Orchard hopping: apples and peaches and family fun

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Orchard hopping: apples and peaches and family fun

At summer’s end comes fall’s bounty. Yes, it’s apple season alright – and also grape, raspberry, peach and pear season, with pumpkins on the way. Add in strawberries, blueberries and cherries, plums, apricots and nectarines, and central Virginia orchards offer something healthy and delicious year ‘round.

Apples have been grown in Albemarle County since Jefferson’s time,” says Cynthia Chiles of Carter Mountain Orchard and Chiles Peach Orchards, whose own family has been continuously farming its land for 100 years. “He was a big horticulturalist and grew a lot of heirloom varieties of apples.” Yes America’s First Foodie certainly, er, plumbed the possibilities of fruit growing around here. Thomas Jefferson’s eight-acre, horseshoe-shaped “Fruitery” at Monticello held 400 trees, two small vineyards, plus beds for figs and strawberries, “berry squares” for currants, gooseberries, and raspberries, and a nursery to propagate plants and trees.

Jefferson grew eighteen varieties of apples alone, including the Esopus Spitzenburg, his favorite to eat, and the Taliaferro, his favorite for making cider. He grew no less than thirty-eight varieties of peaches, including the Heath Cling, Oldmixon Cling, and Morris’ Red Rareripe, and two Italian varieties, the lberges and Vaga Loggia, which he was the first to plant in the New World. He also distilled mobby, a popular Virginia form of peach brandy. “I am endeavoring,” he wrote in 1807 with some understatement, “to make a collection of the choicest kinds of peaches for Monticello.” In fact, with his characteristic curiosity and scientific methodology, he was experimenting with and improving upon European fruit and European growing practices in the New World.

Latter day Virginians certainly share his enthusiasm. A 2012 USDA survey ranked the commonwealth approximately sixth in the nation in apple growing, with roughly 11,929 acres under cultivation. 1,770 acres were devoted to peaches. Apples and peaches are high fiber, anti-oxidant rich treats, and the 2015 crop is ripe and ready. The following orchards are some of best places to enjoy them.

Chiles and Carter Mountain

“Our original orchards were planted back in 1912,” Chiles says. “My two great grandfathers planted our first peach and apple trees over in Crozet.” The Chiles family began operating Carter Mountain in the 70s, and selling peaches and apples in 1974 after a bad freeze left them with so little fruit at either orchard that the usual picking and packing routine wasn’t worth its while. Instead they put an ad in the paper, set up a card table, scales and a cigar box, and hoped. It worked. They sold out, and what was meant to be a one-time, emergency measure became an annual April through November, pick-your-own-fruit tradition at now much expanded farm stands at the Crozet and Carter Mountain orchards.

In Crozet their peaches come in familiar white and yellow, of course, but they also grow donut peaches, which are flat-shaped and thin-skinned, with white or yellow flesh, very small stones, and a very sweet taste. (And they sell peach donuts.)

Over on Carter Mountain near Monticello, “we grow probably 15-20 varieties,” Chiles says, starting with Gala and Ginger Gold, which ripen in the middle of the summer, all the way up through Pink Lady, which we harvest in early November. Carter’s most popular varieties are Fuji, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and Pink Lady, but others include Stayman, Winesap, York – older fashioned varieties that are not as mainstream,” Chiles says.

Both orchards also welcome the public for special events. “At Carter Mountain we call September and October our Apple Harvest Celebration,” Chiles says. “Every day we have school field trips going on, apple-tasting available, and winetasting and hard cider tasting rooms available. Prince Michel winery has a tasting room here on Carter Mountain as does Bold Rock Hard Cider. We are suppliers for both of those with grapes and apples, so that’s a nice matchup there. On weekends we have hayrides and music and other events.” The Thursday night Sunset Series, from mid-May through September, features live music, hay rides, food, wine and hard cider, not to mention an excellent vantage point from which to see the sun go down .

At Chiles the last weekend in September is the Fall into Fun Festival. “A local church group makes apple butter,” Chiles says. “They start in the middle of the night and stir the pot for about 12 to 15 hours. We’re also doing games, activities like painting pumpkins and decorating donuts. We do wagon rides, face-painting, food and other activities.”

Vintage Virginia Apples and Albemarle Ciderworks

Another Albemarle County Family, the Sheltons, have been farming in southern Albemarle County since 1986. That’s the year Bud and Mary Shelton, nearing retirement, bought a small farm in North Garden, named it Rural Ridge after Rural Plains, the Shelton family seat in eastern Virginia, and built their dream house. Along with their four children, Bud planted about 20 fruit trees – apple, pear, peach, and cherry.

Inspired by the heirloom apple tastings conducted at Monticello by author and apple historian Tom Burford, in 1992 the Sheltons purchased trees from Burford’s own orchard. Today their orchard has more than 200 cultivars, including the GoldRush, a late 20th century variety developed by Purdue University, and the MonArk, an early ripening cultivar from the University of Arkansas. Tom Burford, known as “Professor Apple,” serves as orchard consultant. They have collected about three dozen peach varieties, plus plums, pears, cherries, nectarines and apricots, and they sell over 100 varieties of vintage fruit trees, many of them virtually unobtainable anywhere else. In 2000 the family founded Vintage Virginia Apples, and in 2009 it opened Albemarle CiderWorks.

