Overlooking her apple orchard, Diane Souther gazed into the distance.
“This is Concord — it’s hard to believe,” Souther said. Nestled on a hillside on Mountain Road sits 40 acres of apple trees at Apple Hill Farm, owned by Souther and her husband Chuck. Between apples available for picking and purchase, the Southers offer more than 30 varieties of apples.
Colored ribbons dangle from the orchard’s branches to differentiate the varieties, each apple tree groomed to grow in a Christmas tree-like shape to ensure even light exposure. Some of the apples bear similar hues of reds and greens, but Souther has no difficulty distinguishing a McIntosh from a Macoun. “When you work with them all of the time, you know, it’s just like learning people’s names,” Souther said.
Souther and her husband both grew up working on a farm and both enjoyed the lifestyle. The couple purchased Apple Hill Farm in 1978.
“We had the opportunity to do it, and the rest is history,” Souther said.
While cruising through the orchard on a utility vehicle, Souther stopped to pluck an Empire apple from its tree.
“This blush on the apples, the cloudy look, it’s called mother nature’s wax,” Souther said as she polished the pomaceous fruit, transforming its skin into a shiny, glowing red color.
Empire apples got their moniker from the state in which they originated in the 1960s — New York — and boast a full-bodied flavor, more tart than sweet. The apple is very firm in texture, juicy and crisp.
Ernie Roberts, owner of Meadow Ledge Farm in Loudon, called the Empire apple a cross between two well-known favorites, Red Delicious and McIntosh apples. “The flavor really is right smack dab in the middle,” Roberts said.
Roberts, who holds a forestry degree from the University of New Hampshire, purchased the 32-acre orchard in 1994 but had worked there since 1992. He has grown apples since 1988, when the new owner of an abandoned orchard behind Roberts’ Barnstead home asked for help getting it back in operation. After successfully getting non-bearing apple trees to bear in Barnstead, Roberts began helping at Meadow Ledge.
Both Souther and Roberts get excited over Honey Crisp apples, which they said have drawn a “cult-like following” and has been dubbed as the new “snob apple.”
“They are explosively crisp, very juicy,” Souther said.
Jess Story, of Meadow Ledge Farm, called it the “golden egg of apples.”
“The bite is nice, it is what you would want the Delicious to be like, without the mush,” Story said.
“If people come in wanting Honey Crisp, they don’t want anything else,” Roberts said.
This is the first year that Honey Crisp apples have been offered as a “pick your own” variety at Apple Hill Farm. It is the farm’s seventh year growing the Honey Crisps, but Souther said it takes about five years to get a good crop of apples from a young tree.
“We have a very large crop, so we are willing to share this year,” Souther said.
A spring frost took a toll on Granite State apple farms, but both Souther and Roberts managed to avoid losing their entire crops.
The frost damaged 40 percent of Souther’s apple crop, but with temperatures remaining at 30 or above at the top of the orchard’s hill, she said, it was just warm enough to protect them.
“That is why most apple orchards are planted on a hillside,” she said.
Taking matters into his own hands during the frost, Roberts was able to save 90 percent of his crop by stirring up the air surrounding the trees with large fan equipment
“We got the air to move so it wasn’t as cold,” Roberts said. Different apple varieties, Roberts said, respond differently to weather conditions. Slicing open a Burgundy apple at his farm store, he points out that the inside of the tart fruit is typically red fleshed but this year has barely even begun to turn pink. “It didn’t respond the way it normally would but that’s bound to happen,” Roberts said.
To protect their crops for the future, the Southers have partnered with the state university system on a research product that, if approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, could reduce or eliminate the need for spraying apple trees.
Hanging from a few trees at the farm is a bright red fake apple topped with a sugar cap infused with a small amount of pesticides. During a rainstorm, the pesticide coats the artificial apple.
When the apple maggot fly seeks out the reddest apple of the crop to lay its eggs, it will be drawn to the fake apple — which boasts an odor of maraschino cherry juice as an attractant — taste its potential nesting location and ingest the pesticide without spray.
