As often as I can, I walk down the lanes of our cider orchard, recording the first bud break, leafing out, blossom, and harvest of each apple variety. It’s an exercise I particularly enjoy. I am living history. Some of our apple varieties are pretty ancient, by our standards. Roxbury Russet originated in 1617 Massachusetts. Lady, in 1500s France. Kingston Black, 1820s England. The list goes on. Our orchard is at once a pomological research station—relatively few of our 100 varieties are being grown in California—and a time capsule. Our trees can trace direct lineage, though grafting, to the original specimen from centuries ago.
As I walk, I often find myself thinking about that tree’s ancestor, and ours. What was happening in the world, say, when someone grew the first Muscat de Bernay (pre-1800 Normandy) or Hewes crab (circa 1700 Virginia)? What has happened since, and what has changed? What’s almost more intriguing to contemplate is that through centuries of human upheaval, the trees remain, flowering in the spring, bearing fruit, going dormant, then flowering again, every once in a while a human snipping off a piece of scionwood and slipping it into another tree, giving something literally rooted in one time and place the opportunity to move and proliferate and set down roots elsewhere. There’s a constancy and rhythm to their lifecycle that I find especially comforting and meaningful. Through our cider orchard we are part of a rich tapestry, we are keepers of the flame, we are a link to both past and future. If we don’t care for and propagate them, these varieties will die out. What we do in the present has ramifications on the years to come.
It’s times as these, when I start thinking ahead, wondering what the next few centuries will bring, that I feel some trepidation. California in is its fourth year of extreme drought, and climate change is well underway, despite what the naysayers claim. I know, for those of you in the Eastern U.S., that seems laughable. You folks in New England still have lots of snow on the ground, and spring seems eons away. But our climate is starting to go haywire, and we’re the canaries.
California is prone to drought; we know that. But our winters have become unnaturally warm and the storms erratic, just as climate scientists have predicted. We (thankfully) had nearly 2 feet of rain between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then went on to experience our driest and warmest January ever, with 6 or 7 inches of rain total since.
I won’t go on about why everyone should care about what’s happening in California (though honestly, you should care, as California grows up to 75% of some of America’s favorite foods; read this great article here.) I also don’t want to dwell too much on the things that are beyond my control. I feel like I’ve gone through the stages of grief with this drought and climate change. I can’t tell you how often I’ve wanted to deny climate change is happening, that the drought can’t possibly go on another year, only for it to do so. Then I’ve been angry at all those people who've undermined efforts to mitigate global warming and at all of us for being complacent and therefore complicit, and for not managing our water and other resources better. I’ve even tried bargaining: Hey, Boston, send us some of that snow you bulldozed into the Atlantic Ocean, and we’ll send you some sun! Most recently, I’ve been depressed. But now, I’ve come to accept that this is indeed happening. And I can either pack my bags and become a climate refugee and move, or do everything I can to help us adapt to the new normal while reducing our carbon emissions. California is my home. I want it to survive.
Besides, you don’t go into farming, or grow apples and open a cidery in the middle of wine country for that matter, if you don’t have hope.
You’ve probably been reading articles on our record-low (i.e. basically nonexistent) snowpack and quickly dwindling groundwater sources and seeing all those infographics about the high water usage for various crops and food staples, such as almonds, lettuce, and beef. Here’s some good news: with the exception of our young cider orchard, all of our apples come from dry-farmed orchards. The trees have been planted so as to never need supplemental water aside from what rain they receive during our typical rainy season (October to April). In periods with little rain, it’s tough on the trees. It may mean lower yield and smaller fruit, but that’s nature’s way of conserving energy. Ironically, lower yield and smaller fruit means more concentrated tannins, phenolics, sugars, and flavors, so climate change is a boon in terms of cider quality. At our own orchard, we heavily mulch our trees and do infrequent, deep drip irrigation to help prepare for as much dry-farming as possible. We’re also working on a pretty extensive plan for rainwater harvesting beyond our simple water barrels already in place. When we get downpours as we did last December, we’ll be able to collect many thousands of gallons for our irrigation needs.
Also of concern is how the warm winters and early springs can negatively affect fruit yields, as most apple trees require several hundred chill hours (where the temps go below 45 degrees). So far we think we’re OK in getting enough chill hours, but we don’t know for sure; cider apples are notorious for being biennial bearing, meaning they have a big crop one year but small or none the next.
Bloom time and harvest have been a full three weeks earlier than average. The first tree in our orchard started blooming on March 2. Today, on Earth Day, about three-quarters of our 800 trees have bloomed and leafed out, and some have even set fruit. Walking through an orchard of blossoms before the first day of spring, and harvesting the first apples before kids go back to school, has become our new reality. Freeze, schmeeze. We didn’t get our first proper frost until late December and even then, I don't think the temps have gone below 25 degrees in over a year. The bigger worry is heat waves in January. And February. And March. You get the picture.
At the cidery, we use little water. We wash all the apples with a closed recirculating system, so the water gets filtered and reused. We don’t use apple juice concentrate, so no water is used during the fermentation process. We use water for cleaning the press equipment, tanks, barrels, and bottles, but we use no toxic or caustic chemicals and our water is reclaimed and recycled by the Town of Windsor to irrigate the local parks and recreation fields. For all our production, from washing apples to pressing to bottling and cleaning tanks and barrels, we use between 2.5 to 3 gallons of water for every gallon of cider produced, but none of it goes to waste.
The areas we can improve are in our carbon emissions. Glass bottles, while recyclable, require gas firing. They’re heavy, and transportation from the factory and to our accounts is an issue. We do a little kegging, but we’re not fans of cans for what we do, so we still believe bottles are our best option. We’ve moved to lighter-weight bottles, and believe the carbon sequestered by our orchard and our growers’ orchards negates the carbon emitted by our packaging choice. Our cooling system runs on electricity, of which only about 40% is derived from renewable sources. So I’m looking into a new offering from our local power company for providing 100% renewable electricity. It’ll cost more, but the price of not doing so is even greater. We’d love to go solar, but it’s a leased facility, so that’s not feasible.
On the upside, we farm with only minimal-input, organic practices—primarily organic compost, organic compost tea, and organic neem oil—so we’re not promoting the use of synthetic, petroleum-derived fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. We also focus heavily on building soil health and balanced insectary and mycorrhizal populations through cover crops, compost, mulch, and biodynamic preps, which allows the soil to retain more water and nutrients as well as sequester more carbon. We also grow a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers at our farm, and let noninvasive weeds and wildflowers do their thing, to nourish the soil, the birds, and the other good critters on our farm, so as to have a healthier, biodiverse micro-ecosystem that can better withstand stress due to drought and pestilence. A monoculture of apples, even if organic, is still a monoculture. And by using 100% local organic apples we’re promoting sustainable agriculture while keeping trucking to a minimum.
I’m as guilty as the next person for living beyond the earth’s means for comfort and convenience’s sake. And I’m not so naïve as to believe that saving a few gallons of water here and there, and moving one tiny company to renewables, is going to make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. But we’ve got to try all we can. We can’t give up. And we have to be mindful of the consequences of all our choices, even one so simple as cider. The great Wendell Berry wrote, “How we eat determines, to a large extent, how the world is used.”
How we drink matters, too.