Forager in The Apple Forest

Our orchard and cider production are works in progress. We are not Farmers. Sometimes, I have grand notions that I will bring our orchard back to health using biodynamic practice, plant more trees in neat rows, and cut back more of the forest. In reality, our orchard is just a collection of old apple trees scattered around a clearing in the forest. It is an apple forest and we are apple foragers.

People gather apples off of a tarp

The Honorable Harvest

Out in the orchard, I have been thinking about Robin Wall Kimmerer’s writings on the honorable harvest in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass.

She wrote, “The honorable harvests ask us to give back, in reciprocity, for what we have been given. Reciprocity helps resolve the tension for taking a life by giving in return something of value that sustains the ones who sustain us. One of our responsibilities as human people is to find ways to enter into reciprocity with the more-than-human world. We can do it through gratitude, through ceremony, through land stewardship, science, art, and in everyday acts of practical reverence.”

As we picked the apples this year, I asked myself how can we give back to the trees that have provided us with this fruit. What is our honorable harvest?

Walking around a forest and meadow picking promising apples off of trees is a totally different experience from harvesting a mono-crop orchard with the latest grocery store apple varieties. The apples in our forest aren’t just for us to make ciders, they are also food for other animals that live in the surrounding woods. They are part of the ecosystem. 

A bin filled with apples
the cider press with apple juice coming off

This year, we shook the trees onto tarps and harvested off the tarps, rather than picking in the trees. It went a lot faster and is definitely the way to go moving forward. Next year, we will bring a leaf blower to blow off the leaves off of the tarps before we collect the apples. 

Wild, old apple trees, like the ones at the farm, bear fruit biennially. We will have a huge crop one year and barely any the next. Last year was a huge year for fruit production and this year, a number of trees had almost no fruit. Since these trees are minimally managed (I mean very minimal), the natural ups and downs in fruit production are something we will have to contend with in the future for our farm ciders. Some years there will be lots of apples and some years we’ll have a much smaller volume. 

The trees in the apple forest are also all different varieties and they ripen at different times. We are still figuring out the best time to harvest each tree and have missed a couple. There was one tree where all the apples looked great one day. We came back the following week to harvest and all but one apple had fallen. Each of the trees has its own personality and rhythm that we are getting to know.

We are striving to be stewards of the land and these apple trees. We don’t harvest all the apples, we leave some for the wildlife. It isn’t true reciprocity for what we take out of the forest. It’s an evolving relationship with the trees, and we are just getting accquainted.

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