Pickin’ Apples, Pickin’ Pumpkins: Orchard Hopping in Central Virginia

Pickin’ Apples, Pickin’ Pumpkins: Orchard Hopping in Central Virginia

One day it’s 93 outside, but the next it’s 84, and they’re even calling for 81 later in the week. What season is this? Obviously it’s early fall, when the AC can take it easier in the evenings, and the nighttime temps will soon be perfect for sleeping. Better yet, if the heat is easing and the leaves are beginning to turn, that means it’s apple season, and pumpkin season too.

Thomas Jefferson, Virginia’s first foodie, was of course an enthusiastic planter himself. “Cultivars of the earth are the most valuable citizens,” Jefferson wrote John Jay in August 1785.  “They are the most vigorous, the most independent. . . . and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.” Jefferson planted over one thousand fruit trees in Monticello’s South Orchard, including Hewe’s Crab and Taliaferro apple trees for making cider, and Newtown Pippin and Esopus Spitzenburg for good eating—one of his favorite pursuits.

The Taliaferro, Jefferson said, was “the best cider apple existing,” producing a beverage “more like wine than any other liquor I have tasted which was not wine.” Today the Taliaferro is “Monticello’s mystery apple”—no one is sure what it was. According to one 1835 description, the fruit was “the size of a grape shot, or from one to two inches in diameter; of a white color, streaked with red; with a sprightly acid, not good for the table, but apparently a very valuable cider fruit. This is understood to be a Virginia fruit, and the apple from which Mr. Jefferson’s favorite cider was made.”

Cultivating fruit has a long history in these parts, going at least as far back as the early 17th century and the first English settlers in Jamestown. In 1629, Captain John Smith wrote that apples, peaches,  apricots, and figs were “prosper[ing] exceedingly” in the Virginia Colony. By 1642 Virginia’s first governor, William Berkley, was cultivating 1,500 fruit trees; in 1694 he decreed that every planter must, “for every 500 acres granted him … enclose and fence a quarter-acre of ground near his dwelling house for orchards and gardens.” By 1800, most plantations had orchards, and some grew as many as 10,000 trees.

Today Virginia is in fact the seventh largest apple-growing state in the country, with apple country stretching from the mountainous northern Shenandoah Valley through the Roanoke Valley into Albemarle and Rappahannock counties, and Patrick and Carroll counties in the southwest. Its roughly 150 commercial orchards yield an estimated 700 bushels per acre, 70 percent of which is sold for processing into apple cider and apple butter and other products. Monetarily, apples are our 15th largest crop, accounting for roughly $37 million in farm sales in 2014, the latest year for which data are available, and contributing an estimated $235 million annually to the state’s economy, according to the Virginia Apple Growers Association. Our growing hard cider industry includes more than 20 producers, who sell their products both locally and nationwide. All told, our apple bounty finds eager buyers in 15 states and more than 20 countries including India, Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. Here at home come fall, it’s pick-your-own season, and harvest festivals abound.

Despite a relatively warm winter followed by spring freezes and too much late spring and early summer rain, Virginia apple growers expect a good crop this year, albeit of slightly smaller than usual apples, according to the Virginia Department Of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Growers having been picking Gala apples since August and are now picking Red and Golden Delicious. Ginger Gold, Pink Lady, McIntosh, Honey Crisp, Stayman and others will follow.

Fortunately, most of the state has had dry weather just prior to harvest, which brings out the fruit’s natural sugars and makes for very sweet apples.

“It’s going to be a great apple season,” says Cynthia Chiles, whose family has been growing fruit in Albemarle County for over 100 years. Her great-grandfathers first planted peach and apple trees in Crozet in 1912, and began operating Carter Mountain Orchard in the 70s. After a bad freeze in 1974 left the family with so little fruit at either orchard that the usual picking and packing routine wasn’t worth its while, it ran an ad in the newspaper, “cleaned out a tiny section of an old barn, set up a card table and a cigar box, and wondered if anyone would come.” They did. They still do—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.

Chiles Peach Orchard and Farm Market in Crozet is open from early May through Thanksgiving, selling peaches, strawberries, sweet cherries, pumpkins and apples. Local pickers have been welcome since the 1974 freeze. Visitors today will find a frozen yogurt machine, and an ice cream parlor too. Apples and peaches may be picked in season.

Chiles’ Fourth Annual Fall Into Fun Festival on September 26 and 27 celebrates the season with apple and pumpkin picking plus games, prizes, and food. The Men of Mt. Moriah Methodist Church will be up all Friday night cooking apple butter in a kettle, finally putting the still warm treat into jars for sale around 1:00 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.

Located next to Michie Tavern, down the road from Monticello, Carter Mountain Orchard offers a 40-mile view, and grows 17 varieties of apples plus three kinds of peaches. One of the family’s many little known apple varieties is the September Wonder, an early variety of Fuji, crisp and sweet. Picking season on the mountain starts in mid-August and runs through November; right now they’re picking Golden Delicious and Jonagold. Pumpkins, gourds and zinnias are on sale as well.

