Scattered around the U.S. and Canada are hundreds of heirloom apple growers who are profiting from the renewed interest in the old apple varieties. Heirloom apples are those varieties popular over 100 years ago. Why heirloom apples? Let’s be honest, supermarket apples tend to be tasteless, bland varieties, bred for their ability to ship and store well, not for tasty eating. When the average person first tastes a heirloom apple, their reaction is usually “Wow – I had no idea an apple could taste this good!”
As more and more consumers experience these genuine apple varieties, demand increases, and growers who can supply these sought-after heirloom varieties get higher prices for their apples and usually sell out their entire orchard production. In addition to selling out their crop, many growers also sell apple trees to consumers who’ve tasted a variety and would like to grow their own. Some growers report sales of trees brings more profit than apples.
in the 1700s and 1800s, a rainbow of varieties was grown, like the Rhode Island Greening, a cooking apple developed in 1748, Blanc d’Hiver, the gourmet apple of France and Ashmead’s Kernel, a golden brown winter russet dating back to 1700. Apples were an important part of the daily diet, and apple cider, usually hard cider, was the primary beverage. Today, the rainbow of apple choices and artisan cider are making a comeback.
Gary & Pam Mount have been growing apples at their New Jersey orchard for over 30 years, and report that often, because demand exceeds supply, they bring in gourmet apples from other growers in the area. They grow 30 different varieties to spread out the harvest time over ten weeks. Gary encourages other growers to do the same, so customers come back for apples or cider several times during the harvest season.
In addition to selling apples, the Mounts produce thousands of gallons of fresh cider each season, using a blend of apple varieties. Gary claims the Stayman Winesap in the only apple variety that makes a decent cider on it’s own. Selling cider is a great way to turn windfall and cull apples into a premium “value-added” product that customers love.
The Mounts say a beginning fruit grower should only plant dwarf fruit trees. “Dwarf trees should produce two or three times per acre what standard size trees produce, and they begin producing fruit in just three to four years,” Gary says. An added benefit is that U-pick customers can reach most of the fruit without a ladder.
In a recent poll of heirloom apple growers, these heirloom varieties earned the most recommendations:
Ashmead’s Kernel. Created around 1700 in England, with a golden russet color and tart, crisp flesh, this variety stores well and is prized as a dessert apple.
Blue Permain. This old American apple dates back to the early 1800s. It has a deep red skin and a sweet yellow flesh.
Cox Orange Pippin. Dating back to 1825, this smaller green apple has a crisp flavor and makes great cider.
Esopus Spitzenberg. This was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple, and you’ll still find this variety growing in his orchard at Monticello.
Golden Russett. The rust colored fruit is firm, making it and ideal cooking and pie apple – also delicious fresh.
McIntosh. Developed around 1870, this apple has a red skin and white flesh. Ideal for applesauce.
Northern Spy. A large apple variety, with red and yellow fruit, used fresh or in cider, applesauce or pies.
Roxbury Russett. A true heirloom, dating back to 1650. Produces a light green fruit with a sweet nutty flavor. An extremely heavy producer in most areas.
These are just a few of the hundreds of antique apples that have remained popular over the years. It’s a good idea to check with local growers to find out which varieties do best in your regional climate.
Heirloom apples offer thee ways for a small grower to produce an income – by selling apples to customers who appreciate the wonderful flavor of a “real” apple, by selling the old apple varieties on a dwarf rootstock for customers who want to grow their own historic apple trees, and by turning cull apples into profitable cider for sale. My new book, Growing Trees For Profit, covers dozens of other ways to make money growing trees.