Dec 2, 2016
Obscure apples pose new challenges for growers, makers

If you’ve decided growing hard cider apples might be profitable, you’ve probably got a few questions rolling around in your brain – among others, questions about varieties, rootstock, tree spacing and orchard maintenance.

Since hard cider is so new, there are no clear answers to any of those questions, but plenty of people trying to find them. Fruit Growers News recently visited a handful of growers and cider makers in New England, who gave a snapshot of the different techniques being tried.

David Dolginow, left, and Colin Davis, Shacksbury Cider


David Dolginow, Shacksbury Cider in Shoreham, Vermont. As a cider maker, Dolginow doesn’t have a preference for apples from high-density or low-density orchards.

“We respect that different growers have different setups,” he said. “As long as they’re a good grower with high-quality fruit, we’re comfortable with both systems.”

Like all cider makers, Shacksbury wants high-producing, disease- and pest-resistant apples that add flavor to cider. But picking specific varieties is tricky. There are many obscure varieties (several of European origin) being grown for hard cider today, but little is known about their characteristics. And consumers aren’t demanding particular varieties yet because they know virtually nothing about them, Dolginow said.

Chuck Souther, Apple Hill Farm in Concord, New Hampshire. Souther planted a 2-acre block of hard cider trees in 1998. He was skeptical about the high- density approach, so he went with what he was used to: big, deep-rooted, productive trees on M.111 rootstock.

His cider varieties include Dabinett, Golden Russet, Hudson’s Golden Gem, Yarlington Mill and Kingston Black. Dessert varieties like Golden Delicious and Ida Red are good sources of acid, which makes them blend well in hard cider. He used to have Esopus Spitzenburg in the block, but he yanked the trees because the fire blight was so bad.

Cider varieties can be very productive. Souther picked almost 2,000 bushels out of his block last year. They’re not without their challenges, however.

“They’re biennial like you can’t believe,” he said. “Dabinett had a beautiful crop last year, but there’s nothing right now.”

He treats with NAA in summer to try to break them out of the biennial bearing cycle, but thinning doesn’t have much of an effect. Excess vigor also is a challenge.

But management is fairly minimal compared to other apple types. Taller hard cider trees don’t need to be pruned like fresh trees, though Souther cleared out their tops last year to let in more sunlight.

Harvesting the small cider apples is fairly expensive. When fully ripe, workers rap the branches or shake the trees with pruning poles, picking them up after they fall on the ground. They pick some trees twice, he said.

The block is fenced to protect from deer. Porcupines, who love to chew on the trees, can do a lot of damage. Fire blight can be a significant problem, as well as apple scab. Fruit finish, however, is not a concern. Because they’re fermented, there are no real grade standards for hard cider varieties, Souther said.

Bill Suhr, owner of Champlain Orchards in Shoreham, Vermont, said planting cider trees poses multiple dilemmas.

Bill Suhr, Champlain Orchards in Shoreham, Vermont. “The neat thing about hard cider is that if you do it right, you could have a hail-damaged cider apple that no one would ever bite for fresh market and recoup its cost, to the point where it would almost be valued like a Honeycrisp,” Suhr said.

Champlain Orchards makes its own line of hard ciders. To ensure the ciders’ quality and availability, Suhr has planted 35 acres of cider apples in the last four years, varieties like Dabinett, Brown Snout, Kingston Black, Wickson, Michelin, Ellis Bitter, Roxbury Russet, Redfield, Ashmead’s Kernel and Golden Russet. Varieties high in natural sugar, like Ashmead’s Kernel and Golden Russet, are considered dual purpose and routed to the fresh market as well as a line of ice ciders.

“We grow sugar in our apple crop in an effort to avoid dosing our ciders with purchased sugar,” Suhr said.

Each variety has its own nuances, so thinning is a challenge. You can easily fall into a biennial bearing cycle (the University of Vermont is conducting a thinning trial in his orchards), he said.

Suhr said planting cider trees poses multiple dilemmas. Should you plant based on ripening of fruit? Timing of pollination? Vulnerability to fire blight? In hindsight, he said keeping his fire blight-prone trees together regardless of harvest timing was probably a good decision.

Suhr doesn’t think the economic returns from “super high-density” plantings, with their higher upfront costs, are worth the effort. He’s comfortable with an 8- by 16- foot spacing. He hopes to mechanically harvest in the future, like they do in England – where a machine shakes the tree, the apples fall to the ground and a sweeper picks them up.

Standing in a block of 4-year-old cider trees, Suhr said they hadn’t yet produced the yields he’d been hoping for. He allowed them to over-crop some years and doesn’t irrigate them, so their growth has not been optimized. A few trees were removed after bouts with fire blight.

“If this was our sole focus we would attend more to our cider acreage, but fresh-market fruit on tall spindle plantings is where the majority of our energy is currently invested,” he said.

Harry (left) and Andy Ricker, Ricker Orchards

Harry and Andy Ricker, Ricker Orchards in Turner, Maine. Ricker Orchards has about 30 acres of hard cider trees spread over multiple locations, Andy said.

