A long partnership between apples and the people who have farmed this part of coastal Maine is abundantly evident in this profusion. Wherever a homestead was carved out of the forest, ancient apple trees and their wild seedling descendants are sure to be found. We started making cider by foraging some of their feral bounty, otherwise food for birds and deer, and have tended the forgotten trees by clearing away strangling vines and pruning off dead branches, with renewed vigor and ample harvests our happily earned reward.
We are lucky to be the current stewards of a few acres of farmland cleared and cultivated generations ago. With sandy loam soils rich in organic matter and minerals sited on a gently sloping south facing hillside, the place was well chosen for agriculture. We wanted to carry on the local tradition of apple growing while preserving some of the old cultivated trees and wild seedlings we had found. It also made sense to break out of the cycle of soil eroding seasonal tilling, instead creating a multi-story habitat for birds and insects. So we set out with grafting knives and shovels, slowly propagating and planting fruiting trees and shrubs in orchard rows and naturalized hedges. Apples were soon joined by pears, plums, peaches and cherries while the hedgerows filled with elderberry, aronia, mulberry, haksap, wild cranberry and trellised grapes. Bees for pollination and honey seemed a logical addition and increased our determination to apply only the minimal organic pest control.
It’s exciting to discover a forgotten old tree on your own, but sharing that discovery with others is where things really get interesting. Joining together with a larger network of people devoted to regaining our astonishing local apple diversity has been invaluable. We are immensely grateful for the boundless fruit exploring enthusiasm of those who started this process of re-discovery. Their passion for these apples, but more importantly, for the stories of small farms in rural Maine, adds layers of meaning to the slow, steady work of orcharding. Their efforts are embodied in the Maine Heritage Orchard and have extended far beyond this incredible project into the community that has coalesced around farming, orcharding and cidermaking in Maine. Being a small part of this greater whole keeps us going every day.
Getting to know other cidermakers and orchardists opened up the boundaries of our own orchard project from collecting and preserving the small clutch of trees along our road to incorporating local, regional and even international apple heritages. Starting with two old varieties discovered and propagated here generations ago – Lincolnville Russet and Fletcher Sweet – we’ve added hundreds of varieties from Maine and New England. As implied by the name of our region, our apple heritage came by way of the old world and, in addition to trees from the American cider making tradition we’ve added countless others from places abroad - Somerset and Devon in England, Normandy and Brittany inFrance, Asturias and Pais Vasco in Spain. As our orchard matures, we hope to create ciders that blend the best of these great traditions with the unique apples that thrive here in coastal Maine.