It’s picking time

Posted Sept. 12, 2008, at 8:52 p.m.

ST. ALBANS, Maine — It has taken them three years, but Mark and Wendy Sheriff have been able to reclaim a 100-year-old abandoned orchard just in time for this fall’s harvest.

And what a harvest it is going to be.

The fruit in the Sheriffs’ orchard at Avalon Acres is hanging in clusters on the branches — huge apples with just inches between them.

“It’s a great year,” Wendy Sheriff said this week as she strolled between the trees. “The rain has really plumped them up.”

Mark Sheriff showed off a pippin variety as large as a grapefruit.

Maine Agriculture Commissioner Seth Bradstreet noted that apple production is a very important industry in Maine.

“In 2007, Maine produced 952,000 bushels, nearly a million,” he said. “That’s up from the previous two to three years. I expect that we’ll see increased numbers this year.”

Bradstreet said apples are a $20 million to $25 million industry and a vital piece of the state’s economy.

“Production and quality has remained consistent and has a heck of a local impact,” he said. “Most small farms are turning to agritourism. When you go to a you-pick orchard, it is an adventure.”

Ellen McAdams, president of the Maine State Pomological Society, agrees.

“Picking apples is a great family activity for everyone,” she said. “It is not labor-intensive, since most of the trees are small and the apples are within reach. Visiting your favorite apple orchard and farm stand will establish a healthy, family-oriented tradition and a connection with the best that Maine has to offer.”

Depending on where in the state an orchard is located, early varieties already are being offered by many Maine apple producers. The harvest at Avalon Acres is going to be extra sweet because of the hard work of the past three years.

When the Sheriff family moved to St. Albans three years ago, Mark said, they were “looking for a place, and we found an orchard.” Just south of the farmhouse, toward Big Indian Lake, an abandoned orchard tempted the couple and they began reclaiming it.

“The trees, about 100 years old, were about 30 feet high and all grown together,” Mark said. “The first year, all I could do was lop the tops off.”

Careful pruning and thinning are the keys to a healthy tree and a bountiful harvest, he said, and he spent the next two Februarys knee-deep in snow, cutting back and shaping his trees.

During that same time, the Sheriffs purchased new varieties, blending the older heirloom apples with newly developed ones. Traditional old-time apples such as Wolf River and Wealthy, Nodhead, Jewett Red, Sutton and Red Delicious are growing side by side with Arkansas Blacks and Minnesota 447.

“It’s been a discovery process,” Mark said. “We’ve been looking for the tried and true older varieties, but we’re not afraid to try something new, either.” The couple recently planted tart cherries, specialty pears and peaches to further their fruit offerings.

Even though both Sheriffs work off the farm — he is a carpenter and she is a school bus driver — the farm takes both another eight hours a day at least.

“But we have a plan,” Wendy said. “In just a couple of more years, Mark should be able to work on the farm full time.”

They already have established a farm store at the orchard off Route 43 in St. Albans, and Wendy visits five farmers markets a week.

They have diversified their farm and now sell eggs, vegetables, fruits and pumpkins. They plan to provide some entertainment for visitors next year with miniature sheep and goats. They are growing more than 300 fruit trees and have 11 apple varieties to choose from.

But the apples will always come first, they said, as they promote a traditional family experience.

Sunday, Sept. 14, is Maine Apple Sunday and the Maine State Pomological Society’s Web site, www.maineapples.org, lists orchards and highlights family activities in conjunction with pick-your-own opportunities and farm stands. More apple picking information can be found at the Maine Department of Agriculture’s Web site, www.getrealgetmaine.com.

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