The sweetest season

It’s that time of year again: apple season. Living on a farm that supports around 2000 apple trees, it always feels like apple TREE time, but in the fall when those growing trunks bear their fruit, my sentiments shift and I am reminded that the trees are actually doing things for us, too.

Our trees are young, ranging from five years in our ground/7 years old to trees we planted this year to replace trees lost. This means we don’t get a lot of our own fruit, but we do get just enough to have it feel like we get something special out of all the time and money that goes into these trees.

I enjoy seeing the trees grow and giving tours and walking past the spot where we planted our baby’s placenta while planting the orchard a week after he was born. That spot is at the entrance to the orchard and always feels special.

But what’s fun for me this time of year is when we pick up apples from our friend Chuck Nystrom at Ocheda orchard. He runs a commercial orchard and within it a trial orchard, meaning he’s got thousands of trees he’s grown from seed, just to see what they end up tasting like. He’s still planting seeds today, knowing he may never know if the promise of that seed came to fruition and leads to a popular new apple.

This isn’t how the apples you eat or know are grown; the Golden Delicious or Pinata you eat are not grown from a tree planted as a seed. Yes, that cultivar started as a seed at one point, but once they hit the commercial market, those apples are grafted from a tree and the fruit is basically guaranteed to stay the same over time.

Growing an apple from seed takes a lot of time and it doesn’t guarantee any worthy results. But every year Chuck lets us wander around and find some apples that taste good. These are apples named things like “N-125.” This establishes the row and the tree’s place in the row. Every now and then, Chuck finds that one of his unknown little trees yields a real winner, and he sells that apple and the marketing process begins. This is how Honeycrisp came about (not in his orchard but at the U of M) and how other cultivars are bred, “found” and developed for mass markets.

My partner and I are not trying to develop the next great apple, but we do have fun walking up and down Chuck’s rows, pulling a red orb from a tree, taking a bite and tossing the fruit to the ground in hopes the next one will be better. Like a whiskey, wine or cider tasting, getting just a swish of flavor is key so that we don’t load up before sampling the bounty before us.

I didn’t get to go on the apple run to Chuck’s this year, but tonight Sean and I sat on the couch and sampled the best of what he brought back to the farm. Yellow apples, pink-fleshed apples, Russet potato-textured apples, an apple so snappy and bitey that my jaw felt like it was on auto-chew and couldn’t stop. I choose my apples on taste over texture, and the texture of that one was fun but the flavor was flat.

These were the best of the best for us this year, but not good enough that Chuck is going to market with them. He does have a few hundred potential winners in the works right now, so maybe that’ll be something I can write about in another year, sharing a logo and zippy name like Zestar or SugarBee –which started out as B-51 in his orchard.

Apples are such an essential part of history and lore in so many ways, from Biblical myths to the Americana that is Johnny Appleseed that being a part of this process in some small way feels as sweet as that first, cold bite of a fresh apple.

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