The Changing Face of Hudson Valley Apples

The Apple Issue

The Changing Face of Hudson Valley Apples

THE SHINE IS back on Hudson Valley apples, big time. Thanks to new varieties, new farmers and an explosion of interest in craft apple ciders and liqueurs, there’s a new optimism among growers that hasn’t been seen in years.

“Apples are huge,” confirms Richard Ball, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. “It’s a crop that we rank nationally in, that we have available virtually year round. They’re one of the things we can really brag about in New York State.” New York, in fact, is the second-largest apple producer in the United States, and about 22 percent of the 28 million bushels produced annually statewide are grown in the Hudson Valley, ranking it second behind New York’s western apple-growing region on the southern shores of Lake Ontario. Ulster County ranks second in the state for the number of farms devoted to apples, while Columbia ranks fifth and Orange and Dutchess Counties tie for eighth.

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The economic impact of the apple industry, both regionally and statewide, also is on the upswing. Following a relatively dismal decade during the 1990s, the industry has seen a general upswing since 2002, now adding roughly $250 million annually to the state’s economy—and that should increase with the growth of new markets for value-added fermented and distilled apple products.

Most of this isn’t too surprising for those who know their fruit—it’s almost as if the Hudson Valley was created specifically to grow apples. “Here, we’ve got the moderating influence of the Hudson River and the Atlantic Ocean, as well as a late frost,” explains Stephen Hoying, recently retired Senior Extension Associate at Cornell University’s Hudson Valley Research Laboratory in Highland. “We have a growing season that will support growing almost every apple variety.”

In addition to statewide bestsellers like Macintosh, Empire, Gala and Honeycrisp, the Hudson Valley offers an array of apples that are best grown right here. “The Hudson Valley region is the warmest growing region in the state, so there’s some varieties down there, like Pink Lady, Fuji, or Granny Smith, that do better in warmer, longer growing seasons,” says Jim Allen, President of the New York Apple Association. The region also offers many unique varieties of “heirloom” apples—breeds with long histories that can often be hard to find. “They’re unique,” Allen says. “You can’t buy them anywhere other than a farm market.”

One of the best-known Hudson Valley heirloom varieties is the Esopus Spitzenburg, discovered in the Hudson River settlement of Esopus, near Kingston, by a Dutch settler in the late 1700s. The late-season apple has a red-and-yellow skin, with delicate striping and spotting throughout; the firm yellow flesh is aromatic and flavorful, though the flavor ripens nicely after being stored for a time. Thomas Jefferson was so taken with the apple that he planted a few dozen Esopus Spitzenburg trees in his orchards at Monticello.

Warwick Valley Winery and Distillery currently grows some 66 varieties of apple in its 20-acre orchard space, including the elusive Spitzenburg, as well as other antique varieties such as Chenango Strawberry (a sweet, fragrant apple native to New York; 1854), Wealthy (a tart, bright red apple, the first successfully developed in Minnesota; 1868), Cox’s Orange Pippin (England’s most famous dessert apple; 1825), Ashmead’s Kernel (a British apple dating from the 1700s with flavors of pear and banana), and Calville Blanc d’Hiver (a spicy, tart, uniquely shaped French baking apple that goes all the way back to 1598). “Wherever you grow heritage varieties, you’re growing historical Hudson Valley fruit,” says co-owner Jason Grizzanti. “It’s been an apple region forever.”

Prospect Hill Orchards in Milton and The Orchards of Concklin in Pomona are among the Hudson Valley orchards growing the new varieties. “I think SnapDragon is really exceptional,” says Steve Clarke, of Prospect Hill Orchards, about a very popular, newly introduced apple. “When you bite into it you get a burst of flavor—you get that with most apples, but with this apple I find that the flavors just keep exploding in your mouth after that first bite. It’s like a rocket; you get that initial burst, and then you get all those boom-boom-booms afterwards. It really just explodes with flavor!”

A sixth-generation farmer, Clarke lives in the original homestead of Nathaniel Clarke, who founded Prospect Hill in 1817. “My great-great-great grandfather had the wisdom to plant a black walnut tree in the front yard, just a magnificent tree—200 years later, it’s something I can put my hand on that he also put his hand on,” Clarke says. “Even though we don’t get rich financially farming, there’s other rewards—you can’t really put a price tag on them, but for me they have a very, very high value.”

The Hudson Valley wasn’t always as dedicated to apples as it is now, Clarke says; tomatoes, peaches and grapes were more dominant until the mid-1950s. “I can show you a picture of Marlboro in 1923 and there is not an apple tree in sight—every spare acre was planted to grapes,” Clarke notes. “Around the 1930s, I think, apples more and more became the dominant crop, and certainly by the 1950s with the advent of controlled-atmosphere storage. Apples just made more sense because you could then extend your marketing season over eight or nine months, and it’s a much more dependable crop.”

Clarke grows 20 varieties of apples—including Jonagold, Gala, Fuji, Cortland, Winesap and Ginger Gold—on about 120 acres of the 400-acre you-pick farm. “When I started, half the production was Macintosh; now I doubt it’s more than 5 percent of the production,” he says. “The trend is toward sweet and crisp. The new varieties are bred so that they can sit on your dining room table for two weeks and they’re still going to be crisp.”

Like many modern apple growers, Clarke has updated his farming techniques over the years to suit the growth patterns of the new varieties. “When I started growing apples, we were growing big, old trees. They required a 20- or 22-foot ladder to pick, and there were 40 trees per acre. We’re now planting 1,000 trees per acre on a supported system—we’re growing a lot of apples and not a lot of tree,” Clarke explains. “We anticipate apples in the future will be picked without ladders in the orchard, that the tops of the trees will be harvested off of a platform that workers stand on and the bottom will just be picked as you walk by”—expensive changes that ultimately will make harvesting more efficient, he adds.

