Notes from the Nest
We hopped on the orange dragon, and motored out to the middle of the orchard to chat. It was grey and overcast, with a tinge of crispness in the air, just hinting at the newness of fall. I’d arranged to meet with Mike Schenk at his farm, Spring Meadow Orchards, to discuss a very popular fruit, the apple, that didn’t even exist in North America prior to the 17th Century.
The first apple trees were planted, in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, around 1633. The fameuse, or snow apple, was among the first to be commercially successful. The famous Macs, were discovered by John McIntosh, in 1811, while he was out walking on his overgrown bush and discovered a dozen unfamiliar seedlings. He transplanted them, with only one surviving, which eventually bore a delicious, red, round, tart fruit.
Every McIntosh apple since, has descended from that one little seedling that somewhat curiously appeared on his property, in Eastern Ontario. Did you know that apple trees aren’t self-fruitful? This is a fancy way of saying, that the seeds inside the apple you are presently eating, if planted, won’t produce the same variety of parent tree they came from. In fact, they will produce an apple, you probably wouldn’t want to eat.
This is all because of genetics. For instance, only half of the seed inside a McIntosh apple, is from the McIntosh. The other half comes from the pollen, that the bee has picked up from another tree. You never know, what you’ll end up with. By the way, for all of you lovers of apples out there, you owe all of our buzzing buddies, the bees, a ‘hive’ five! Mike reminds me, “No bees! No apples!”
Schenk has been involved in the business of apple farming at Spring Meadow for the past 45 years. His father immigrated to Canada, from Bavaria and his mother, from Denmark and they met in Toronto. His father worked as a typesetter, for the Globe and Mail. When Mike was 7, his family, including his older brother and younger sister, moved to the property in Adolphustown. His father continued to commute to Toronto, during the week and ran the farm on the weekends.
They started out with 1,000 trees, Macs, Snows, Tolman sweets, Wolf rivers and Lobos, to name a few. Today the farm is home to 40,000 trees and 27 different varieties. Man, that’s a lotta apples! And in case you think modern technology has cooked up some fancy, schmancy gizmo, that comes along and plucks all these ruby jewels off the trees for them, you’d be mistaken. They’re all hand picked, roughly 10 bushels an hour!
Schenk tells me running the farm is a family effort. He’s joined by his wife of 30 years, Lorna, their son Kyle, who’s taken over day to day operations, along with his wife, Jeanna and young daughter and also their charming younger son, Kurtis, who’s an electrician and is also a frequent fixture at the farm. Besides apples, they also farm Beef cattle, wheat, soybeans, sweet corn and seasonal vegetables. Certainly, more than enough work to keep a family of six, plus a few helpers, hustling.
As the interview in the orchard continued, Mike gave me an overview, of a year in the life of an apple farmer. The colder months of February, March and April find him, Kyle and usually at least four other guys pruning trees. With 40,000 of them, waiting for a new do, I imagine it’s no small task. Spring naturally, is planting season and by the third week of May, the bees are busy performing their miracles, on the blossoms. The apples begin growing right after pollination.
By the end of July, the first apples of the season, are ready to be harvested; Quintes, Melbas, Paula reds and yellow transparent. There are tests using iodine solutions and a reflexometer, which tell sugar content in the apples, but after doing this for over 40 years, Mike says, he knows when the apples are ripe.
From July onward, the harvest continues and as anyone who has travelled along the Loyalist Parkway knows, the family’s inviting produce stand, offers a wide selection of seasonal fruits and veggies. By November, most everything has been gathered in and sorting, packing and shipping out continues into December and even January before the cycle begins again.
Food gurus, physicians, dieticians and celebrity swindlers continue to debate about what we should or shouldn’t be eating; low carbs, high protein, seaweed, tree bark, et cetera. One thing is for sure, fruits and vegetables are good for us. I think I’ll stick with the old adage, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” And I have farming families like the Schenks to thank for that!