With thriving orchard empire, the apple doesn’t fall far from this Skowhegan family tree

Posted Oct. 06, 2013, at 10:48 a.m.
Kathleen Pierce | BDN Staff
Kathleen Pierce | BDN Staff
Kathleen Pierce | BDN Staff
Kathleen Pierce | BDN Staff
Kathleen Pierce | BDN Staff
Kathleen Pierce | BDN Staff
Kathleen Pierce | BDN Staff

SKOWHEGAN — As a restless 20-year-old, Jason Davis didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life.

He had partied for years on the midcoast but soon came back to Skowhegan to find himself.

Wandering around his grandfather’s orchard one fall day, he plucked a ripe McIntosh off a tree and took a bite.

“All the hair on my body stood up on end,” he recalled late last week. “I said, ‘I know what I want to do.’”

He told his grandfather, Everett Cayford, he was ready to carry on the family’s apple dynasty.

It was no easy task., as the orchard planted by his great grandfather in 1889 had been idle for 26 years. The land still produced apples each year, but the trees had bolted.

When his grandfather returned from World War II with a weakened heart, he eventually had to let the orchard go in 1968. Jason’s uncle, Alan, the would-be-heir to the Cayford Orchards empire, was killed in a car accident when he was 20.

“That was my mother’s only brother,” Jason said. “Nobody took over the orchard, so it just sat for a while.”

Today, busloads of school children are ferried through the 18-acre orchard where 78 varieties of apples shine like jewels on Edenic slopes. Jason and his wife Heather, who grew up right down the street, now run the orchard. The two have come a long way from when they would throw rotten apples at each other as kids.

The couple have three children — all named after apple varieties — Cortlynn, 16, Ben, 13, and Liberty, 1.

“We are apple freaks,” he said.

But it’s deeper than that.

The Davis family is united by their stunning farm atop Hilton Hill that has become their livelihood. Apples are not a weekend hobby.

“They truly are our tree of life,” said Heather. “Our whole life revolves around this crop, and it comes once a year.”

To make the most of the harvest, every Davis pitches in.

After school, Ben picks up fallen apples, so customers don’t trip. For each bin he fills, he gets $2.

Though he would rather ride a dirt bike through the orchard instead of bend over all day, he enjoys the outdoors and climbing trees.

“It’s really fun, and apples are my kind of my life because I’ve grown up around them,” he said.

Cortlynn makes $8 an hour sorting apples in the packing house, and Liberty, who turns 2 in November, gets to eat all the apples she can muster.

On Saturdays, the cherubic towhead joins her mother at the Skowhegan Farmers’ Market, and frolicking amid apple bins in her parents’ truck has been good for business.

“Our sales have doubled since she started going,” said her father sounding both amused and impressed.

Taking over the orchard in 1994, Jason instinctively knew how to prune and graft trees.

Though most of the 1,400 Ben Davis trees killed off in the winter of 1930 are gone, Jason has preserved ancient crops such as duchess, Milton and northern spy. He’s also planted new varieties like honeycrisp, empire and jonagold.

In a welcoming barn, Cayford Orchards has an active retail business open all fall. They sell their own blueberry and peach jam, applesauce and apple syrup. A third of their crop is pressed for cider, and in February, they tap maple trees on the 70-acre farm for syrup. Though the business has diversified, crisp macouns and tart courtlands will always be the main draw.

Looking out over lush fields dotted with red orbs on a brilliant autumn day, the scene seems near perfect. It’s a good apple harvest, and the next few weeks will be hectic. But the family, who sells apples to Hannaford, independent stores in central Maine and schools, will not take a break all year.

“There’s a lot of stress involved. You’ve got to work against Mother Nature,” said Jason. “You try to beat Mother Nature, and you can’t. You try to learn from it.”

New this year, the family is trying their hand at hard cider for the fall.

“We have three months to make it happen,” said Heather, who handles distribution for Cayford Orchards and is on the road daily.

This time of year she works around the clock.

“My house is a mess, my orchard is a mess. I’m going 100 miles an hour all day,” she said. “We are almost borderline out of control.”

They take a break to show a visitor the tree they planted where they got married in the middle of the orchard.

“Most people light unity candles,” said Heather. “We plant apple trees. It’s a keepsake tree, and it will be here forever.”

Running an orchard is “full-time work with part-time pay,” but the agrarian lifestyle, dictated by the seasons and the fast-pace, keeps her going.

But there are days, after 15 hours on her feet, when that glass of wine can’t come soon enough.

“It was easy when our two children were younger,” said the 33-year-old with auburn hair and boundless energy. “Now, [the orchard] has turned into a teenager. When you have a business that’s a teenager, and you are raising two teenagers and a toddler, it’s intense.”

But the chaos and rhythms give her “drive,” and that dedication and respect for manual labor is being passed down to the next generation working the fields by her side.

“I’m glad to be part of a business that my dad takes a lot of pride in,” said Cortlynn, who has grown into a budding orchardist but sometimes misses out on being a teenager.

Working after school one afternoon last week with her siblings, the 16-year-old junior at Skowhegan Area High School was thinking of Homecoming Weekend and her classmates decorating for a pep rally. She would join them as soon as she finished her work.

“It’s a lot different from a normal family,” said Cortlynn, dismounting a tractor loaded with cider. “Normal kids don’t go to work with their parents or get to see their parents all the time. We are all a big family, and we help each other to get things done.”

On Saturday mornings, when most teenagers would kill to sleep late, she’s up early cooking her father breakfast because her mother is at the farmer’s market.

“It’s a lifestyle that my parents choose for us to live, and I’m really proud of them for everything they do. They work really hard to give us kids what we have, so I’m thankful for that.”

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