Well, actually, Farnum Hill didn’t deliver. I traveled to Poverty Lane Orchard, home of Farnum Hill Cider, this week to pick up a case of donated heirloom apple cider (read: a delicious artisanal fermented cider made from cider-specific apples) for a benefit dinner being held in Essex, MA on May 1st. It was pure kismet that I was able to meet Louisa Spencer, co-owner and principle voice of the beautiful and admirable orchard just three days after a truly inspirational and informative lecture given by farmer, agrarian, and philosopher, Fred Kirchenmann at Harvard University.
I had been a fan of Farnum Hill for a while and for a few reasons: first, the cider and their parent farm, Poverty Lane, were featured in Michael Pollan’s documentary The Botany of Desire. The history of the apple, its spread, and it domestication were woven into the story of Poverty Lane and its efforts to preserve heritage and market varieties nearing extinction. This made me burst with pride, since at the time I was a homesick New Hampshire native working in the San Francisco Bay Area’s farming and food scene (we are doing amazing things on the East Coast too!). I vowed to visit if I ever moved home. Secondly, one of my favorite restaurants in New York, Txikito, a Basque restaurant located in Chelsea, serves the cider as a local representation of the ciders commonly served throughout the Basque country. Lastly, I was recently surprised to find out that one of my oldest friends does many of their NYC tastings and public relations. Maybe it’s too bold to claim fate or kismet, but I certainly felt the stars aligning; signs were piling up that I better familiarize myself with their operation, since I was obviously smitten even without doing so.
Earlier this week though, I had the good fortune to attend Fred Kirchenmann’s lecture. Kirchenmann is a Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University (where he is also a professor in the Religion and Philosophy department), and is President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. He also oversees management of his family’s 3,500-acre certified organic farm in North Dakota. He is an authority on sustainable agriculture and is at the forefront of the fight to change the way we grow our food. Speaking at a free lecture sponsored by the Hospitality and Dining Services of the University, the Food Literacy Project and the Center for Health and the Global Environment, Kirchenmann spoke about the unintended consequences of our current food production system and about the glimmers of hope he sees that will pull us through to the next era.
One of Kirchenmann’s main concerns about the current farming system (and he specifically means large-scale industrial farms) is the loss of biodiversity and genetic diversity. By following the advice of past politicos to “Get big or get out” our farms have become specialized to one or two specific crops and have gotten so large that they are less efficient, resource and input dependent, fresh water reliant, and soil poor. Without a variation in the crops being grown, farms are more likely to have pest and disease problems and are therefore less able to make a transition to organic and input free. The loss of life in the soil and variation in plant types growing makes for a difficult predicament. Our farms that are miles long and wide, growing only one crop from end to end, are heavily reliant on the current system. It is only when we scale back and purposely grow more than one crop in a space that we can create a more symbiotic environment that may better reflect the natural water, soil and biologic systems.
By quoting philosophers and writers he believes to best understand the conundrum we’ve gotten ourselves into, Kirchenmann quotes Jared Diamond in his study to define why some civilizations in the past thrived, and some just fizzled away. Diamond believes that those that survived were able to do so because they could accurately assess current problems, foresee the future outcome and plan accordingly to avoid collapse. Those that did not plan for a major change disappeared. Kirchenmann believes that we, as a society dependent upon fossil fuels to support our food system, are in a position to either acknowledge the change that needs to occur and to plan for it, or should we choose to not plan ahead, the breaking point will incite chaos. Kirchenmann makes honest, educated observations for us to pay heed to, and offers the silver lining: the growing trend of eating within one’s “foodshed,” a new and growing generation of young farmers, and politicians demanding a food source that is sustainable and reliable.
Enter Poverty Lane. A family-owned apple orchard for nearly 50 years, owned and run by Louisa and her husband Steve, the orchard has had two major incarnations. First, in the 1960s, Steve’s family grew McIntosh and Cortland apples as a side job. After college, Steve purchased the land from his father, and ran it as a premium-quality producer of hand-packed, unwaxed apples for regional and export wholesale markets. After a slow realization that markets for their established crops were succumbing to competition from the west coast and abroad, Steve and Louisa began looking for unusual varieties that would grow to the highest quality on their particular orchard site. This change could help them avoid the collapse that would be imminent if they just persevered with their common variety apples. With the benefit of full, established root systems from the existing trees, they began grafting heirloom varieties to the branches and crossed their fingers. This method only takes a few years to test a new fruit.
What resulted helped to changed the face of apple variety preservation and eventually pulled them into making fermented cider. By exploring old-fashioned eating and cooking apples, Steve expanded his interest to traditional English, French, and American cider varieties. Cider apples, much like wine grapes, often taste unpleasant when fresh; their value can be realized only after pressing and fermenting into cider. Years later, their cider, as crisp and satisfying as it could be, is pioneering its way into the best restaurants, gourmet shops, and onto tables of those in the know.
Louisa reports that the existing U.S. cider industry competes with beer prices but has time and labor requirements more similar to those of wine. As I watch her converse with the cider-room team, standing above their newest barrel-batches, pulling tastes out with a glass siphon, I realize that this is like every winery I’ve ever been to. They note the acidity, the effect on the palete, the tannins. But this is a category of its own, and instead of relating it to more familiar flavors, I want to just taste the cider for itself. Indeed it is dry, effervescent, refreshing and satisfying. It is distinct and should be considered as a worthy drink unto itself. To that note, Louisa says that their vision—“May we live long enough to see every good host keep a good red, white, cider and beer on hand to offer when a friend stops by”— reflects their desire to have U.S. ciders take have a an established place in modern bar repertoires.
The day we visited the orchard, it was 70 degrees, blustery and cloudy. Intermittent rains seemed to be coordinated with our entrance and exit from barn to pressing house to cider storage refrigerator to growler filling station. All are housed in barns collected in the center of rolling, apple tree covered hills. The trees are craggy and long-limbed, gnarly and low hanging in the way only an orchard apple tree can be. The gray skies and new green buds on the branches were pregnant with energy. Had I been wearing my Wellies, I’d have been lost down one of the curving, muddy paths leading to apple tree varieties this pick-your-own fan has never had the pleasure of seeing. I have always loved apple orchards; they are eerie and fabled and romantic in all the best ways, and this one, I promise, held the most intrigue.
What Louisa and Steve are doing, and what Kirchenmann talks about, is possibly the future of what our food producing country can look forward to. Finding different varieties of familiar fruits—that grow well in our foodsheds and create new diversity in doing so—is something that each of us can do, just by visiting local farms. Some of the apples that Poverty Lane sell for eating are lumpy and small, different colored and unlike anything you ever see at the large chain markets. But they are delicious. The land on which they grow will hopefully be kept devoted to their roots and flowers and fruits for a long time. Find your local farms and buy the funniest looking fruits they grow, and know that you’ve contributed to preserving the genetic diversity of our food system in doing so.
Visit Farnum Hill’s website to find out where to buy the cider: http://www.povertylaneorchards.com
Poverty Lane Orchards &Farnum Hill Ciders
98 Poverty Lane, Lebanon, NH 03766
603 448 1511
Visit Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture: http://www.stonebarnscenter.org/
630 Bedford Road
Pocantico Hills, NY 10591
914 366 6200
Visit the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture: http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/
209 Curtiss Hall, Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa 50011
515 294 3711
Main photo credit: Julia Frost, Chive Events