Editor’s note: In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at www.maplecornermedia.com. Dirk Van Susteren is a Calais freelance writer and editor.
The Lodi apples are available in handy 5-pound bags at Allenholm Farm, heralding the approach of autumn. “You may not want it for eating,” warns Sylvie Breault, who has worked the counter at the farm stand for two decades.
“They’re tart, but great for pies.” She’s not entirely right. These yellow apples, gems really, first of the season, are sweet enough and have snap. Why wait for pie?
“Next will be the Jersey Macs, ready for picking next week,” says Ray Allen, 76, of the red, thick-skinned apple. A total of 23 other varieties of apples will be harvested over the next two months – each with its spot on the calendar — at the family’s 53-acre orchard on Grand Isle. It’s a place that by virtue of popularity and longevity is a Vermont institution.
The Allen family’s roots in Vermont go back two centuries. Ray’s ancestors first settled on Grand Isle in the 1780s. His great-grandfather bought the current farm in South Hero in 1870, and began raising livestock, producing crop seed and taking advantage of the Lake Champlain lakeshore climate to grow apples.
In the late 19th century and early 20th, the Allens sold apples by the barrel, often three to a customer – one for immediate consumption, one for winter storage, one with fruit to be dried for spring and summer use.
This history gives Ray Allen bragging rights: “I’ve been told Allenholm Farm is the oldest commercial apple orchard in the state,” he says.
It’s been a privilege for him and his family to own and operate these acres of apple trees, says Ray during a break on a busy day. But running the place at profit is never without challenges. There’s a constant need to consider new varieties, adjust to fluctuating market demand, complying with government regulations and coping with every farmer’s bugaboo: bad weather.
Ray, who has kept weather records for 45 years, says things seem to have gotten out of hand lately; he sees possible evidence of climate change.
“In the first 40 years, we had only one bad year every five years, and now we have had four bad years in a row,” Ray says. He mentions this early spring’s drought-like conditions, followed by the summer rains that dumped 15 inches of water that soaked his orchards, leaving some too wet to reach by tractor for spraying.
Ray has responded to the challenges by diversifying, as have many other orchardists. He laughs as he agrees that if he had a mantra, it could be: “Don’t put all your apples in one barrel.” He has worked over the years to make the orchard “a destination,” and by his reckoning sees some 40,000 customers a year.
While once there were more than 100 commercial apple orchards in Grand Isle County, says Ray, there are now three.
At a picnic table outside the farm stand, with the orchard’s donkey, Willy, age 20, braying occasionally, Ray talks about the history of the farm in a style more timeline than narrative.
- 1911: His father buys the family farm and eight-bedroom house from Ray’s grandmother; his father continues to raise livestock, but, a horticulturalist at heart, focuses much on apples.
- Winter 1933-34: The Allens, as do many orchardists in New England, lose fruit trees during a severe cold snap, and in ‘35 begin widespread planting of the cold-hearty McIntosh trees. The apple becomes a regional icon.
- 1940s and ’50s: The Allens truck apples to a wholesaler in Albany, N.Y., for distribution to points across the East Coast. They’re dairying too, milking 35 Guernsey cows.
- 1959: Ray, with a degree in agriculture from the University of Vermont, returns to South Hero to run the family farm, which he buys from his father in 1960.
- Mid-1960s: The Allens quit dairying and start buying adjoining property to expand their orchards to 120 acres. They are selling apples to 25 Grand Union grocery stores across Vermont.
The economics of growing apples began shifting not long after they doubled their acreage. By the 1980s, demand for apples was softening while at the same time chain grocers began insisting on perfectly shaped, blemish-free fruit. Meanwhile, orchardists found themselves having to invest in expensive technology, including controlled-atmosphere facilities for year-long storage, and facing new competition from Europe and from Southern Hemisphere growers.
Some orchardists responded by finding niches, by growing organic or heirloom apples and by creating new products, such as ice cider and hard cider.
Ray reduced the size of his holdings but stuck with selling mostly McIntoshes, Empires and Cortlands. He also began developing new revenue streams – which like real streams meander a bit – all the while taking advantage of the orchard’s pastoral ambiance.
On a recent summer day, Ray invites a visitor to tour the place in his pickup, but he first admonishes: “Put on your seatbelt; my son is the county sheriff, and I am an EMT.”
We pass patches of raspberries and blueberries and pumpkins; we drive by cherry trees, whose fruit he sells to the Alchemist Brewery in Waterbury to flavor a specialty beer.
Soon we are crossing a grass airfield with the two-plane hanger that Ray rents out, and then enter a woodsy setting of hickory trees, a charming shaded spot where outdoor weddings are performed, sometimes with Ray presiding as justice of the peace.
Back at the farm stand we order a couple of sandwiches from another renter, Mike Byrne, who arrives every morning before noon in his ’71 Dodge Explorer, with its refrigeration and storage units, and who under an awning attached to the farm stand sells lunch until 3 p.m. (Our repast is delayed by a report that Willy and his friend Sassafras, another donkey, were last seen walking about a half mile down the road, which requires that Ray drop everything and head off to find them.)
Inside the farm stand, visitors can make arrangements to rent bicycles, rent a B&B room or buy maple syrup and maple creemees, while outside kids can pet accommodating farm animals and play on a playground.
But the core of Ray’s business is, as always, apples.
He sells to supermarkets – 11 Hannafords – and to cider makers, including Cold Hollow in Waterbury Center.
He presses his own cider in fall, sells applesauce and now works with a Colchester businessman to produce ice cider.
Ray sells some 3,000 apple pies a year. “I hand-mix the dough,” he explains, “and my wife Pam weighs out the ingredients; she adds the spices and sugar to the apple slices; I supply the top crust; Pam does fluting and bagging; and we freeze them,” he explains.
The pies are kept in a big freezer ready for the oven, says Breault, who is one to bake them fresh on demand.
Given the opportunity to wax sentimental about running an orchard that’s been in the family forever, Ray, the dean of Vermont orchardists, responds:
“I am glad I can spend 50 weeks a year here growing something healthy for people in New York City who work 50 weeks a year there, so they can visit here two weeks.”
But the fact he can trace Allen farm lineage back seven generations also figures in his sentiments. “Yup, this is important to me. My father gave me a chance; now I want my sons and grandchildren to have the opportunity.”