This storage barn at Scott Farm was built in 1862; the apple tree is a Melba, about 100 years old. Melba apples are an early-ripening variety, popular at the turn of the century.
Photo Credit : Michael Piazza
The road to Scott Farm rises from a strip of Taco Bells and KFCs along I-91 in Vermont, quickly turning to dirt as it dives between forested hills. At the top, high above the valley floor, it opens onto a monastery-like enclave of packing barns and stone walls. There you’ll find Ezekiel Goodband and his apple trees.
I found “Zeke” in the 36-acre orchard, contemplating a Baldwin tree in the oblique light of a late-September morning. Crickets played a steady dirge for summer in the surrounding fields. He plucked a brick-red apple from the tree. “Beautiful apple,” he said, only half to me. “This is one of my favorites. So crisp, so hard. Such flavor! If I had to think of one apple to represent ‘Apple Flavor,’ I’d say Baldwin.” At age 61, Zeke is slight of frame and soft of voice, with a Chinese sage’s gray waterfall of a beard. He sliced a wedge off the apple with his penknife, tasted it, and stared off at the orange hillsides.
“Back in the 1970s, when my first child was young, we had a car that didn’t work very well, so I was walking home from work one evening in late October. And there was a Baldwin apple tree near the road. Had someone been out in the yard, and had it not been near dark, I would gladly have asked them. But they weren’t. So I took one. It was one of the first crisp, cold nights of the year, and there was woodsmoke in the air. Such a fabulous experience. The flavor, the woodsmoke, going home to my young family. It was great. Every time I taste a Baldwin, it takes me back to that.”
He has a relationship of sorts with each of them, each of the masterpieces he has saved from the barbaric forces of industrial agriculture. He walked me through the rows like a curator, pointing out some of the apple genome’s greatest creations. There’s Blue Pearmain, Thoreau’s favorite. And Belle de Boskoop, a strudel specialist. And Ashmead’s Kernel: “It would be referred to as ‘fine-grained’ flesh, but there’s almost a crystal quality to it. When you pick it at the right time, it’s just exquisite. That’s the one, more than any other apple, where people pick it and come back and say, ‘Oh, that’s the best apple I’ve ever had!’ When someone says that, it makes all the work of an entire year worthwhile.”
Zeke grows 90 varieties of apples at Scott Farm, a Dummerston, Vermont, estate once owned by Rudyard Kipling. Their names are romantic and arcane: Esopus Spitzenberg and Hubbardston Nonesuch, Lamb Abbey Pearmain and Cox’s Orange Pippin. These were the regional stars of 19th-century England and New England, when an extraordinary flowering of apple culture brought thousands of varieties into use. Some crackled with citrus, pineapple, and walnut flavors that would be startling in a modern apple. Others made blue-ribbon pies. Most were lost during the Dark Ages of the 20th century, when the apple industry chose to concentrate on a handful of varieties—Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith—that produced massive crops of almost juiceless fruit that could survive international shipping and storage.
Who now thinks of a fresh apple as a transcendent experience? Well, Zeke does, and he’s devoted his life to giving others that pleasure. Take those Baldwins, for instance: “They’ve colored up nicely, but they’re still two weeks away. If we picked these now and took them to the store, I’d be creating a generation of consumers who wouldn’t be interested in trying Baldwin again.
“That’s the thing too many apple growers do. They’re short on cash, or they need to free up bins, and these apples have beautiful color now, so they might be tempted to go ahead and pick them and send them to market. And then people who’d never had one before would taste them and say, ‘This is Baldwin? This is supposed to be a big deal? Yuck!’ You have a responsibility to the customer—and to the variety. You have to wait until it’s at its peak; otherwise you’re doing a disservice to all those people who have grafted Baldwin and kept it going.”
Apples must be propagated by grafting, because they don’t come true from seed. Plant a seed from a Baldwin apple, and that tree won’t produce Baldwins; its apples will be a new kind the world has never seen before, because every seed is a genetically unique individual. If you want to make more Baldwins, you need to clone the original tree by taking a cutting and grafting it onto a separate rootstock.
