The Miracle of Apples

Homestead Orchard
1080 County Road 92, Maple Plain; 479-3186

In Kazakhstan, apple forests blanket the hills. It's the place where our eating apples come from, and just as we have poplar forests or pine forests here, they have vast old-growth apple forests there. That's why Jim Luby, who works at the Horticultural Research Center at the University of Minnesota, just went over there to collect apple specimens. "One of the first requirements for life here in Minnesota for apples or people is you've got to be able to get through the winter," says Luby. "You've got to be cold-hardy, and since apple trees can't wear overcoats they have to just take it out there." Most apples available in the United States and Europe had been selectively bred to thrive in warmer climates, and so, after nearly a century of tinkering with comparatively younger sorts of apples, the HRC has decided to head back to the source in its quest for strong, disease-resistant trees that will bear delicious apples.

Don't look for those Kazakh apples any time soon. From the moment HRC researchers like Luby decide to make a cross between two apple trees until they themselves see any fruit from the cross takes five years. It takes them another three years to evaluate the tree and see if it can make it here in Minnesota. If they like the tree, it takes another two or three years to propagate trees by grafting, plus another five years for evaluation. All told, Luby says it can take 17 years before they can even tell if an apple is worth naming. Add another three years to propagate enough trees to supply nurseries, and once apple orchards start planting the trees it takes another five years before the little trees start bearing fruit with any regularity. Look for those Kazakh-inspired apples in the late 2020s. "Sometimes," says Luby, "you go through more generations of breeders than you do of trees."

When the apples finally do come to market it can be extraordinarily exciting. The HoneyCrisp--a snapping, crackling, sweet, exuberant apple--was introduced by the HRC in 1991, and is just starting to come into markets now. If apples can be thrilling the HoneyCrisp is thrilling, and it's also a boon for small apple farmers like Bob Fitch and Molly Beckstrom, who manage the Homestead Orchard in Maple Plain. Bob and Molly run a fun orchard; they set up a petting zoo of neighborhood animals out front, including two woolly sheep, a pygmy goat, a crème-brûlée-coated jersey calf, and sometimes even their pet African pygmy hedgehog. A local farm kid offers pony rides--free with a peck of apples or a dollar otherwise. Bob runs a tractor for hayrides and Molly helps customers pick the perfect apple for sauce (Haralson) or pie (Fireside).

But Bob and Molly's bright, breezy manner doesn't give a hint of how hard they have it. Molly juggles three jobs in addition to working on the orchard and finishing her master's thesis. Bob rises every weekday between 4:00 and 5:00 to get to the Minneapolis Farmer's Market by 6:00 where he stays until 1:00 (he doesn't have enough seniority to get a coveted weekend slot yet, but he's hoping that one may open up this fall after the number of vegetable vendors shrinks). After that he goes back to the orchard to supervise picking and make phone calls and deliveries, and often finds himself running the old-fashioned cider press into the wee hours. Bob presses cider for lots of local orchards that can't be bothered with the messy, cumbersome task, and he takes the process seriously, tasting throughout and adding tarter or sweeter apples as necessary.

It hasn't been much of a honeymoon for these newlyweds, and since the orchard, which they have on a three-year lease, is in many parts too thickly planted with too many of the same sorts of trees, they constantly battle the many diseases that plague apple trees like fire blight, a fungus that strips trees of their leaves and strength. But the HoneyCrisp has been a savior, for those in the know realize that Bob and Molly have a thousand trees bearing these incredible apples (which should be exactly ripe when this issue is on the stands), and so along with frolicking families, Homestead Orchard draws strictly business apple connoisseurs who beeline for the rare trees and even pay a premium for the HoneyCrisps (or at least what passes for a premium in apple circles: HoneyCrisps sell for $1.50 a pound, while ordinary apples go for 90 cents). Bob's also experimenting with other novel trees. He just put in a few called Westfield-Seek-No-Further--"You've got to plant something that's called that," he laughs.

By the time you read this, the Haralson, the apple that may be the all-time Minnesota favorite, should be ripe. It's the apple that Jim Luby calls the Twin Cities' cult apple, because it grows perfectly in our little microclimate of long frigid winters and alternately wet and roasting summers, and can hardly grow anywhere else. If you move out of state you might never see a Haralson again. Which would be a shame, because this red-and-yellow apple with its tart bite and smooth flesh is incredible. The state is rich in Haralsons, perhaps because when they were debuted by the HRC in 1923, farmers were feeling very flushed with easy pre-Depression cash and credit. Later HRC cultivars that debuted in less auspicious times--like 1943's Victory, an exceptional sauce apple, or 1969's pear-like, meltingly delicate HoneyGold--are much harder to come by. Unless you know Brian Frederickson.

Brian is a 3M research scientist and dog-sledder who bought a farm from an HRC bigwig. On the farm is a small orchard of 700 trees, including some HRC test-trees that never got named (love that 1797, and boy, that 1403...) and a number of rare varieties, like the delicious Chestnut Crab, a tart and almost taffy-mellow apple that typically grows about the size of a lime, or the old-fashioned Wealthy, a spicy apple with a gorgeous striped dark skin. Brian can be found at the Minneapolis Farmer's Market on weekends, and sometimes at the Nicollet Mall site. He also teaches a $50 workshop on apple-tree care (did you know that if you don't thin the little fruits from your tree this spring you won't get apples next year?) so that backyard farmers can have better (or any) fruit. (Write to Brian at 11225 County Road 20, Delano, MN, 55328, e-mail him at [email protected], or snag him at his Ames Farms stand at the market for further details.)

Bob and Molly say that their lives have changed dramatically since taking on the Homestead Orchard. Bob used to be a produce manager for a Minneapolis grocery store, and his involvement with fruit was mostly about uncrating it--when unpacking bananas, to look out for black widows and tarantulas. Now they live vividly in the weather, each day's sun, rain, or wind changing not only their apples' subtle tastes, but their own very palpable future (they watched 30 percent of their apples fall off in one 20-minute July windstorm).

Living vividly in the seasons is a challenge for the rest of us too, but now and for the next several weeks it's possible, through the miracle of apples. They are the flesh of the weather and time we have just moved through, and they're at their peak right now.


THE ENVELOPE, PLEASE: Gourmet readers are different than you and me--they're rich. Or at least they like to say they are. Gourmet has announced the results of its annual survey of readers, and the top 20 restaurants in the Twin Cities are, according to them, from first to last: D'Amico Cucina, Goodfellow's, the St. Paul Grill, Kincaid's Chop and Fish House, Lucia's, the 510, Schumacher's, Ruth's Chris Steak House, Morton's of Chicago, Ristorante Luci, Palomino Eurobistro, Lowell Inn, Manny's Steak House, Gustino's, Origami, Bayport American Cookery, the Whitney Grille, the Loring Cafe, Murray's, and Forepaugh's.

CROP-ART ENTHUSIAST?: OK guys, I just know one of you can win this. If you create a dazzling work of art on one of those Boboli pizza crusts and submit a color photograph or slide of it to the Boboli folk, you might find yourself on a jazzy trip in Florence--and I know you're all familiar with the concept. Crop art? Butter sculptures? If anyone knows how to make food into art it's a Minnesotan, and you've got until December 31 to submit as many entries as you like. Send for official rules to the Art of Boboli Contest, Box 3922, Schaumburg, IL, 60168-3922. I know you can! I know you can!

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Homestead Orchard

1080 N. Cty Road 92
Maple Plain, MN 55359


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