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September 14, 2011

Soup to Nuts: Maine flexes
its (apple) core values

Apple season, it's here, and we have bushels of varieties from which to pick, including many that go way (way!) back.

By Meredith Goad
Staff Writer

Not so long ago, an apple was just an apple. As long as our fruit was colorful and crisp - and maybe organic – that was all we cared about. We went apple picking in the fall, made our pies, and called it good until next year.

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Marjorie Gallant of South Portland picks apples at Terison Apple Orchard in Cumberland.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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Connor Terison, 15, helps a customer hit a high spot.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

Orchards enjoying a sweet harvest

Last year was a bad year for Annette and Phil Terison, owners of Terison Apple Orchard in Cumberland.

First, there was frost. Then, in August and early September, "it was so hot that the macs were just dropping off the trees," recalled Annette Terison.

This year is another story. Despite concerns about Hurricane Irene, Terison calls the apple crop at her family's 35-acre orchard "very good." The Terisons grow mostly Macintoshes and Cortlands.

"The warm weather in the summer, with the rain, definitely helps," she said. "Right now our apples are just saying 'thank you' for all this rain, because they're going to get really big." She was worried about hurricane damage, but that never materialized.

Renae Moran, a pomologist and educator with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, says damage from Irene was mostly from wind blowing apples off trees. "Overall, I think we lost 10 percent of the fruit from this," she said. "Some people lost trees from strong winds, but not many."

Most Maine orchards have a large apple crop that is ripening on schedule, Moran said, and most farmstands and orchards are now open. Summer apples have mostly gone by, but Macintosh and Honeycrisp are on deck and ready for picking.

This has been a good year for peaches as well, thanks to the mild winter, and European plums (prune and gage plums) are also in season.


The "apple whisperer" speaks

LEARN MORE about heirloom apples at one of John Bunker's autumn appearances:

FREEPORT, Oct. 2, orchard stroll and discussion at 1 p.m. during Pettengill Farm Day. $5/donation adults; $2/donation children.

ELLSWORTH, Oct. 7-8, speaking and identifying apples at the Downeast Heirloom Apple Festival.

BROOKS, 6 to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 11, speaking at 2nd Tuesday potluck at the Newforest Institute, 66 Monroe Highway

SEARSMONT, 1:30 p.m. Oct. 12 at Searsmont Historical Society, 37 Main St. S.

NOBLEBORO, 7 p.m. Oct. 14 at Nobleboro Historical Center, 198 Center St. (Old Route 1). There is no address on the building; it's an 1818 schoolhouse located just in front of Nobleboro Central School.

In recent years, however, the public's apple IQ has soared. Go to the farmers market – even the grocery store – and varieties are labeled so that you know more about your choices. Pick Gravensteins if you're making a pie, Macouns for applesauce, Ginger Gold if you're adding apple to a salad.

We also know more about rarer heirloom varieties, thanks in large part to Maine's own John Bunker of Palermo, the man dubbed the "apple whisperer" by The Atlantic magazine.

While interest in apples is blossoming elsewhere in the country as well, Bunker has probably turned more Mainers onto the fruit than anyone else. Who knew apples could be white, orange, purple or even black? Or that the flavor of some of these older varieties could be so intriguing, giving us a glimpse into how our ancestors lived?

Bunker's influence has led to orchardists planting more heirloom varieties to satisfy public demand, and the interest in learning more about antique apples is as high as it's ever been. In October, the newly formed Downeast Food Heritage Collaborative will be hosting Downeast Heirloom Apple Week in Ellsworth, which will feature everything from an apple festival to school programs teaching children about the fruit.

The week's events include lectures by Bunker; Peter Hatch, director of gardens and grounds at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Virginia; and Ben Watson, author of a key reference book on cider, who will be talking about the history of hard cider and explain how to make it.


For years, John Bunker has been traveling around Maine on "fruit explorations," hunting down old trees in out-of-the-way orchards and abandoned farms that may have been bearing fruit for 100 years or more. He lectures around the state, always encouraging his audiences to bring in apples they've found in their old orchards so he can try to identify them and solve the mystery of where they originated.

I first interviewed Bunker in 2002, when he was passing around Old West-style "wanted" posters for apples he couldn't identify. At the time, he had just rediscovered the Hayford Sweet, and was closing in on the Marlboro and the Fletcher Sweet.

Since that interview, while still sleuthing for apples, Bunker found time to write a book. During apple season, he gives at least one lecture a week. Four young apprentices now live with Bunker on his farm, hoping to soak up some of the pomological knowledge he has filled his head with over the years so it won't be lost.

"They also help us do things like plant the peas and harvest garlic and bring in firewood," Bunker said in an interview last week. "But their passion is learning about the apples, and how to take care of them and how to identify them and how to do the whole fruit exploration thing. It's very rewarding. It's fun. It keeps me on my toes, and it's nice being with people who are a third my age."

When I interviewed Bunker nine years ago, he estimated that of the 250 apple varieties that originated in Maine, about 30 had been rediscovered. He now says that number has probably doubled. Other rediscovered varieties may not have originated here, but were commonly grown because Maine's oil and climate suited them well.

"Intuitively, one might think that at a certain point, I would have identified enough so that it would have tapered off," Bunker said. "But it seems to be picking up steam, and I would attribute that to just the increased interest over time, that more and more people are thinking to themselves, 'Oh geez, isn't there a really old orchard right down in the neighborhood here? I wonder what that has?' "

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Angela Delorme of Auburn picks a winner at Terison Apple Orchard in Cumberland.

Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


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