Every Baldwin in existence is thus a clone of the original wild seedling with the delicious brick-red apples spotted by William Butters in Wilmington, Massachusetts, in the 1740s, and later popularized around Boston by Colonel Loammi Baldwin. (A granite monument on Butters Row now commemorates the site of that first tree.)
Baldwin went on to become the dominant apple of the Northeast until 1934, when a severe February freeze killed most of the trees, and agriculture extension agents convinced growers to switch to McIntosh, a little-known variety from Ontario that was more cold-tolerant and set a more reliable crop. Since then, only apple preservationists have kept Baldwin alive.
That legacy is never far from Zeke’s mind: “Sometimes when I’m worrying that we’re out of bins, or the forklift has broken down, or we don’t have enough money to make payroll, I might lose that connection for a little while, but then when I come out in the orchard I do feel connected to whoever it was in Wilmington. The process of grafting is so tactile. It’s passing something hand to hand, like when books had to be written by hand.” Some question the value of preserving these ancient scrolls of genetic code when modern breeding programs produce so many excellent new apples, such as Honeycrisp and Jazz and Pink Lady— which is a bit like arguing that we no longer need Homer or Shakespeare when Fifty Shades of Gray is so darned readable.
Ironically, Ezekiel Goodband grew up surrounded by the ultimate mass-market apple. His father, a veterinarian in Walpole, Massachusetts, had planted a bundle of small apple trees he’d received from a grateful client: “All Red Delicious. And of course, being thrifty New Englanders, we had to eat them all. Fourth of July, we were still eating Red Delicious.”
While his dad handled most of the maintenance chores at home, Zeke learned those same skills when he moved to Waldo County, Maine, after college. The region was filled with abandoned orchards, so he made deals with the owners: He’d prune the trees in exchange for fruit. Most were Macs and Cortlands, the usual varieties of 1980s New England, but he came across one old orchard that was full of Blue Pearmains and Black Gilliflowers and Roxbury Russets.
“That was my epiphany,” he said. “The flavors! And the cider I could make from those apples! For me, being able to explore that whole palette of flavors was like if your parents gave you only a charcoal pencil to draw with, and then you get your first box of Crayola Deluxe, and suddenly you’ve got 108 different colors.”
He began to realize that he, and everyone else, had been living in a monotone world colored Red Delicious. And he took it upon himself to rediscover the rest of the crayon box. He got ahold of a 1905 copy of S.A. Beach’s The Apples of New York, which is still the definitive apple guide. “I would go through that like a divinity student through the New Testament,” he remembers. “And some of those old trees were still around if you knew whom to ask and where to look. I started taking cuttings and grafting, and I started a nursery. Everywhere we moved, I brought my nursery stock with me.”
Eventually he wound up managing Alyson’s Orchard in Walpole, New Hampshire, during a crucial period in the life of New England’s apple orchards, which were too small to compete with the massive operations of Washington State. In the sun-drenched deserts of eastern Washington, apples grow considerably larger, redder, sweeter, and more blemish-free than their counterparts back East. Squeezed by Washington State on one side and by a deluge of frozen concentrate from China on the other, New England apples found fewer and fewer buyers. “Orchardists were moaning about losing money,” Zeke recalls, “and saying, ‘We need a redder McIntosh!’ Like that was going to solve their problem.”
Zeke convinced the owner of Alyson’s that the way forward lay in specialty apples, types the big Washington growers had never even heard of. Soon he was cutting the tops off his McIntosh trees and grafting forgotten varieties onto their trunks: “One day I was out grafting, and an older orchardist came by to see what was going on. He leaned out of his pickup truck and asked me what I was grafting. I told him Baldwin. And he laughed and laughed and slapped his leg and just thought that was the funniest thing. Why would anyone take a good McIntosh tree and put a Baldwin on it? That took the cake.” Yet the laugh was on the old orchardist, because most New England growers who tried to stay in the commodity-apple game are long out of business.
