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Apples Forever

Printed Leelanau News 10/22/2011

If you’re looking for a historic apple, Leelanau County is the place.

Or if you seek a modern variety — the Honeycrisp, which has taken the market by storm — you’ll also feel at home here.

Locally grown apples representing young and old varieties are mainstays at county fruit stands this week. It’s been a good year, at least volume wise, for apple growers, with the crop statewide projected to increase 78 percent from the dismal showing of a year ago.

Christmas Cove Farm has orchards farmed by John Kilcherman and a farm shop managed by his wife, Phyllis. "I like to think we’re a good team," Phyllis said. That teamwork shows in the color and quality of each apple available for purchase.

"Honeycrisps are my most popular apple, no question," said Bill Casier, owner of Sleeping Bear Orchards in Empire. He sells apples wholesale, and at a stand on M-22 just north of Empire Village.

"I usually take four or five bushels to Georgia (where he winters) with me, and everyone loves them so much that when I get back up north, there are all sorts of shipment requests," he said. "With shipping, it’s $100 a bushel. But that doesn’t phase them. They just want those Honeycrisps."

Lots of people are Honeycrisp fans. The apple variety has skyrocketed to popularity after being developed at the University of Minnesota in 1992. They’re crisp, juicy, and big enough to be a nicely-sized snack.

Other varieties growing in Leelanau Courty are senior citizens by comparison. In fact, many of the county settlers’ original plantings are still producing oldies but goodies.

Some of the oldest trees are located within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

"We believe the oldest tree is at the Miller Barn," said Marla McEnaney, a National Park Service landscape architect who surveyed the Lakeshore for the Port Oneida Historic Landscape Management Plan. "The varieties (at the Lakeshore) have been identified as Sweet Bough, St. Lawrence, Gravenstein, Duchess of Oldenburg, and Wolf River."

McEnaney says that historic apples in Port Oneida are specified for the region. With fruit trees there ranging from 50-160 years of age, they would have to be hearty to northern Michigan.

Generally parts of small family orchards, many trees still standing in the historic district continue to grow apples.

"A reconnaissance level survey of the trees found that while the trees are beginning to show the effects of age and limited maintenance, many are still producing fruit," McEnaney said.

The Kilchermans of Kilcherman’s Christmas Cove Farms in Northport started growing apples in 1975. While their trees are relatively young, they specialize in rare and antique apple varieties. Many of their varieties date back to the 1800s. They classify antique apples as those that originated 50 or more years ago.

"The Duchess of Oldenburg is one of my favorites for pies," said Phyllis Kilcherman. co-owner "Wolf River is super-duper for pies or sauce. It dates back to the 1800s and the first tree found in Wisconsin. The Gravenstein is a superb apple for applesauce or pies, too. It goes back to 1873. It’s also good to eat fresh if you like a more tart apple."

The Kilchermans, however, are changing with the tastes of apple aficionados. "We do grow one of the latest varieties, Honeycrisp," said Phyllis Kilcherman. "People go wild over Honeycrisp."

The Kilchermans harvest an average of 240 apple varieties a year, ranging from rare to popular, antique to brand new, and American to Russian. Apple lovers visit Christmas Cove Farm from far and near to stock up on their favorites, while other visitors stop while on a color tour and are blown away by all the options.

"We sell the most of Macoun," Phyllis said. "We draw people from other states that come here every year to get the Macoun.

"It’s not one you can find everywhere. They do raise some on the East Coast. It’s a McIntosh Arkansas Black combination. It’s not a big showy apple, but it’s one of those that when you bite into it, it just snaps and the juice runs down your chin and it offers just a terrific flavor."

Back at Sleeping Bear Orchards, Casier grows 16 varieties of apples. He planted his first tree in 1982. "My Red Spies are my oldest trees," said Casier. "Those are great apples for pies."

Techniques used in apple growing in Leelanau County have changed over the years.

"Orchards were one of the first improvements made by homesteaders," McEnaney said. "At the turn of 19th century, orchard technology advanced, representing the professionalization of fruit production. There were fewer varieties introduced with greater developments in standardizing production and advancing science, namely the introduction of pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation methods."

Nowadays, apple growers have balanced science and business, introducing new varieties every year.

"The Zestar is gaining popularity," said Casier of a new apple in his orchard that was released in 1998. Also developed by the University of Minnesota, the Zestar is an early apple that is on the softer side.

"This is the first year we’ve had Linda Mac and it is good," said Kilcherman. "It’s a multipurpose apple. "It is sweet, and juicy, and crisp. An ideal apple. We sell a lot of these."

Finding an apple perfect for growing conditions in Leelanau County can be an inexact science.

"John was at an apple conference about 10 years ago and some other farmer was raving about a specific type of apple, saying it was the best he’d ever had," said Phyllis Kilcherman. "So John planted about 10 of those trees and when the apples came in, they were the worst darn apples we’d ever tasted.

"It just goes to show you that something that grows well elsewhere may not grow well here in northern Michigan."

She hopes John will invent his own varieties of apples.

"I think my husband should make an apple after me," Phyllis said with a laugh. "It would have to be sweet, crisp, and juicy. And beautiful! That would be an ideal apple."