Carter Mountain’s 2nd Annual Halloween “Spooktacular” is scheduled for broad daylight on October 30. Registration for the Pumpkin Carving Contest begins at 10:00 a.m. The contest is free but pumpkins must be purchased at Carter. Carving tools, props and decorations should be brought from home. Kids under 15 need an adult present during the carving. The event begins at 10:30 a.m. Awards will be given out at 11:30 a.m. for Best Youth overall, Most Artistic, Scariest, and Funniest.

The Halloween Parade is at 1:00 p.m., with the Costume Contest following at 1:30; prizes will be given in the Youth, Teen, and Adult categories. Kids in costume can Trick-or-Treat the cashiers. The Caramel Apple Dipping Station ($4 per apple) will be open from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. Hayrides will take place all day, weather permitting, at $3 per person. Kids under 2 ride free.

Vintage Virginia Apples and Albemarle CiderWorks are labors of love for the Shelton family, southern Albemarle County farmers since 1986, when Bud Shelton planted 20 fruit trees on his newly purchased property. In 1992, inspired by heirloom apple tastings at Monticello, they began planting vintage varieties themselves. Today the Shelton family orchard comprises more than 200 cultivars, including two recent additions, GoldRush, a late 20th century variety developed by Purdue University, and MonArk, an early ripening cultivar from the University of Arkansas.

Vendors from the local farmers’ market will be on hand for Vintage’s 16th annual Apple Harvest Festival on Saturday, November 5 from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Hosted by the Cove Garden Ruritans and Vintage Virginia Apples at Rural Ridge Orchard in North Garden, it will feature hay rides over the mountain, cider tasting, and live music by bluegrass boys Gallatin Canyon and old-time country singer Jim Waive. The folks at Vintage and the Charlottesville Cooking School will co-host a juried pie contest offering a first prize gift certificate of $100 to Vintage Virginia Apples.  Entries are due by 11:30 a.m. the day of the festival.  All pies will be sold by the slice to benefit the charitable efforts of the Cove Garden Ruritans.

Seamans’ Orchard in Tyro in Nelson County grew out of a family agricultural business begun by the Lea brothers in 1933. Third and fourth generation Seamans still operate the orchard and live on the land today, growing Jonathan, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Virginia Gold, Mutsu, Jonagold,  September Wonder (Early Fuji) and Empire apples. Seamans’ and Silver Creek Orchards, also in Tyro, have held Apple Butter Makin’ Festivals the first and third Saturdays in October for over 30 years. This year on October 1 and 15 from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Silvercreek, family members from both orchards will get together again to make apple butter the old-fashioned way in large copper kettles, constantly stirring it while it cooks. Their exact recipe, is a jointly held secret.

Besides picking pumpkins and enjoying a lunch made by the Crozet Lions Club, festival goers will find craft booths, a corn maze, Mingo the Clown, and a host of children’s activities including scavenger hunts, hayrides, face painting, pumpkin painting, and donut decorating. Secrets of the Blue Ridge author Phil James will sign his books. The Maury River Band will  play from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on October 1, and Bennie Dodd will play on October 15. Products for sale will include apples, apple butter, jams, jellies, and cider.

Graves Mountain Lodge in Syria opened in 1965. Their pick-your-own apple orchard is open from Saturday, September 20 through Sunday, October 19. Summer Rambo, Ginger Gold, McIntosh, Gala, Honeycrisp, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Royal Court (Courtland) apples are available in September. Grimes Golden, Empire and Stayman apples ripen in late September. Mutsu, York, Rome and Granny Smith apples ripen in early October, Winesaps and Fujis in mid-October, and Pink Ladies in late October.

The 47th annual Graves Mountain Apple Harvest Festival will take place on October 1-2, 8, and 15-16, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Along with musical guests and cloggers, the festival will feature horseback rides and hayrides, a hay mountain, and a hay maze, and over 70 arts and crafts vendors. Festival goers can pick fruit, watch apple butter being cooked over an open fire, and admire goats, sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, peacocks, ducks and horses.

Pumpkin and gourd hunters in Madison County know to stop by Greenfield Farm, two miles north of Ruckersville on Dairy Road, where they can choose from a variety of heirloom pumpkins, or pick their own. In addition, Greenfield is proud to offer “fun and educational activities for people of all ages.” Greenfield raises cows for beef cattle, but it’s also home to miniature ponies, sheep and goats, a little potbellied pig, donkeys, a turkey, a chicken and a few bantam chickens.

Farm manager Diane Branham grew up on the farm. Today she makes the five-acre corn maze, planting the corn in June, using grid paper to draw a pattern, clearing rows in the cornfield, and staking eight mailboxes for kids to find clues in. Trips through the maze typically take 30 to 60 minutes. The object is to find each mailbox.

Hayrides at Greenfield run every hour on the hour on weekends, but kids can also enjoy a giant hay slide, a spider climb up large bales of hay, a rope spider web, plus sand and corn pits.  Toddlers can romp in the kiddie corral. 

Greenfield is open Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Sundays from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Groups of 10 or more are welcome anytime, but should call ahead for appointments during the week. The $6 admission charge includes all the activities. Kids under 2 are free with adult admission.

Apple cider, apple butter, and hearty Virginia apples themselves – now’s the time!

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