NEW SWEDEN, Maine — Maine’s rural landscape is dotted with the remains of old farms and homesteads, many identifiable only by the fruit trees and plants left behind to grow wild. But John O’Meara, a northern Maine organic farmer, wants to change that. He believes some of these trees deserve a second shot at a productive life.
Think of him as an apple doctor who makes housecalls.
“I’m not an artist or anything, but I like looking at an old tree and figuring out what it’s supposed to look like when I’m done with it,” O’Meara said. “I really just want to see more people eating apples out of their own backyards.”
So when the snow is still deep in northern Maine, O’Meara straps on his snowshoes and tramps the land, and for around $15 per tree he’ll advise property owners what they can do to rehabilitate trees to make them productive members of fruit producing society once again. The price includes the actual work involved to put the plan into action, unless the tree needs extraordinary help.
Winter, he said, is the best time work on apple trees — before they start to blossom for the season.
“I come in and take a look at try to be honest with the landowner on which trees can be salvaged,” O’Meara said. “A lot really are worth saving.”
O’Meara first looks at what is growing around the apple trees to assess what, if anything, need to be mowed down or brushed out.
“Some people get kind of attached to the other trees growing around an apple tree, like a nice maple or something,” he said. “But if you want apples, you need to have just apple trees. They don’t like too much shade or competition.”
Apple trees that have been neglected for a number of years may need some serious pruning, and O’Meara said sometimes he does have to be brutally honest with the owners.
“If there is a lot of dead wood on the tree they are going to need a lot of work,” he said. “Realistically, some trees are past their lifetime and need to be pruned down to the ground.”
But even then, not all hope is lost.
“Our office offers classes on grafting trees, and with these old trees, even if it has one limb still alive, it can survive,” Angie Wotton, of the Southern Aroostook Water and Conservation District, said. “We have seen some pretty nasty looking trees, and they are still producing live growth. And that is pretty amazing.”
Grafting is a technique used to join parts from two or more trees so they grow as a single tree with one using the healthy root system of the other.
Worms and insects can take a toll on some of the old trees, and O’Meara is ready with a low-tech, organic solution.
“It helps to clear out the grass and brush around the trees,” he said. “Other times, I’ll bring ducks in and let them run around the trees to eat the worms and bugs.”
As an organic farmer, “O’Meara hesitates to spray chemicals, though he will use biologicals if the trees’ owners decide to go that way.
“Throughout Maine we are seeing a resurgence of people saving their old apple trees,” Wotton said. “These trees are really worth saving, especially since a lot of these old trees may have apples that have fallen out of fashion but are native to the area.”
O’Meara said bringing these apples back into fashion is one of the reasons he loves rehabilitating old trees.
“When you go to the supermarket you, don’t see the old varieties like duchess that used to be planted up here,” he said. “That’s why I like these old trees. It’s a good way to see what used to be out there.”
“They are definitely worth saving,” she said. “For various reasons, if a tree has been around a long time, it has weathered a lot of fluctuations and deserves a chance.”