Farm Graduate

This week we bid farewell to our senior farm employee, our daughter Panka. The first picture above shows her in the spring of 2004, when she was just beginning to consider work on our farm. The second picture shows her on the eve of going off to college, after much farmwork – sometimes enjoyed and sometimes endured. She’s witnessed many changes here in the past seventeen years: farmworkers, tractors, and buildings have come and gone, and we’ve transitioned from growing vegetables to growing fruit. At UW-Madison, she’s hoping to study computer science and pursue her non-farming talents and interests. As she leaves, we’d like to acknowledge her contributions to the farm.

Panka rarely shirked a task (although we have heard afterwards of several she disliked!). Responsible and reliable from an early age, she could be entrusted with independent and complex work, whether operating a vacuum seeder to plant vegetable seeds in the greenhouse, scouting our orchard for a myriad of insect pests, or shepherding her beloved younger siblings (who were sometimes perhaps less interested in farmwork and possibly frustrating to a perfectionist!) She enjoyed the company of those older than herself, and as an early adolescent she was proud and happy to work alongside the crew of farm workers. Handy manual work of all sorts interested her, and she was often found watching and helping her Dad during evening repairs to farm machinery. She is a full-fledged apple lover and is intimately familiar with the peculiarities and flavors of our many varieties.

The life of the farm we are blessed to inhabit has been a foundation of Panka’s childhood. She’s tended our household flock of laying hens from an early age and proudly showed her prize hen at the village and county fairs. A keen observer, she was intimately familiar with the coming and goings of birds, the ripening of the wild raspberries, and the dusty contents of our cobwebbed barns. When she was younger, we’d often hear her voice on summer afternoons from the wild mulberry tree in the fenceline, as she coached her younger brother on how to climb the tree (one must avoid the racoon poo trapped in the crotches of the branches) and they perched in the canopy eating ripe berries. And throughout high school she tramped along the fenceline on the perimeter of the farm in evenings after supper, in summer sunshine and winter darkness, thinking her thoughts, and always followed faithfully by the farm dog.

With love, gratitude, sadness and excitement, we watch her leave and look forward to her future adventures and accomplishments.

Apple Kuchen

Our daughter Katie has enjoyed making this simple apple cake recently. The rest of us have enjoyed eating it. She’s made it with both Pristine and Williams Pride apples.

Batter

1-1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup sugar
2 oz unsalted butter
1 egg
1/4 cup milk
1/3 cup raisins
3/4 cup walnuts, chopped

Topping
4 medium-large apples, sliced thinly
2 oz butter
1/4 cup sugar
1-1/2 tsp cinnamon

 
  1.     Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2.     Butter a 13″ x 9″ x 2″ baking pan
  3.     Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Cut the butter in small chips into the mix and stir it in to make a crumbly mixture.
  4.     Beat the egg, and stir in milk and vanilla.
  5.     Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir together only until the dry ingredients are thoroughly moistened.
  6.     Spread the batter evenly in a thin layer in the baking pan and sprinkle with raisins and nuts.
  7.     Lay the slices, overlapping, in rows on top of the cake, as in the picture. Use more or fewer apples as needed.
  8.     Melt the butter and brush it over the apples
  9.     Mix the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over the apples.
  10.     Cover the entire pan with a cookie sheet or aluminum foil.
  11.     Bake for 35 minutes, removing the cookie sheet or foil for the last 5 minutes.

Dried Apples

We have a small secondhand food dehydrator in our house, and our youngest daughter loves making (and eating) dried apples.  It’s a great use for the endless stream of fruit which finds its way onto our kitchen counter in late summer and autumn.  Drying intensifies and highlights the apple flavor. 

Almost all apples taste yummy when dried, but the best varieties are those with an intense rich flavor.  Williams Pride is our favorite.  Liberty is another good one. 

Drying is a simple process: slice up the apples, lay them out on the racks of the dehydrator without any overlap, turn it on, and wait a few hours for them to dry.  We run our dehydrator at 135 degrees.  It takes about 3 hours to dry a batch, depending on how thin the apple slices are.

