The leaves are starting to turn, the air is getting cool and crisp, and the days are shorter — so it must be autumn in New Hampshire, which means that it is also the time to make a trip to a local apple orchard.
Apples should be plentiful and healthy this year, according to published reports, and, in fact, a report from the New England Apple Association is predicting an increase of 51 percent in the amount of apples harvested in New Hampshire compared to last year.
On average, New Hampshire apple growers produce an estimated one million bushels of apples per year, according to the NH Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food, bringing in between $8 and $12 million annually.
Apple orchards in New Hampshire are generally open to the public from about Labor Day until the end of October, and many orchards in recent years have expanded from being just a quick stop to pick a few bags of apples into a destination for day-long activities. They offer a number of things to do, including horse-drawn or tractor-drawn hayrides, corn mazes, animal petting “zoos”, and shopping for fresh produce, homemade baked goods, or crafts in a company store — and even various kinds of entertainment.
But the main focus for an apple orchard is to produce a healthy, vibrant crop, and it takes a lot of work for an orchard to get to that point, from careful pruning in the spring to dealing with unexpected weather, as well as uninvited pests and diseases. According to Nancy Bleiler who, along with her husband, Stephen, has owned and operated Cardigan Mountain Orchard in Alexandria for 35 years, maintaining an orchard is almost a year-round proposition with only the months of January and February off. She said the challenges of keeping an orchard healthy are many.
“We prune the trees in March,” Nancy said, “and weather is always a factor; like if we get a frost in the spring when the apple trees are in blossom, or hail storms in the summer, severe droughts, or if we have a period of cold, rainy weather which can produce a fungus on the fruit called apple scab. And we also have to deal with meadow voles which destroy the roots, and hungry deer, moose, and bears, who like to nibble on the plants in the winter months.”
Nancy and Stephen, both school teachers at the time, bought their small farm in Alexandria in the mid- to late-1970s and it had an old apple orchard on it that had seen better days. The Bleilers originally planned to use the apples that were still available on the remaining fruit-bearing trees pretty much just for themselves; but then plans changed, as often happens.
“The orchard had trees that had originally been planted in the 1930s that were still bearing fruit,” Nancy recalls. “These trees — called ‘Old Standards’ — can bear fruit for up to 200 years. We reclaimed the old orchard and revitalized it, and we planted new trees, and then we decided to open Cardigan Mountain Orchard.”
The 12-acre orchard is now a combination of the Old Standards and “Semi-Dwarfs” which are smaller and easier to maintain and which produce fruit more quickly than the Old Standards. “The apple trees that you usually can buy today commercially are usually Semi-Dwarfs or sometimes even Dwarfs,” explains Nancy. “They generally take only about five years to go from seedlings to fruit-producers, and they usually produce fruit for about 25-40 years.”
The orchard now numbers about 700 apple trees that feature 17 varieties, including several that are pick-your-own, such as the popular Macintosh, Courtland, Empire, Macoun, Northern Spy, Golden and Red Delicious, and Graventstein.
“In addition to the apples, we have pumpkins and a store with homemade jams, fresh-pressed apple cider, apple cider doughnuts, apple pies, and apple butter,” says Nancy. “We are a traditional, family-friendly business, and we have a lovely view on the property, which we encourage people to enjoy. We also invite school tours.”
Cardigan Mountain Orchard recently opened a country store in downtown Bristol, at 231 Lake Street, which is open Wednesday – Sunday (Mondays on holidays) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Bleilers also have an online store at www.cardiganmountainorchard.com where one can order apples and jam which can be shipped anyplace worldwide.
Although Cardigan Mountain Orchard is a fairly traditional orchard that does not currently feature hay rides, petting zoos, or entertainment, things may change in the future. “We have three adult sons who are coming into the business,” says Nancy, “and, in addition to planting more trees, they may be adding more activities to encourage families to stay longer as a day-long outing.”
So, just a few weeks into the prime apple season, is the apple crop measuring up to the analysts’ predictions for this year? “It’s been absolutely great this year,” says Nancy. “People are coming back from the orchard saying that the fruit is beautiful!”
Cardigan Mountain Orchard is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. until Halloween, but the store at the orchard stays open through the November-December holiday season. The orchard is located at 1540 Mount Cardigan Road. Call 603-744-2248 for directions or more information. The country store in Bristol is at 744-0303.
For listings of other pick-your-own orchards throughout the state, contact the UNH Cooperative Extension at 603-862-1520 or log onto www.pickyourown.org/NH.htm, www.allaboutapples.com/orchard, or www.nhfruitgrowers.org.