On November 7 from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Vintage Virginia Apples and the Cove Garden Ruritan Club will hold their 15th annual Apple Harvest Festival. The Ruritan Club will make apple butter, and their Brunswick Stew, cooked over a slow fire, will be ready in the early afternoon. Fresh cider will be sold by the cup, half gallon and gallon, and hot cider will be sold by the cup. Hard cider will be available in the tasting room, and tours of the cidery will be given at 11:00 a.m. and 12:30, 2:00, 3:30 p.m. Dozens of craft and artisanal food vendors will be on hand. Gallatin Canyon will play at 10:00 a.m., Jim Waive & The Young Divorcees at 12:30 p.m., and Her Checkered Past 3:00 p.m. Families can enjoy hayrides on the ridge above the orchard. The events tent will hold apple tasting sessions and lectures on horticultural topics including apple pressing, apple tasting, herb growing, and tree planting.

Silver Creek & Seamans’ Orchards

Nelson County’s Silver Creek & Seamans’ Orchards (SCSO) is a family (or rather, families) affair as well, dating back to the 30’s. Today the orchards grow about 25 varieties of apples, plus pumpkins, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, and wine grapes that they sell to wineries in Virginia and North Carolina.

Silver Creek’s next Pick your Own Apples Days are October 10 and 11, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Saturday and 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Sunday. Varieties available for picking include Jonathan, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Virginia Gold, Mutsu, Jonagold,  September Wonder (Early Fuji) and Empire. Containers will be provided.

The Seaman and Flippin families have held their Apple Butter Makin’ Festivals on the first and third Saturdays in October for over 30 years. They make their apple butter “the old-fashioned way,” stirring it constantly while it cooks in large copper kettles. The 2015 festivals, October 3 and 17 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., will feature pick your own pumpkins, children’s games, food, crafters, a corn maze and a clown. The Maury River Band will play bluegrass from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on the 3rd, and Bennie Dodd will play Southern rock and country favorites from noon to 3:00 p.m. on the 17th. Apples, Apple Butter, Jams, Jellies, Cider, and crafts will for sale. The SCSO Pumpkin Patches will be open daily from October 3rd through the 31st.

Paint Tyro pink is the slogan for Pink Lady Fun Day, October 24 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. A large selection of Pink Lady’s and other varieties will be available. Besides apple tasting and apple butter making, families will enjoy a scavenger hunt, kid’s games, and live music. Food will be for sale.

Drumheller’s Orchard

Drumheller’s Orchard in Lovingston was established in 1937, when Everette and Eva Drumheller purchased the property and planted peach and apple trees in its abandoned orchard. “My mother-in-law and father-in law bought this place,” Doris Drumheller remembers. “My husband went in business with his father from 16-17 years old until he passed away at 64.” That’s when Doris took it over, in 2005. “We’re just trying to carry on. My in-laws were the first generation, my husband was the second, and now my son is with me, so he’s the third generation and now his daughter is working with us, so actually we’re into the fourth generation here. It’s hard work, but it’s a good life being on the farm.”

Drumheller’s grows seven varieties of white peaches: Sugar May, White Lady, Klondike, Sugar Giant, Snow King, September Snow, and Snow White. Their yellow peaches include three varieties of Flaming Fury, Sentry, Starfire, John Boy, Sunhigh, Loring, Summer Breeze, Crest Haven, Laurol, and Victoria. They also grow five kinds of pluots (crosses between plum and apricots), plus making apple butter and cider, and peach jam and peach butter.

The annual Drumheller Apple Festival is on September 26 and 27 and October 17 and 18 from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Along with crafters and food vendors, and hayrides to the pumpkin patch, “we have this thing called the Apple Slingshot,” Drumheller says. “People just go wild about it.” For the price of a ticket, festivalgoers shoot small apples; sharpshooters win bigger ones. Then there is the Drumheller’s Corn Maze. “We go through and cut out a pattern,” she says, “and they pay to go through. We give them a little card when they pay. We put about ten stations in there and they mark the stations, and if they can find every station and complete their cards we give them a peck of apples.”

Graves Mountain Lodge

Graves Mountain Lodge is a country resort in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Syria, with an educational farm with sheep, goats, cows, pigs, chickens, peacocks, ducks, and horses. The 2015 Graves Mountain Apple Harvest Festival takes place October 3, 4, 10, 11, 17 and 18 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with Bluegrass music, cloggers, hayrides, horse and pony rides, a hay mountain, a hay maze, and more than 70 arts and crafts vendors. Graves will cooks apple butter in kettles over an open fire, and its orchards will be open for picking Red and Golden Delicious, Stayman, York, Winesap, Mutsu, Fuji, Rome, Granny Smith, and Empire apples.

By Ken Wilson