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Saturday, Dec 2, 2023

Vermont orchards welcome students back

Addison County apple orchards are now open for the season, offering apple picking, food stands, and musical performances. In addition to being a classic New England fall activity, apple picking grants Vermonters a way to support local businesses and local food production.

Many pick-your-own orchards are regarded as institutions in Vermont communities. According to Rob Rogers, co-owner of Woodman Hill Orchard in Vergennes, they are both a social experience and a shopping experience. 

“People come with friends, with family, much more than they would to the grocery store. It does seem to bring people together,” Rogers told The Campus. 

Beyond providing a place for socializing, orchards also bring an awareness of local food production systems. “It’s important to make sure people see where their food comes from and the process that’s involved,” Barney Hodges, co-owner of Sunrise Orchards, told The Campus. “We get kind of complacent when we just go to the supermarket and pick our food off the shelf. There’s a lot of work that goes into food production, and it’s risky and expensive.”

Sunrise Orchards is a large, wholesale orchard in Cornwall, Vermont, that just recently opened their retail stand. They sell apples to the college and throughout the northeast. According to Hodges, local food producers like Sunrise are vital to regional food systems.

 “It’s important that every region has local food production and local food purchases,” he said. “Seeing food go back into the community locally is a really big part of how we feed the population.”

In Vermont, apple picking season typically stretches from late August through late October. This year, the dry late summer weather led to smaller apples early in the season. According to Ashley Charron, farm store manager at Happy Valley Orchard, the rocky start to the season was cause for alarm for some orchards, but increased rainfall has helped. 

Rain can pose its own threats to a crop, though. According to Hodges, rainy weather makes harvesting difficult, and as a result many apples are not picked in time.

Weather is a major factor in the success of a given year’s crop. Too much or too little rain can impact the quality of both the apples and their harvest. “Hail can cut the apples and ruin the tree,” Hodges added. “There’s a threat from weather until [the apples] are picked and under cover.”

Woodman Hill Orchard has also experienced a smaller than average harvest, though Rogers explained that a small harvest is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, a harvest with a higher number of apples will have lower-quality, smaller apples on average. This year’s crop, he said, is of high quality.

Despite the rain, the pick-your-own season has been busy, and Middlebury students are already visiting the local orchards. According to Charron, Middlebury students usually come to the orchard in groups affiliated with clubs or in activities led by mentors.

Julia Levin ’24, a board member of Middlebury Hillel, helped lead an excursion with a group of Hillel students to Happy Valley Orchard last fall. “We went and we picked apples; it was beautiful out,” Levin told The Campus. In addition to taking advantage of the fall weather, Levin recalled the draw of fresh food: apple cider, apple butter, and apple cider donuts. 

Following the trip, Hillel used the apples to prepare food for the club, including apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah and apple sauce for Chanukah. Levin said she would recommend apple picking as a club activity.. “It’s fun, it’s Vermont, it’s fall, it’s beautiful, and it’s great to support local businesses,” she said.

Vermont orchards often collaborate with other businesses, including other orchards, to support local food production. “Other farm stands come to us to sell our apples. We’re always willing to do that for them to keep things local,” Charron said about the practices of Happy Valley. Orchards also sell apples to one another to be used in cider. 

In an effort to foster a sense of community, Woodman Hill Orchard partners with local businesses to offer their products at the orchard’s farm stand, such as maple syrup and honey. “As a newer business, we are becoming gradually more known in the community,” Rogers said. “We are very appreciative of our repeat customers.” 

The orchards also host events unrelated to apple picking  throughout the fall season. Happy Valley holds free comedy nights or musical performances each weekend in September and October. Sunrise Orchards is currently featuring the sculptures of Jay Lagemann as a walk-through exhibit in the orchard, and offers a lunch special every weekend.

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