Local Producers

A is for Apple

A is for Apple

Apples ripen at Two Brothers Orchard in Westby, Wisconsin.

Apple season is upon us and varieties of apples for baking, bobbing, and just plain eating fill the co-op produce bins. Apples have always seemed to have a knack for taking advantage of the human craving for sweets, and humans have responded by planting apple trees all over the world.

Botanists reckon the beginnings of the apple were in southwest Kazakhstan in the Tien Shan Mountains on the borders of China’s Xinjiang province. The apple’s homeland is, by repute, a place of fantastic varieties of apples. Apple trees there stand 50 feet tall—Newton would not have survived his eureka moment. There are also apple trees that never think of growing beyond a shrub’s life and fruits of all sizes and color from violet black to bright yellow.

Humans have had a long history with the apple tree; botanists aren’t sure of the exact date of the apple’s genesis, but our word for the fruit can be traced back about 5,000 years to the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) speakers of the Central Asian Steppes and Caucasus, making it one of the oldest words in our vocabulary. The word “apple” comes from the Proto-Indo-European root “abel.”

English is an adaptable amalgam of many languages. Any given sentence has elements of Old German, French, Latin, Norse, but the oldest words we use come from Proto-Indo-European—a language spoken before the Trojan War. Proto-Indo-Europeans were early to domesticate the horse and take up the wheel (another PIE word). They were nomadic people whose homeland bordered the apple mountains in central Asia. When they hitched up their wagons to their horses and hit the road for La Crosse and Rochester 5,000 years ago, they took their apples with them. Proto-Indo-European tribes brought the fruit into other regions as they migrated. One such group, the Hittites, had orchards in the region we know as Turkey by 2,000 b.c.

As the early PIE language splintered and changed over the centuries into Persian and Sanskrit and Latin and Greek and German and English, the apple changed too. Thoreau called it the fruit of conquest, following the path of civilization through Europe and then to the Americas, but the movement was often simply migration and trade as much as pillage and empire. The discordant aspects of the apple may be overstated. Maybe the newcomer simply pulled up in his wagon and offered a sweet apple in greeting. The wary local took a bite, “Hmm… you call this an ‘abel’? Sweet. Tell me more, handsome.”

In mid-summer in the early 21st century, we visited a pair of orchards in Western Wisconsin, Two Brothers and Szczutkowski. Both orchards supply People’s Food Co-op with apples, and we found people who spoke a variety of late Proto-Indo-European, commonly known in the region as “English.”

Once Upon a Time, Two Brothers…
Two Brothers Orchard is named for the sons of John Armbruster, Matt (15) and Joe (11). The orchard is outside of Westby, Wisconsin. They have about 175 trees at this time. In the fall, People’s Food Co-op will see a good deal of their Honeycrisps. John Armbruster took me around the orchard, explaining how he came to apples and his approach to the work.

The trees are already fruit-bearing, though the apples aren’t quite picking size yet. Besides Honeycrisp, Two Brothers has Cortland apples—which John recommends for pie. The orchard planted cherry trees last year, but they didn’t make it through this year’s hard winter. He lost no apple trees, though 90 trees didn’t set fruit as a result of the late spring. In spite of the hard winter, the trees that did set are coming along well, and John expects a good harvest come fall. “We harvest Labor Day through October, and we’ll gross about 6,000 to 8,000 apples from that block of trees.”

Like many of PFC’s local producers, John has a day job. He teaches history and social studies in the local high school. His wife had been a graphic artist; she worked out of the house and took breaks to work in the orchard. “We also thought it was something good for the kids to do.”

John reports that he decided to go organic for a couple of reasons. First, he says, “We’re in Vernon County, and when in Rome—. Also, my wife’s cancer was a consideration. When I was looking at some of the conventional sprays on the market, I realized I didn’t want any of that stuff around her.”

“It’s harder work,” John allows. “There’s more hand labor. Some people thought I was nuts going organic, but now I’ve done it for 11 years, and I’m so glad that I did. I get customers who come to me because I’m organic.”

Two Brothers may not try cherry trees again, but they have added raspberry bushes and more apple trees. “I’d like to do hard cider,” John Armbruster says, “but that’s just pie in the sky now. Maybe years down the road, we’ll do that.”

Szczutkowski Orchard
Ed and Lauri Martin of Szczutkowski Orchard aren’t doing cider either, but they are excited about their applesauce. “We’re picky about our apples,” says Ed. “About a third of the harvest goes to sales (including People’s), and the rest goes into our applesauce.” Szczutkowski is Lauri’s family name.

Ed and Lauri Martin at Szczutkowski Orchard.  

Ed Martin meets me at his house outside of Richland Center and we drive up the ridge to the orchard above Highway 14. Szczutkowski grows a wide variety of apples. “We have Red Freese, Golden Delicious, McIntosh (that’s good for sauce), Honeycrisp, Cortland (a good applesauce or pie apple)…” They use all the various apples in their secret recipe for applesauce. But only apples and a little water—no sugar or additives.

Ten years ago, the Martins bought the old Indian Hollow apple operation that used to sell conventional apples at the large roadside stand just outside of Richland Center. The previous owner had died and the orchards had been left to grow wild. “That first year was crazy with all the pruning we had to do,” Lauri remembers.

The Martins don’t have all the old orchard land in production—yet. Ed says there are 18 acres in apples—more than 6,000 trees. It’s a larger operation than Two Brothers, but Martin is just as committed to organic production methods as the smaller orchard (both producers are organic certified). As we talk, the nearby bee hive is humming with activity. “We’ve stopped mowing this year; the bees seem to prefer the high grass,” Ed says. “People tell us that they’ve seen more birds nesting in our trees—more than when it was in conventional production.”

Coincidentally, both Lauri Martin and John Armbruster are middle/high school teachers—though John cautions anyone thinking about starting an orchard that a degree in horticulture might be more useful than one in history. Lauri also is on the board at the Valley Stewardship Network out of Viroqua, WI. The VSN works to safeguard the Kickapoo watershed.

It’s a cool July day in what has been an unusually cool growing season in the Driftless Region. Ed Martin expects Szczutkowski’s harvest to be more favorable for applesauce than for eating apples. Why organic? “I wasn’t interested in messing around with chemicals,” Ed says. He tells a story of being doused by the contents of a spray tank they use on the farm. “It was only a clay solution. Imagine if it had been an industrial pesticide. We gotta figure out a balance with the environment without all that. Besides,” he says, “I wouldn’t have a story to tell if I were just another conventional farmer. How would I compete with those guys with three times the acreage?”

Gala by Starlight
If you slice an apple in half across the apple’s equator, on the inside you’ll find the seeds set in a five-pointed star. “Star” is another word that comes down to us from the Proto-Indo-Europeans. “Star” along with “apple” is one of the oldest words in our vocabulary. Like an emperor’s face on a coin, here was the mark of the heavens written for anyone to see. No wonder people thought this tree had been put in the garden with a purpose. The stars themselves left their mark in every apple—a tree full of ripe apples would make a constellation.


This article originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of the Co-op Shopper.