Apple Crisp

This recipe is a staple in our house which never lasts long.  It’s a simple, sugar-free dessert or a snack.  With yogurt, it makes a hearty breakfast. Check out the video below of Juli making this in our kitchen!

Apple crisp and pie are great uses for our #2 grade apples.  Williams Pride, Liberty, Enterprise, Sundance, Goldrush and Winecrisp apples are excellent in baked dishes like this. 

The recipe can be made gluten free with oat flour or other gluten free flour. 

  • 5 lbs apple, cored and sliced thinly
  • 2 Tbsp canola oil
  • 2 Tbsp cinnamon, divided
  • 2.5 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup flour (we prefer whole wheat pastry)
  • 1/2 cup flex seed meal
  • 3/4 cup canola oil or coconut oil
  • 1/4 cup water

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.  Oil a 9×13 deep baking dish.
2. Add all but a cup of the sliced apples into the baking dish. Sprinkle 1 Tbsp cinnamon on top, and mix with hand. Top it with remaining sliced apples, distributing them evenly. The baking dish will be quite full.
3. In large mixing bowl, combine rolled oats, flour, flex seed meal, and remaining 1 Tbsp cinnamon.  Add oil and water, and mix well.  Spread this on top of apples.
4. Bake, covered, for 1.5 hrs, or until apples are soft (test with a fork).  Uncover, and bake for another 10 minutes for a crisp top.

Training Trees

As leaves fall in our orchard, the structure of tree branches starts to emerge from under its leafy coat. Soon the orchard will look like the picture above. We spend a lot of time in the winter, spring, and summer coaxing trees into their optimal form.

Every tree is tied to a metal stake to keep the trunk upright and to prevent the tree from blowing over in storms.

This picture from spring shows a newly planted tree with a plastic bag fastened over part of the trunk. This creates a greenhouse-like condition and encourages branches in that section of trunk to grow, which avoids undesirable bare, branchless sections. We remove the bag after several weeks, when branches have started to grow.

Here’s another trick we use to encourage branches to develop on the tree trunk. The picture shows the trunk of a very young tree. The bud in the picture might develop into a branch, or it might stay dormant. We’ve cut a notch in the bark above the bud. The notch will heal over in time, but meanwhile the cut disrupts the flow of plant hormones in the stem and encourage the bud to develop into a new branch. (The bud “perceives” that the entire trunk above it has been cut off and “thinks” it needs to grow to save the tree.)

Once branches have started to grow, we use twine, wire, and metal limb spreaders like the one shown here to force the branches into a more horizontal position.  Relatively horizontal branches grow less, but produce more fruit.

All of which helps to produce more of these:

Spreading mulch

In the past two months I have been spreading bark mulch underneath the trees in our orchard as time permits.  The mulch suppresses weeds that would compete with our trees, it protects the soil from erosion, and it adds nutrients and organic matter to the soil as it decomposes. 

We buy mulch every year from local sawmills; the bark is a by-product produced as the mills saw lumber for furniture, cabinetry, and flooring.

In March of 2014, at the end of the polar vortex winter, when it was still cold outside but tolerably warm in the shop, our neighbor Lynn, our longtime employee Emily, and I built a wagon to haul mulch to the orchard. 

I purchased white oak lumber from a local sawyer for the wagon.  Our generous neighbor Lynn, a retired farmer and jack of all trades who has lived on this road all his life, thought everything about the wagon was bigger and stronger than it needed to be.  “It’ll be heavy,” he warned.  “It’ll be solid,” I said.

This is the wagon when it was new and shiney.  And heavy.  And solid.

I load the wagon with mulch.  One wagonload holds enough mulch for fifteen trees.

Two of our best employees (both named Emily) and I are spreading mulch around newly planted trees.  Early spring is one of my favorite times of year, when the grass is green but there are no leaves on the trees.  Clear, clean, crisp, and bright.  Everything’s possible.  Nothing has gone wrong yet.

