A growing taste for apples around Farmington
Anybody who has been around Farmington for any number of years knows Appleside Orchard closed years ago. But that doesn't necessarily mean there aren't apples - hundreds of delicious apples - still for sale at the same location.
These days, Empire Township resident Aaron Brand is spending most of his days picking, cleaning or selling apples at the Appleside location and various farmer's markets around the area. He's doing business under the name of Brand Family Farms -- or for himself, Aaron Brand, the Farm Fresh Man -- but he's selling his apples locally out of the old Appleside barn.
Brand rents the site from owner Dave Finnegan, who formerly ran Appleside. Back when Appleside was open, Brand was a teenager who was lucky enough to get a job at the apple orchard that, it turns out, abutted his family's farm. In those early years, Brand learned a lot about the different types of apples -- which ones come in early, which come late, how to prune the trees, how frost and deer affect the harvest and so on.
After graduating from college, he came back to the area and started farming with his family. In 2008, he started renting the old Appleside location from Finnegan, and he has sold apples annually from there since. With the building, Brand rents about 1,000 trees that were left on the orchard site, but he's also planted about six acres of trees on his own property since 2009.
Brand Family Farms grows and sells a number of types of apples throughout the season. First to come up are the Zestars, followed by Sweetangos, then Honeycrisp, Cortland, Sweet 16, McIntosh and Haralsons. These days, Brand is mostly selling Royal Cortland, Honeycrisp and Haralson apples at the orchard, and at his farmer's market stands, just because those are the ones that mature last in the season.
Growing apples is a seasonal project. Brand starts pruning in February, and that's a project that normally goes through March. As soon as the trees start to bloom, he sprays them with insecticide and fungicides, though Brand tries to do that as little as possible. The Zestars are the first apples to come in, usually in mid-August.
"And from that point, we're picking every day," Brand said. "I had to hire a couple of people to help pick this year. I've got too many trees to get to in a short amount of time."
The apples are picked and placed in an 18-bushel bin -- full, it weighs about 800 pounds --- and brought in to the shed, where Brand and his grandparents wash and sort the apples by hand. They pick the best of the best for No. 1 apples, which are sold as the best to eat raw. The ones with a few bumps or blemishes are sold as No. 2 apples, because the skin may be blemished but the flesh is still very good for cooking or baking. The ones that are very green or are too ripe are put aside for cider.
With the early thaw, then the freeze, followed by heavy rains and, most recently, the drought, Brand has had a challenging year at the orchard. Most of the crop was hurt somehow by the crazy weather, but the Royal Cortlands on the Appleside property thrived this year. In fact, this year seems to have brought a record crop of those Cortlands.
"Everything else seemed to get hit by that cold, but not these (Royal Cortlands), not one bit," Brand said.
Brand Family Farms was participating in four farmer's markets this year, including Farmington's, but only two of them are still going. Brand keeps the orchard location open as long as he has apples to sell, which means it usually closes sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Some days are busy, some days not so much, he added.
In addition to apples, Brand is selling pumpkins, squash, fresh honey and apple specialties like apple pie, apple crisp and apple cider. The latter are made by his grandmother, and he's not about to give up the recipes. Especially the one for the pie.
"That's a highly protected Brand family secret," he said. "We don't let that one go."
Over the course of the year, Brand also likes to attend conventions and seminars offered by various growers associations around the state. He learns lots of extra tricks of the trade at those events, and he enjoys networking with other growers. But he's not looking to expand his business any time soon.
"I'm comfortable where I'm at. I'm comfortable with what I have," he said.