Wednesday, July 21

Story of an Apple: Mutsu

The Mutsu (陸奥 ムツ) originated across the Pacific in Japan, at the Aomori Apple Experimental Station.  It is a cross between the Golden Delicious and the Indo, a seedling of the White Winter Pearmain, which is grown primary in Japan and China.  The Mutsu was first cultivated in the 1930s, but did not receive it's name until almost two decades later.  After being exported to England it was renamed the Crispin in 1968.  However, in most places other than the British Isles, it is still known as Mutsu.  The apple was named after the Mutsu province of Japan (see map), where it is believed to have first been grown.   

Although I had heard the name several times, I was not properly introduced to the Mutsu until this past fall at Moose Hill.  For most of the season the Mutsu held almost a mythical place in conversations about picking and bushel counts.  If you were going to make that two hundred bushel was going to be in the Mutsus.  The Mutsu is a pickers delight; it has the right combination of good size and a firm flesh that does not bruise as easily as a Mac. When it does bruise however, the golden skin does little to deceive the flesh beneath.  Any good apple picker knows that golden apples reveal bruises much more readily than their crimson counterparts. 
The Mutsu is one of the last apples to be picked, needing cold nights to sweeten and develop it's blushing cheek.  Probably one of my favorite apples to eat while picking, one never goes hungry when there are Mutsus in the picking bucket; more than can be said for the Red Delicious.  One of the Mutsu's downfalls, for the picker and grower alike, is it's tendency to bear a light crop the year after an especially heavy one.  This was true for one of the blocks at Moose Hill, where some trees held less than a bushel of apples and a trip up the ladder felt hardly worth the energy expended. 
Mutsu picking is often a good example of what pickers term "gravy."  Everyone knows, but no one will actually talk about how good the picking is.  There may even be secret accusations of gravy grabbing and you will rarely find anyone taking a break.  In fact, it was a day in the Mutsu block at Moose Hill, the only day, when I and several others on the crew chose to take a lunch of Mutsu in the trees, entirely forgoing the hot food and cold water back at the bunkhouse, in order to try for that two hundred bushel day.  I myself my have been called a gravy grabber that day, I have no shame in admitting it.  At the end of the day however, walking past the long line of bins waiting to go back to the shed, a little humility goes a long way as you realize you and a crew of dedicated workers have helped bring in a magnificent harvest.

Monday, July 12

An Old Orchard a.k.a. The Farm

A good friend and her parents, with a beautiful piece of land outside of Ithaca, have graciously given me the opportunity to cultivate my budding desire to tend fruit trees.  The past few months I, with their help, have begun the resurrection of a few ancient apple and pear trees that remain from some long forgotten era of the farm predating the current inhabitants.  This endeavor has allowed me to satiate some of my deep-rooted craving to tend the land.
For the most part, the work has largely involved the clearing of over-grown ground cover, and lots of honey suckle.  We have also cut out lots of dead wood that has accumulated over the years from lack of care and sunlight.  The more vigorous growing maples and ashes have grown up around the pear trees forcing them to concentrate their energy on growing their crown towards the remaining light.  Only one of the six or seven pear trees is bearing fruit this year and most of it high in the upper reaches of the tree.

The two apple trees on the property are at this point mystery varieties.  Based on their location on the farm I suspect they were planted, however I can not rule out without further investigation the possibility they are seedlings.  Both have largely hollow trunks and one of the trees (above), we propped up with an old tire rim to relieve stress on the fragile trunk, which miraculously still transports nutrients and water to the substantial crop of apples.  Although I have thinned and pruned the trees, I have not found the time or resources to do any disease or pest control.  Despite this, some of the apples on the trees have so far shown little or no signs of infestation.
I suspect such a restoration project will take several seasons to be fruitful and may largely be a study in patience and visioning.  Ground cover will have to be maintained and many of the surrounding trees removed to give both space and sunlight to the lower reaches of the trees.  There is something very rewarding in working with such a relic -giving new life to an old body.  Perhaps it fulfills that same niche in me that has dreamt of buying old rundown houses, only to fix them up and resell them.  The reward is not always in the product, but also in the process.  But, if a gallon or two of hard cider and a few pints of pear preserves are also a result of my labors, I will not complain.  


Tuesday, July 6

Thinning Peaches

Peaches in the summertime, apples in the fall
If I can't have you all the time, I won't have none at all
-- Gillian Welch

While working up at West Haven Farm, I found myself cheating on the apples, with another fond friend of mine, the peach.   The trees were in desperate need of thinning as the heavy crop had already begun to weigh down the branches.  It was my first experiencing delving into the world of peaches and although some may find it a bit cliche, I found myself dreaming of Savannah, and thinking with a slight southern drawl, as I plucked the small, not yet fleshy, fruit from their branches.
Thinning peaches is an entirely different ball game from apple thinning. Too many peaches can easily weigh down, or even break a branch.  I was given the visual analogy of allowing for at least a soft ball size spacing between fruits.  Again I found myself in the position to dictate natures course, doing so in a somewhat efficient fashion as to not spend all day circling a single tree. 
Feeling as though I was dropping many more of the fruits than I was leaving on the tree to ripen, I began to wonder how symbiotic the relationship I was cultivating truly was, if at all.  My days in ecology courses back in college left be with the understanding that humans have the capability to form a mutually beneficial relationship with the natural world around them.  Lighting a spark on a prairie, for instance, served as a biological cleansing, before the dawn of large scale agriculture largely snuffed out the practice.  Was I doing the tree, or the peaches I left behind, a favor by making space?  Does sustainable organic agriculture imply symbiosis, or just a reverence and understanding for the gift that  the land provides?  For me, these are unanswered questions that would require many more meditative hours in the peaches.  I am just thankful that my time in the trees gives me the space to mull over such inquiries.
Peach harvest should begin in a few weeks and I can hardly wait to bite into one of these jewels of the summer.  With less than two months until the start of the apple harvest there are still some tops of trees up at West Haven waiting to be thinned.  If all goes well this will be done before I pour some local cream over my first peach.