WESTMINSTER STATION — Russell Allen knows his apples.
On Friday, he turns the ripe age of 90, but he still has the passion for the fruit that has dominated his working life.
Walking with just a little hitch in his gait, Allen and his grandson Brandon Allen head out to his small home orchard to check for possible damage from this week’s cold temperatures. He heads to rows of Zestar, McIntosh and Honeycrisp, which ripen at staggered times starting in the late summer to early fall.
The buds are still in what Allen calls “tight cluster,” but cold temperatures can spell doom, months in advance, for any crop. In 10 days, weather willing, he said, there will be “petal fall” signaling the apple crop has been pollinated.
With more than a little anticipation, he nips off a small spur of growth and then with his thumb and forefinger fans out the cluster of tiny buds, which are not showing any of the deep pink bud color, which leads to the gorgeous apple-blossom-pink.
“If I pinch this off and the stem is black, it’s dead,” he said, with a tiny hint of worry in his voice.
The center bud and blossom is always the biggest, he said.
He pinches. “It’s green ... green ... green,” he says, looking closely at the cluster of tiny blossom stems. “We have a crop.”
Allen is one of the four Allen brothers who founded Allen Brothers Inc., a business in Westminster that at one point boasted farm stands as far away as Claremont, N.H., orchards in Saxtons River, Westminster and Charlestown, N.H., and strawberry and vegetable farms. The four founding brothers were John, Raymond, Frank and Russell, who took over various aspects of the many operations. Their children and grandchildren continue the different Allen Brothers traditions.
Russell Allen was the ninth of 10 children born to Herbert and Louise Allen. Of the original family, only Russell, or “Russ,” and two of his sisters, Beatrice, 98, of Rockingham, and Daisy French, 82, of Claremont, are still alive.
The Allens were born at home in a section of Westminster called Allenville along the Back Westminster Road. His father was a small farmer, raising chickens, eggs and goats.
“Isn’t there a book called ‘Real Vermonters Don’t Milk Goats?’” he said. “I grew up milking goats,” he said.
The family wasn’t poor, but wasn’t rich either. They didn’t have electricity until he got back to Vermont after serving in Korea, he recalled. He and his sister Gladys, two years older, walked two miles to school. The Allen family founded the Christian Family Circle, a church that continues to this day. The church was built on the site of the family’s home after it burned.
“I’m pastor emeritus,” he said. Church services during the coronavirus pandemic have continued over Zoom, he said.
Being pastor, he said, “has been the most significant thing in my life.” He served as pastor and assistant pastor a total of 25 years. Lately, church attendance has dwindled, he said, to 15 to 20 people. “But it’s open to whoever walks in.”
Because of his religious beliefs, Allen was a conscientious objector during the Korean War, serving as a medic on the front lines. He didn’t carry a rifle, or stand guard, but he said he was respected for his service and called “Doc.”
“I didn’t need a weapon, it was never a problem being a CO,” he said.
He now lives with his daughter Brenda and her husband Tim Eno in a ranch house in Westminster Station, surrounded by the rich sandy loam soil that Connecticut River Valley and Westminster farms are famous for. This week, the alfalfa surrounding the house, is already five inches tall.
There are about 100 young apple trees, neatly pruned, a tiny orchard compared to the hundreds of acres Allen once owned and tended.
Allen started working in orchards when he was 17, he said, working for the owner of what is now Connecticut Valley Orchards in Westminster, which is now operated by his son Larry, with a pick-your-own operation known as Higgins Hill Orchard.
Allen left Vermont to serve in the U.S. Army in Korea, where he served as a medic, and when he returned, he got married to his wife Marjory, known as Peggy, and started a family.
Peggy worked side-by-side with him, he said. Peggy has lived in a nursing home for the past 10 years because of dementia. Together they had five children (four surviving), 10 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
When he started in the orchard business, McIntosh was king. Now, it’s all Honeycrisp, and its different — copyrighted and licensed offshoot varieties, he said. Honeycrisp commands top dollar, and the market and growers have responded.
In his own personal orchard, there are Macs and Honeycrisps, among others, but he says his favorite is Macoun. He has a fondness for Northern Spy, a late ripening variety that can produce apples the size of softballs, and his son Larry tells him is growing in popularity.
In the off time from the orchard, he worked as a real estate agent. He only “retired” from running Connecticut Valley Orchard five years ago, turning over the operation to his son. The family rents the orchard.
Thirty years ago, Allen learned how to graft from Zeke Goodband, a well-known orchardist who worked at both Alyson’s Orchard and Scott Farm, before moving on to Champlain Valley Orchard. There’s a real art to grafting scions of apple trees to another rootstock, he said, and Goodband used a special Swiss wax that made all the difference.
Grafting allows an orchardist to change an orchard, without cutting down all the trees and starting all over, saving time and money. He has grafted five different varieties onto one tree, he said, as a demonstration.
“Peggy would also do that,” he said. “Grafting is a real art.”
Allen’s apple reputation led the producers of the movie “The Cider House Rules” to hire him as their on-set expert. Word got back to Allen that other Vermont apple experts had been approached first, and had been unable to do it.
“I was their third choice, so I said to myself ‘don’t be proud.’ I decided to say my fee was $250 a day,” he said, laughing.
Allen was hired, and for three weeks in the fall of 1998 he coaxed and tutored the cast and crew on small but significant details about orchards and apples.
The 1999 Oscar-winning movie, based on the John Irving novel, was filmed in part in several different locations in southern Vermont, including Scott Farm, the well known orchard in Dummerston.
Allen said he taught the movie’s star Tobey Maguire the proper method of putting on an apple bag, and how to twist off the apples without damaging the next year’s spur and crop. He oversaw the crew tying apples back up in the trees, for repeated takes.
He taught the cast and crew, for those interested, how to split an apple in half, by hand.
“There’s a trick to it,” he said.
Allen is a bit of a performer himself, and used to bring humor to the stage as “The Real Vermonter” for small groups in southern Vermont.
Cornell University’s agriculture experts say if the temperature drops to 28 degrees, you lose 10 percent of your crop, and if it drops as low as 25 degree, you lose 100 percent, Allen says.
How long it’s cold is another factor, he said. Air inversions are an important factor as well.
Strawberry growers can irrigate, but it would be impractical for apple growers, he said.
Allen, for his long years observing the growing season, says he sees no impact from global warming. “I don’t see any change,” he said.
The spring of 2021 started fast, and then slowed down. Consulting a Cornell University apple growers manual, that details the various stages of bud and blossom, Allen predicts his trees in Westminster Station will bloom in 10 days — around May 10. The orchard his son operates is at a slightly higher elevation, and will bloom five days later.
Allen plans on taking it easy on his birthday, and will celebrate this weekend with his son Larry, who was born the day after, May 1.
“I’ll probably sit in my easy chair — motorized — drink a cup of coffee and take calls,” he said, impishly. “And stay out of trouble,” he added.
“I’ve lived an interesting life,” he said.