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I am spreading mulch with our son Andrew in November, when harvest is done and most of the leaves have fallen.  This is also one of my favorite times of year.  The growing season is complete, for better or worse, short days put a limit on labor, and I can wear my favorite warm work clothes.

Actually, every time of year is one of my favorite times of year.

I love that mulch, I love those people, I love that wagon.

Our Unusual Apple Varieties

Our list of apple varieties may contain names which are unfamiliar to you – Winecrisp, Goldrush, Liberty, Pristine, Williams Pride, and so on.  We don’t grow Honeycrisp, Gala, Golden Delicious, or other common supermarket apples.  Why did we choose these unusual varieties?

Virtually all of the organic apples in the supermarket were grown in the Pacific Northwest.  Not near wet Seattle, where it rains 37.5 inches per year in average, but in inland, near-desert areas such as the Yakima Valley, which receives barely 8 inches of precipitation per year.  Organic apple production is concentrated there because dry conditions drastically reduce the amount of disease which infects the apple trees and fruit.  Plant diseases thrive in humid, wet conditions.  In the apple growing regions of Washington, growers supply water to the tree roots using drip irrigation, but the above-ground parts of the trees stay dry and disease free.

In Wisconsin (and most of the eastern United States) we have frequent rains and high humidity during the growing season.  Consequently, diseases thrive.  Conventional, non-organic apple growers use chemical pesticides to keep the diseases in check.  But organic apple growing here is challenging. 

Many diseases can attack apple trees, but the most consistently destructive disease in our region is apple scab. In wet years it will defoliate trees, reduce yield, and cause cracked and spotty fruits.  Our orchard consists entirely of varieties which were specifically selected to be naturally resistant to apple scab without needing any sprays or special treatment.  Most of these varieties were bred in the past sixty years at universities and experiment stations in the midwest and eastern United States.  The most prolific of these apple breeding programs was based in Illinois, Indiana, and New Jersey.  Other varieties that we grow were bred in Europe, Japan, and Canada (apple scab is a problem throughout the world’s humid apple-growing regions). 

A wonderful part of the burgeoning local and organic food movement is that many new organic orchards have started in our region, and local organic apples are becoming increasingly available at farmers’ markets and grocery stores.  Some local organic orchards do grow mainstream apple varieties which are susceptible to scab, and these growers typically rely on sprays of sulfur and liquid lime sulfur to keep scab in check.  (Yes, organic apple growers can use certain sprays, as specified by the National Organic Standard – non-toxic and primarily natural products.)  We don’t have any reason to think that sulfur and liquid lime sulfur are dangerous to consumers, but they do have effects on wildlife in the orchard, and liquid lime sulfur is particularly caustic and dangerous to the grower who handles and sprays it.  We prefer to avoid these materials as much as possible. 

Fortunately, many of the scab-resistant apple varieties are outstanding, and some are becoming common even in non-organic orchards.  We sell a large portion of our apples through grocery stores, especially the Willy Street Co-op in Madison, and our varieties sell well even though household names like Honeycrisp are on the shelf nearby.  Online reviews have given high ratings to many of of our varieties – see these for instance: Winecrisp, Williams Pride, Pristine, and Goldrush.  We love our apples, and many of our CSA members agree that they’re outstanding.  But tastes differ and not everyone likes them.  Most mainstream apple varieties taste very similar – sweet, juicy, and crisp.  There’s a much wider assortment of apple flavors, tastes, and textures out there in the world, and our varieties represent a broader spectrum of the possibilities.  If you find mainstream apples bland and boring, give us a try!  But if you’re devoted to Honeycrisp and eat nothing else, we’d encourage you to be cautious and just try out our varieties by signing up for one of smaller sized CSA shares

It’s also important to remember that every apple variety benefits from being eaten at its peak.  Most supermarket apples are picked fairly immature and stored for long periods; flavor suffers.  We pick our apples near the peak of ripeness and get them to you quickly.  Enjoy!

-Chris