ETNA, Maine — Clint Parsons remembers filling jugs with cider at Conant Orchards when he was three years old. Now his 3-year-old son, Ethan Michael Parsons, helps pour the sweet liquid into containers.
Four generations of the family are lending a hand as the apple orchard along U.S. Route 2 prepares for its opening weekend Sept. 7-8.
“We give out free samples and there are balloons, face painting and hayrides for the kids [on Sunday],” said Clint Parsons, 34, whose early days drawing cider were captured in a photograph that ran on the front page of the Bangor Daily News on Sept. 17, 1982.
Last year, between 800 and 900 people visited the 23-acre orchard in Etna that features roughly 1,000 apple trees with 19 different varieties of apples.
Alphonso Conant opened the orchard in 1945 and passed it on to his son, Vincent, who is now 88 years old and still helps out. Vincent’s daughter Janice Conant married Michael Parsons. The couple ran the orchard from 1997 until Janice’s death in 2010. In 2011 their son Clint Parsons took over.
“I’ve done this since I was an old teenager,” said Michael Parsons, who was sorting apples next to the orchard store on Thursday.
Danielle Parsons, Clint’s wife, works in the orchard’s store seven days a week.
Clint Parsons’ 18-month-old daughter Brooklyn and son Ethan picked apples as they roamed among the trees.
“Are you paying for that apple?” Parsons asked Ethan, as he walked toward his father with an apple in his hand.
“Yes,” Ethan replied.
Earlier, Ethan grabbed empty jugs and filled them to the top with cider before lugging them to the store.
The orchard produces 2,500 gallons of cider per season, Clint Parsons said, with a cider press made in Connecticut in 1965.
Parsons said he is often asked about hard or fermented cider, which contains alcohol. The orchard doesn’t sell it.
“The last two years [questions about hard cider] have really ballooned,” he said. “I bet I get two or three questions a week about it. Many people come in here buying cider for that purpose.”
The orchard also grows and sells pumpkins, pears and plums.
Of course, the main product is apples. However, the summer rain has not been kind to the crop.
“Since I’ve owned the orchard, this is definitely the worst season,” said Parsons. “When we brought in bees to pollinate the trees, it rained for those two weeks. So the bees couldn’t fly.”
Parsons explained that the bottom half of the trees are plentiful with apples, but the top halves are mostly bare because the bees couldn’t make it to the top in the rain.
Another problem is a fungus called apple scab.
“It’s completely harmless to humans, but it’s a little spot on the apple that looks like a scab. It just doesn’t look good,” he said. “Rain spreads those spores. We spent thousands and thousands of dollars to fight that. You can’t do it in the rain.”
Parsons said he’s keeping the price of a bushel of pick-your-own apples at $20, but the orchard will take a financial hit at the end of the year.
“There just are not as many apples to sell [because of the rain],” he said.
Conant’s biggest crop, McIntosh, was the only variety to have problems. McIntosh apples are the most susceptible to diseases and pests, he said.
The orchard was open until about Thanksgiving last year. This year, he said he expects to close by early November.
“That’s Maine weather. You’ll have some decent years and some bad years,” he said.
Renae Moran, University of Maine tree fruit specialist, said orchards south of Bangor benefited from the rains because the wet weather didn’t occur during bloom season.
“The ripening is a few days to a week ahead of schedule,” Moran said. “I expect Macs to be ready for first pick this weekend.”
Conant’s also welcomes kindergarten classes from the area so kids can learn about apples and see how cider is made.
“When I go places in life and I meet people, even at my age, I’ll get the ‘When I was in kindergarten, I went to your orchard,’” Clint Parsons said. “Some people have pictures from way back when they came here.”
Despite being around apples and the orchard all his life, he still loves the round fruit.
“Nope,” said Parsons, when asked if he was sick of apple pies. “I’ve grown up on them. I wish my grandmother was still making them. Hers were the best. I also drink a lot of cider. Occasionally, I’ll make some hard cider.”