“It has been very effective,” Souther said. “We are very excited about the prospect of using it on a commercial basis. It would be something homeowners could do, too.”
One of the biggest problems faced by apple growers, Souther said, is that consumers want fruit that has not been exposed to any spray, “which is very difficult because there are numerous diseases that only attack fruit,” she said.
Souther said she and her husband have already been able to reduce spraying throughout the years through work done with UNH.
“If we were just growing apples and not doing anything different, that wouldn’t be fun,” Souther said. “Chuck loves the challenge.”
Both farms have taken to growing heirloom, or uncommon, apples to add to their autumn offerings.
One Apple Hill heirloom, the Wickson apple, gained national recognition when the Southers were asked to send a bushel to the White House last year to be used as Christmas decorations in its guest house.
“It was kind of cool,” Souther said. Souther described Wicksons as “little delicate dessert apples” that were a favorite of former first lady Martha Washington. The tart apples were used as dessert apples as Souther said women were able to eat one in its entirety for dessert in the 1800s. They can also be used to produce hard cider.
The Southers began growing heirloom apples in partnership with Poverty Lane Orchard in West Lebanon serving as a fallback for the northern New Hampshire farm, should its crop fail.
Another part of the unusual offerings at Apple Hill are Hubbardston Nonesuch apples, one of the oldest varieties found in New England, a hard, dense green fruit with a light red cheek and tart flavor.
Ribston Pippin and Ashmead’s Kernel apples are also unique options.
“Ashmead’s Kernels are quite acidic and are really sharp to the taste,” Chuck Souther said of the brown russet skinned-fruit.
Ribston Pippins, Chuck Souther said, are dense and prone to water core. The acidity of the apple overpowers its sweetness, giving it a sharp flavor, he said.
“When you bite into the flesh it looks like it’s soaked with water,” Chuck Souther said. “That’s why it doesn’t store very well.” Water core varieties have fallen to the wayside as people prefer for their apples to keep fresh, Chuck Souther said. “We just thought they were kind of unique,” he said.
Among the older-style apples at Meadow Ledge are Holly, Wolf River and Winter Banana apples.
Roberts has only two Holly apple trees at his orchard; their fruit is ready later in the season. He described the Holly as a very sweet Red Delicious-type apple.
“The pickers like those, so you don’t see too many in the store,” Roberts said.
Winter Banana apples boast a bright yellow skin.
“If you cleanse your palate, you can taste a hint of banana at the back of your throat, but you have to be looking for it,” Story said.
While it may blend in with other apples with its green and red coloring, the Wolf River variety stands out because of its size.
Roberts grows the coarse-grained and moderately juicy Wolf Rivers up to four inches in diameter.
“They could get bigger if I let them,” he said.
At Apple Hill Farm is another orchard that no one sees, which is home to hard cider varieties. The hard cider apples are produced for Farnum Hill Ciders, made at Poverty Lane Orchard, with Poverty Lane’s owners bringing back twigs of apple trees from England and France to grow the unique offerings in New England.
The apples, bearing French and English names such as Dabbinette, Yarlington Mill, Ellis Bitter, Major and Kingston Black, are not ideal for eating as they are high in acid and tannins.
“They are actually pretty sweet, but you can’t taste it because of the acid and tannins,” Chuck Souther said. “It’s like biting into a fresh cranberry; your first reaction is to spit it out.”
The apples are also not very attractive, he said.
“Pest control for the hard cider apples is easier because growers are not concerned with their appearance and there is less pruning,” Chuck Souther said.
Apples from Apple Hill Farm are also sent to the Flag Hill Winery in Lee to be fermented to make General John Stark vodka and apple wines.
Diane Souther said she never gets sick of eating apples.
“I am always looking for new recipes, ideas and things to do with apples,” she said. “I eats 50 apples a day at least — may not eat a whole apple, always sampling. That is the best way to tell when they are ready.”