Andy’s father Harry initially wanted G.935 rootstock for their hard cider trees because it’s resistant to fire blight and still grows into a good-sized, high-producing tree.

That rootstock wasn’t available, however, so he looked into starting from scratch, with tissue culture. A nursery agreed to grow rootstocks and graft for him. It was a slower process than buying trees, but since no trees were available anyway, Harry decided to go for it.

The nursery grafted about 12,000 trees, but they ended up small and weak. By the time the Rickers planted them earlier this year, only about 6,500 had made it – and they’re still small and weak, Harry said.

They’ve had much better luck grafting onto existing rootstock (it helps to start with a full-size root system, Harry said). In fact, a hard cider block gave them the best grafting results they’ve ever had. In summer 2014, they attached cider varieties to M.111 rootstock that was originally planted in 1983 as Red Delicious. The trees, spaced 5-by-16 feet on a Y trellis, are already more than 12 feet tall, Harry said.

The cider-specific varieties they grow include Dabinett, Harry Masters Jersey, Golden Russet, Esopus Spitzenburg, Yarlington Mill and Wickson. With 6 or 7 acres, they might be the largest growers of Wickson in America, if not the world – but it wasn’t by design, Harry said.

“We might have mislabeled the cooler of budwood, thinking it was Dabinett,” Andy said sheepishly. “We ended up grafting a lot more Wickson than we intended to.”

His dad chuckled.

“Wickson is valuable for quality cider, but you don’t need very much of it,” Harry said. “It’s an acid bomb.”

The farm’s pickers – like most New England orchardists, the Rickers hire H-2A workers from Jamaica – shake the cider trees by hand and pick the apples as drops. The Rickers might decide to use poles at some point, but they’re also thinking about buying an English harvesting machine, Andy said.

Barney Hodges, Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall, Vermont. Hodges listed some of the cider-specific varieties he grows: Dabinett, Esopus Spitzenburg, Yarlington
Mill, Ashmead’s Kernel, Wickson, Harry Masters Jersey, Somerset Redstreak and Golden Russet.

When considering varieties, Hodges said cider makers are looking for the “flavor profile triangle:” acids, tannins and sugars. There are plenty of varieties high in sugar, but apples high in tannins are rarer.

Hodges showed off a couple of his hard cider blocks, both planted within the last few years. The first was a 5-acre planting with trees in the third leaf (5- by 15-foot spacing). He described it as “relatively unsuccessful.” The trees aren’t as far along as he’d like (he had to replant some). The problem is the heavy soil, probably the heaviest on his farm – but it was the only field he had available at the time.

“The learning curve was super steep here,” Hodges said. “That’s the biggest challenge to growing cider trees. How are they going to perform in our soils? How biennial are they?”

He’s happier with another block, a 4-acre tall spindle planting, spaced 3 by 12 feet – just like all his other high- density plantings. In the first block, it made sense to plant further apart due to the heavy soil, but in the second block – with its loamy soils – he saw no reason not to plant tight. With a slight slope and good irrigation, he’s anticipating typical high-density yields from the second block.

Hodges isn’t concerned with pests that damage apples, but he is concerned with pests that stress trees and cause premature drop. And hard cider varieties being so new, he hasn’t yet figured out a thinning strategy. He spent a week in England visiting cider orchards, and was shocked at how little they knew about thinning, he said.

Steve Wood, Poverty Lane Orchards & Farnum Hill Ciders in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Wood grows hard cider apples on M.106 and M.111 rootstock. A lot of growers are experimenting with high-density, tall-spindle cider plantings these days, but Wood is sticking with what’s worked for him.

“A lot of my buddies think it’s just because we want to be charming and anachronistic, but we grow them this way because we think a deep-rooted, full-size tree produces higher-quality cider apples than a shallow-rooted, weed- free-strip, fertigated tree,” Wood said. “This is anathema to most of my colleagues in the apple industry, but the components of value in a cider apple are different from those in an eating apple.”

He’s “fooled around” with Bud.9 and is “marginally fond” of M.26, but he swears by M.111 and M.106, even though they’re very vigorous.

“We haven’t been able to grow really good cider fruit – by our lights – on any but these archaic rootstocks,” Wood said.

Wood has 40 or 50 acres of hard cider trees scattered around in various locations. One of them is the oldest bittersweet orchard in the country, planted in 1989 (mostly on M.111). It’s all early varieties, like Somerset Redstreak. It’s had a rough life. The trees were inundated with water the first two years of their lives. Deer ate into them when they figured out the electric fences. Porcupines ripped into them about a dozen years ago, and the porcupine injuries became vectors for a fire blight invasion the same year, he said.

Wood’s workers use poles to pick the hard cider apples. When ripe, they latch a pole to the top of the tree, give it a wobble, and the fruit falls down. Then they pick it off the ground. Larger trees can get a little hard to shake at the top. Wood has considered mechanical shakers, but he has yet to find one with the “amplitude and frequency” to knock the ripe fruit down but leave the rest, he said.

— Matt Milkovich, managing editor

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