Sunday, October 31

Apple picking day 43: The Last Apple

As I near the end of a picking season I always find myself experiencing a mixture of sadness and relief. Sadness that the season and work I love is coming to an end and relief that my body will soon get some much needed time to rest and heal from the strenuous days of picking. 
As the final day nears, I often think about the last apple of the season.  What variety will it be?  What part of the orchard will it be in?  Will I know it is the last apple of the season?  I suppose I never really remember my last apple after the fact.  There is no ceremony to it, but somehow the last day of picking does take on a special meaning.
The first part of the past week we spent in the Fuji, some of the longest rows in the orchard that seemed to stretch on and on, compelling you to glance down to the end of the row each time you dumped your bucket, past the empty bins waiting to be filled.  Although there were only three rows, the crop was heavy and it took three of us several days to pick the trees clean.  By Wednesday all that was left in the orchard was the Goldrush and a few cider apples.
Bins lined-up in the Fuji
The day was warm, in the high seventies and in many ways it felt much more like the first day of picking rather than the last.  It was not the cold windy November day that I envisioned picking the Goldrush in.  It was, none the less, very pleasant and the bare trees of the surrounding forest, the honking of the geese overhead and the golden leaves of the Goldrush trees were a sufficient reminder of the season. 
The pace of the day felt slower than most.  We worked steadily, but it felt as though there was no rush to reach the inevitable.  Instead I felt a desire to savor the final moments of a long season.  Taking the time to sit under the trees and share a lunch with fellow pickers or pause at the top of a ladder to take in the view of the lake and the maples as they let loose their final leaves, leaving the stage to the red and russet oaks. 
Although the crew was spread out for most of the day in different parts of the orchard picking a few remaining cider apples and beginning clean-up, we all converged in the last of the Goldrush by the end of the day.  Call me sentimental, but it felt rather symbolic to have the entire crew share in the last of the harvest.  As I walked away from the trees I felt many things, but mostly a sense of gratitude for the harvest and for the opportunity to partake in such noble work.  As the last of the bins were loaded onto the truck to be hauled back to the orchard, I took comfort in knowing there will always be another season.
The last load of apples for the season
Although the picking is over there is still a lot to do in the orchard to prepare it for winter.  The apples have to be raked out from under the trees, all the suckers cut and the isles between the trees mowed.  This work should take another few weeks, time I will be happy to spend among the trees.
Goldrush on the last morning of picking

Wednesday, October 20

Picking Day 37: Geese

I walked in the door tonight with my hands full of cider, a jar of grape jelly from a co-worker and a picking bucket of heirloom apples.  It was one of those moments where it struck me how wonderful the season is and how lucky I am to be blessed with such work.  The end of the day is my favorite time, especially when my hands are callused and my feet sore.
Morning in the Goldens
Geese few over my head many times today, rounding up any last stragglers as they make there journey south.  One small V would fly over, than a few minutes later a larger one would appear from the direction in which the first disappeared.  There is talk of snow, although I have my doubts.
We picked the last of the Golden Delicious this morning.  It started out cold and wet, the hands numb, not wanting to grip the apples.  I could see my breath as I filled my first bin.  Without much warning the sun broke through, striking the apples in such a way they almost seemed to glow.  By mid-morning we moved on to Cameos and then Romes and  few last Jonagolds.  We fished the day picking a couple bins of Ida Reds, which seemed to be some of the largest apples in the whole orchard.  Unfortunately there are only three short rows of them and before we know it they will be gone.  
Most of the maples have lost their color, although one outside my living-room window is still stuck in mid-summer.  The oaks still have awhile, as do the apple trees, which almost always seem to stay green long after the woods around them have turned.

