Ah – apples! The iconic American fruit: apple pie, apple sauce, apple butter, apple crisp, apple cider, hard cider, apples fallen to the ground and swarmed by drunken wasps. The taste and smell of apples is the taste and smell of autumn – crisp, tangy-sweet, nostalgic. So it seems appropriate that on this warm early fall afternoon kissed with the faintest touch of a cooling breeze, I travel out to Silverton to interview Neil Austin on his 1.5 acre organic apple farm.
Austin Farm is a true family farm: all the work is done by Neil, his wife, Marian, and their adult children – the cultivating, the picking, the sorting and packing and selling. When they bought their hillside property 26 years ago, they learned that hillside land is best suited for growing fruits like apples, which do not require rich soil. They were determined to grow organically, although many people told them it was impossible to grow apples that way. “We wanted to do what we felt was best for the land.” They have been certified organic by Oregon Tilth since 1989.
The Austins found that the common commercially-grown varieties were, indeed, nearly impossible to grow organically. Apples are subject to a number of pests and diseases – in this area apple scab and codling moth are particularly severe. Neil and Marian planted primarily scab-resistant varieties – William’s Pride, Akane, Wynoochie, and Liberty, apples that are rarely seen in stores. The Liberty apple is one Neil recommends for homeowners – it’s scab free, a good producer, tasty, and stores well.
Codling moth is another pest that the Austins fight year-round. They have built bat houses and bird houses to attract predators of the adult codling moth and at least three times a season they spray granulosis- a virus that attacks and kills codling moth larvae but is harmless to other insects. They also patrol the orchard and pick up any infested fruit and destroy it.
The orchard requires care in all seasons. The Austins thin the apples by picking off blossoms in the spring. They hard prune in winter and lightly prune in summer to allow sunlight to reach the interior of the tree. They fertilize with lime, kelp, fishmeal, and cover crops. They graft their own trees. The orchard is planned to produce apples from August through October and, every day during that season, Neil is out picking fruit. “If it’s your passion, it doesn’t seem like work,” he says with a smile.
On the day I visit the orchard is heavy with ripening fruit. When an apple is ripe it will pop off the tree into your hand when you lift up the stem, as if asking you to eat it; the seeds will be dark brown and there will be no green tint to the flesh.
Many super-market apples are picked green for shipping and ripen in storage; that is why they seem flavorless compared to good tree-ripened fruit. Neil picks a Wynoochie off the tree for me. The skin snaps as I bite into it, crisp, winey, sweetly, acidic, complex – the taste of harvest, of abundance, of sunny days and cool nights, golden leaves falling, the first fire in the fireplace. I decide to go home and bake a pie.
The Austins sell their apples at the Salem Saturday and Wednesday Farmers Markets, LifeSource in Salem, and to the Mt. Angel Abbey Bon Appetit food program.