Jonafrees we're picking.  They can be moved 20 bushels at a time with the tractor or a pallet jack and stacked two high in the cooler. Our latest variety of the season--Goldrush--is left to gather every bit of sweetness and flavor until the last possible moment in late October or even November.  Even then, they are often too hard to bite into and must wait in storage to cure a little.  These actually attain the peak of flavor only about Christmas time and will last well into the spring.   

 

About this time, too, it becomes a bit of a race to get all the apples picked.  Bushels no longer seem matched to the task.  "Big bins" are handier for the large quantities of Liberties and Jonafrees we're picking.  They can be moved 20 bushels at a time with the tractor or a pallet jack and stacked two high in the cooler. 

 

 

 

 

 Our latest variety of the season--Goldrush--is left to gather every bit of sweetness and flavor until the last possible moment in late October or even November.  Even then, they are often too hard to bite into and must wait in storage to cure a little.  These actually attain the peak of flavor only about Christmas time and will last well into the spring.   

Fall Glory
   

 Nothing is quite as wonderful a lead up to the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas as the changing leaves, crisp evenings, and picking the last fruits of the fall--Apples.   


Cider Making
   

  As we pack up bags of apples for fresh use, there are lots and lots of culled fruits--misshapen, small, badly scarred, or otherwise damaged.  These are perfectly god to make into cider.  We sort them out and take them to an old fashioned custom press just a few miles from us which has been in operation for many years--Sally's Cider Press.  It was passed on to us from others, and has proved to be so true that a variety of apples makes the best cider.  We try to get as many types into the mix as we can.  Cider is simply raw apples crushed up into what looks like raw apple sauce, then squeezed through a cloth which filters out the pulp while the juice pours through.  Sally's then runs the raw juice through an ultraviolet light treatment which kills any undesireable organisms without heating it.  This magic drink used to be the #1 beverage in America, before soft drinks, beer, and citrus.  It's still a real treat.