Another older farm embracing new harvesting techniques is The Orchards of Concklin, in Pomona, Rockland County. It’s been in the Concklin family since 1712, making it the eighth-oldest family-run business in the nation. “In the old days, to trim a tree, we had a tractor mounted platform that you drove into the orchard and parked between the trees,” explains farm manager Linda Concklin Hill, who also is president of the Rockland Farm Bureau. “The workers then climbed up the ladder onto a platform above the tractor, about 12 to 15 feet up. From this platform you slid out planks to access the top of the trees to remove excess growth that shaded the fruit-bearing wood. We are now doing very dense plantings with built-in trickle irrigation and trellises to maximize growth potential. The highly dense plantings are more efficient for operations,” Hill notes. “In the 1890s, we harvested our apples, packed them in big barrels (every farm had to have their own cooper to put the bands on the barrels), loaded the barrels into horse drawn wagons, drove the wagon to Haverstraw and loaded the barrels of apples onto a ferry to be delivered into New York City. Eventually, the railroads replaced the ferries and our apples were shipped by train.” Today, Concklin’s apples can be picked right off their trees, purchased at their on-site farm stand and bakery, found at other farmer’s markets throughout the area, and even shipped across the country.

Apple growers in New York State typically fit one of two profiles: large, commercial growers, mainly located in the western region, that sell wholesale quantities to grocery stores, distributors and for export; and smaller farms, like Prospect Hill, the Concklins and the majority of other orchards in the Hudson Valley, that sell on the farm, at farmers’ markets and pick-your-own operations. “A lot of farms in the Hudson Valley have destination markets—they feature hayrides, pumpkin patches, onsite bakeries and cafes, and some even have onsite craft breweries. It’s a real event to visit these areas,” says Jim Allen, President of the New York Apple Association, which has embarked upon a major consumer advertising campaign to encourage people to purchase New York State apples and to visit the farms themselves.

In Granite Springs, Stuart’s Fruit Farm, the oldest apple orchard in Westchester County, fits the profile and has successfully capitalized on its small-farm image. Founded in 1828 as a dairy farm, the family shifted the focus to fruit in the 1920s and currently farms 200 acres of apples, pumpkins and vegetables. Like the Orchards at Concklin, the Stuart’s suburban location has been both a blessing and a curse: While the markets for their products are large and nearby, so are the development threats. But sixth-generation farmers Bob and Betsy Stuart, who live in the property’s original 1760 farmhouse, have no plans to leave. “Suburbia’s closing in on us, but we’re not selling,” Betsy declares.

The Stuarts currently grow 38 varieties of apples, all of which are hand picked by farmworkers or pick-your-own visitors—there is no automated harvesting on the farm. The orchard’s most popular modern varieties include Honeycrisps, Fujis, McIntosh, red and yellow Delicious and Mutsu (aka Crispin), a giant yellow apple. Some of the original trees on the farm are still producing Northern Spy and Black Twig and there are some Macouns and Winesaps that were planted in the 1920s; one very special tree produces Baldwins. (These large, heirloom trees are not part of the pick-your-own section. “Our men pick from the 25-footers,” Bob Stuart says.)

Extra seasonal attractions on the farm have helped the Stuarts ride the trend of agritourism that is still growing. In addition to apples, fall brings hayrides, pumpkin picking and school field trips; for the holidays there are you-cut Christmas trees. The on-site bakery is a favorite stop for cyclists riding the North County Trailway bike trail that cuts right through the farm.

While the increased emphasis on agritourism brings direct economic benefits to the farms, Clarke says he’s noticed a major return to farm-zoned land in his area of Ulster County. “I can show you three properties that have been purchased in the last three years that were purchased by investors 15 to 20 years ago and subdivided that are now being purchased back by farmers to be planted,” Clarke says. “That’s a reverse trend—you’re not going to see very often anyplace where a subdivided property goes back to the farmer’s hands.” Clarke has also noticed a new generation returning from school to make farming a career, much as he did after earning his degree in horticulture from Michigan State University. “I can’t ever remember a time when this has happened in the numbers that it’s happening today,” he declares. “I think a lot of kids are looking at the job market and realizing it’s an opportunity for them to be their own bosses, to make decisions at a much earlier stage than they would otherwise. I’m sure they’re going to take these farms in some different directions.”

For some farms, that direction is toward the production of cider and other fermented or distilled apple drinks. According to state figures, the number of cideries in New York has risen 360 percent in just three years—from 5 to 23 producers (15 of them in the Hudson Valley), making it one of the fastest-growing commercial segments of the New York apple industry. In January of this past year, a new Farm Cidery Licensing Law took effect, which, in sum, makes it easier for on-farm distilleries to produce and sell hard cider products, wine and spirits. “The new laws [are] all targeted at making it easier for people to get into the hard-cider business,” says Allen. “It’s an emerging, popular category, like the craft brew business—they’re all growing because it’s sexy, it’s homegrown, and it’s local.”

Grizzanti agrees. “With the boom in cidermaking, we have to do new things,” he stresses, noting that Warwick Valley’s increased production demanded the creation of a whole new facility—Black Dirt Distillery—to produce its nationally recognized fruit brandies, applejack, bourbon and gin. “It all coincided with the craft spirits revival—we saw how the trend grew and wanted to put more emphasis on it,” he says.

Dan Donahue, Senior Extension Educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Commercial Horticulture Program, sees a bright future for Hudson Valley apples. “We’re looking at a revitalized industry because of value-added products—cider and distilled products,” he says. “In a recent industry meeting, I was struck by the tone of optimism. People are getting into the business now in a way we didn’t see in past years—coming from outside the industry to grow apples, and younger family members are returning to the farm. We’re talking about young apple growers these days.”

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