Thursday, October 14

Apple Picking Day 31: Shorter Days and Cold Nights

Ida Red
The nights have been getting colder, bringing out the reds and yellows in the maples, making some of them almost neon.  Frost is still to come here in the Ithaca Valley, but up at the orchard the grass was coated in the first frost of the season this morning, creating a shimmering silver blanket as the long rays of the early morning sun brushed across it.  The Golden Delicious were cold to the touch this morning, making the hands partially numb for the first hour of picking.   By mid-morning the sweater was peeled off and my lunch I was in a t-shirt, welcoming the rays of what I might consider an almost perfect October day.   
Golden Delicious
After a morning in the Golden Delicious, we moved into the two rows of Ida Red.  They were big and easy to see compared to the Golden Delicious and Mutsu which have a habit of hiding in the thick foliage.  Picking the Idas always marks a turn toward the end of the season.  With only a week or a little more of picking left, the orchard is beginning to look bare.
 We finished the Mutsu yesterday, picking the last of the softball size fruit felt like a bit of a letdown, but there was also a satisfying sense of accomplishment as we enter the last push to get in the the harvest before it falls off the trees.  Although many are on the ground, there is still a good number of empires left on the trees, probably most of a days work.  There are still more Golden Delicious, Fuji, Rome and of course Gold Rush left to pick as well. 
Roxbury Russet
Northern Spy
The Northern Spy where picked at the end of last week a long with all but a smattering of Jonagolds.  Fortunes also came in off the trees as did a few of the heirloom varieties including the Roxbury Russet.
 This is the kind of fall weather I like, the late afternoons are cool, the mornings chilly and the colors of the maples are absolutely exquisite.  Each apple that falls to the ground or is placed in my picking bucket is a reminder of the fleeting nature of the season.  I begin to find a comfort in the sight of a tree that still has apples on it, but I also have an all to keen awareness that this harvest season, like all others will end.  What a wonderful reason to enjoy every day that is left. 
View from the Mutsu

Thursday, October 7

Apple Picking Day 23: Pressing Cider

For the past week were were in the midst of typical Ithaca weather -rain.  Several days last week were rained out and the first part of this week was not much different.  Usually we do not pick in the rain since the moisture makes the apples softer and easier to bruise.  It also makes the ladders treacherous and any slope becomes a little more challenging for a tractor hauling a half-ton bin of apples.
The sorting table
Last Thursday we enjoyed the remnants of Tropical Storm Nicole which dumped upwards of five inches of rain on most the area.  With little work to be done outdoors, most of the crew found work in the shed sorting apples, making grape juice or pressing cider.  I was lucky enough to take part in the latter.
Apple on their way to the grinder
The cider room is a rather small room attached to the rest of the shed with a few not so complicated looking pieces of machinery.  It has a cement floor and every thing is washable with hoses, making for easy clean-up.  The apples are first dumped from a bin unto a conveyor belt where any rotten or bird-pecked apples are sorted out.  This was my task for most of the day and although it was nothing glorious, I found it very enjoyable and felt lucky to be dry on a such a day, even if it meant trading my picking bucket for a sticky apron and earplugs.
From the conveyor belt the apples go through a washer which gets off any grime, such as the remnants of the aforementioned rotten apples.  From there they go into a hopper where they are taken up a second conveyor and dropped into a grinder.  Once ground they are taken via a vacuum pump through a hose to the pressing table where the slury is deposited in layers.  Each later is wrapped in a poris cloth and separated by a sheet of plastic.  As soon as the layers start to grow cider begins to drip like sweet nectar out of the lower layers from the weight of the ones above.  The stack will continue to grow until it reaches about twenty layers, at which point it starts to sway a bit.  At this point it is rolled onto a hydraulic press and slowly squeezed.  The cider drips into troughs and then is pumped into a tanker truck outside.  Each stack contains roughly thirty-five bushels of apples and will yield around one hundred gallons of cider.

The stack before pressing
The stack after pressing
 After each stack is fully pressed, it is disassembled and the remnants of the ground apples, which are now almost bone dry are discarded.  The process is repeated over and over again becoming one deliciously sticky mess.  Not a bad way to spend a rainy day.