WESTMINSTER -- What better way to honor an apple orchard's 100th anniversary than with free cider and doughnuts?
Connecticut Valley Orchard has hit the century mark and owner Russell Allen said his family has planned festivities today to celebrate the occasion, including a tour of the land as well as games and activities for children. The fun will commemorate the longevity of the orchard, which was started as a commercial distribution business in 1912.
Russ, one of the original Allen brothers that developed the store that bears their name in 1956, and his siblings started leasing the orchard in 1968, after it had gone out of business and was left idle a few years prior.
Twenty-four acres had been originally planted, and the orchard boasted 150 acres by 1920. Along with brothers Raymond, John and Frank, Russ Allen replanted 18 acres, which remain active to this day, though some of the trees span back to the original plantings. The land now holds about 1,500 trees.
Tucked away within a sea of Vermont greenery, the orchard sits at the end of a few meandering roads, including a slight incline covered with dirt and pebbles. Strategically placed signs help guide apple pickers through five minutes of driving that begins just off Exit 5 of Interstate 91.
The orchard opened for pickers on Sept. 1 and will close Nov. 1. A lot of the business is selling the apples directly to other growers.
"We've gotten off to a good
Allen, who took over the orchard on his own in 1985, enjoys working with his hands in the great outdoors and knows the property like the back of his hand, driving his truck to different sections, where he enthusiastically describes the numerous varieties of apples he grows.
Northern Spy, Cortland, Red Delicious, McIntosh are some of the types he has, not including "heritage varieties" like Roxbury Russet and Spitzenberg or newer ones like Honeycrisp or Ginger Gold.
But one tree in particular holds a special treat for visitors. Using a horticultural technique known as grafting, Allen has a made a single tree that sports five varieties of apples. Grafting involves joining together the tissues of different trees using one as a rootstock. Anyone that correctly guesses the five varieties gets a free half-bushel of apples.
"Guess how many bushels we gave away last year," he said. "Zero."
The branches and tissues are bonded by green grafting wax.
"It's a lot like Play-Doh," Allen said, rubbing some of the substance between his fingers. "It's special stuff that comes from Switzerland. It's the best we've ever used.
"We used to use beeswax years ago," he added. "But when it was cold you had to have a little heater and warm up and spread it on. This stuff here, you can do it in any temperature."
But the orchard business isn't all fun and games -- apple growers have to deal with freezes (or frosts), droughts and heat waves. The dedication needed to stay in this line of work requires a passion that cannot be generated by dollar signs.
"Right after a frost, I met another apple grower and asked him, ‘Why are we farmers? Why are we doing this?' And he said, ‘Russell, it's because we love it,'" Allen recalled. "You have to love this business or you can't take the freezes and the frost."
Though the other Allen brothers are gone, the orchard still remains a family business, as members of his clan assist in the year-round responsibilities. He said his grandson, Brandon, has helped him with the grafting and during the winter months others help with pruning, or selectively removing branches and roots to train a tree to grow the best apples with proper sunlight.
Brandon Allen, 27, hates the idea of working indoors every day and got started in pruning for just that reason.
"I don't know how people do it -- going to the same building every day and doing the same thing," he said on Friday. "I love (working outside). I just like watching things grow."
It astounds him how his grandfather's orchard is turning 100, and he
"It's kind of unbelievable ... It's crazy to think about everything around them that's come and gone," he said. "If those trees could talk."
At more than 80 years old, Allen is certainly entitled to retirement -- but has no immediate plans to pursue it.
"We'll keep going until it doesn't make sense to continue," he said.
Today's activities are scheduled to last from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.