Alyson’s thrived, and the owners hoped Zeke would stay with them forever, even offered him land to build a house on, but in the late 1990s he fell in love with Scott Farm. The 571-acre estate had been donated in 1995 to The Landmark Trust USA, a nonprofit that rescues significant historic properties, in hopes that the orchard would be kept in production. The Trust courted Zeke, who adored the land and couldn’t resist the opportunity to create the orchard of his dreams. Still, that meant leaving Alyson’s, where he’d personally shaped each tree for 15 years: “It was really hard. My first wife and I split up after 25 years, and that was a little easier.”
Convincing Americans to embrace strange fruit will always be challenging. As we made our way down to the farmstand, Zeke recalled a Massachusetts general store that ordered a box of Knobbed Russets, an eccentric English variety that tastes great but looks more like a toad than an apple: “They sent the box back. They said, ‘These are awful! We aren’t paying for them.’ I thought maybe the distributor had messed up. But when the box finally arrived back here, it was perfect. They just didn’t understand what they were getting.”
The farmstand was bustling with people grabbing bags of apples and glass jars of cider, wanting to know where the spicy flavor came from. (Sheep’s Nose, he thought.) This is the hard part for him. “I’m not by nature or inclination a gregarious fellow,” he confided to me, “so the harvest season takes its toll on me.” He was looking forward to the winter days of pruning in the orchard: “No tractors. No hydraulic hoses bursting. I’m just out here with my saw. I have so much time to just think and enjoy being out here. Sometimes I think, ‘Wow, people actually pay me to do this!’”
A woman asked Zeke what apples were good right now. “I’ve been taking home Reine des Reinettes,” he told her.
“I’m not familiar with that apple.”
“Well, it’s what we call a ‘sprightly-flavored’ apple. You taste it in your jawbone.”
“I mostly eat Honeycrisps.”
“Okay. Then you need to try some Reine des Reinettes.”
“Are they similar to Honeycrisps?”
“No. You know, I bring home apples to my pigs, and they just turn their snouts up at Honeycrisps. They do like sweet, but they prefer more complexity. Hudson’s Golden Gem is the favorite among porcine connoisseurs.”
Zeke didn’t make the sale, but he was placid. It’s a good time to be Zeke. The market has come to him. More and more New Englanders, in particular, are showing a surprising fondness for the awkward and cosmetically challenged apples of the world, apples whose astonishing inner beauty takes some time to get to know. Zeke’s apples are a mainstay at co-ops, Whole Foods, and general stores throughout the region, and he was looking forward to cutting out the last of his McIntoshes and replacing them with even more obscure and mysterious varieties. The entire produce department from Middlebury College’s dining services had made a pilgrimage to the farm that week, and he was being approached by a new generation just out of college wanting to learn the craft, a trend that has surprised him.
“That’s been a big change,” he said. “For years, it wasn’t like that. It was very hard to find young people who were interested in doing this. We’ll see whether their work ethic is the same.” With luck, it will be, and he’ll be able to pass his pruning saw and grafting wax to the next set of hands.
Get our handy guide to apple varieties at: YankeeMagazine.com/apple-chart
Rowan Jacobsen’s new book is Apples of Uncommon Character: 123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics & Little-Known Wonders. He’s scheduled to do a book signing at Scott Farm on Saturday, October 11.
Visiting Scott Farm in Dummerston, VT
The stand at Scott Farm is open seven days a week from mid-July until Thanksgiving. Zeke Goodband hosts an heirloom-apple tasting day in mid-October (Sunday, October 12 this year), and there’s an apple-themed harvest dinner in late October. The Landmark Trust rents out the 571-acre property for weddings and other gatherings. There are five different National Register of Historic Places sites where you can stay on the property, including “Naulakha,” Rudyard Kipling’s home.
Scott Farm, 707 Kipling Road, Dummerston, Vermont. 802-254-6868; scottfarmvermont.com