Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery

Certified Organic Hard Ciders and Apples

Cider Days is here!

We are looking forward to a fun weekend filled with Cider Day events. We will be here at the farm making cider and chatting with those of you who stop by 10-5 Saturday and Sunday; we’ll have cider and donuts, and Michael Phillips (the author of The Apple Grower) will be talking about organic orcharding on Sunday at 10 AM. We are heading to the Cider Salon and Locavore dinner on Saturday night in Deerfield, maybe we’ll see some of you there too. One word of caution - we did get over two feet of snow last weekend, and while a lot of that melted, boots are still a necessity if you want to walk in the orchard.

Contemplating drops in an organic orchard

We have customers every year who ask us if we offer drops for sale. We do not, despite not using them for cider or anything else, because our drops are full of holes and other damage. The other day I was remembering picking drops in my childhood, and how the ground was littered with perfect quality apples. We never bought tree-picked fruit. The contrast between those apples and the ones we pick up in our orchard is pretty amazing, and makes me realize how sterile those orchards of my childhood must have been. I can’t even imagine what was used on the orchard floors to keep the drops from being eaten. Our drops usually have some kind of damage - most drop off the tree in the first place because they were damaged by an insect pest, so they start their time on the ground with some kind of hole. Then once they are on the ground, they are quickly nibbled on by voles, slugs, and ants. If the ground is wet, fungus can start to grow on the apple almost immediately. We see this in action despite our best efforts to pick up apples within a week of them hitting the ground, to prevent pests in the apples from continuing their life cycle.
To be fair, the apples I picked as a kid were MacIntosh, which drop off the tree the minute they are ripe. Nonetheless, I just don’t remember the underlayer of rotting, nasty apples we would have if we left apples on the ground for a week or more.

Holy cow! Where did the apples go?

Amazingly, despite the wet weather these last two weekends, our pick-your-own customers have picked all the apples we have available this year. We have probably a third of the apples we had last year. We are saving apples for the venues we have committed to - Ashfield Fall Festival Columbus Day weekend, Cider Days in November, and the Sanderson Academy’s Local Goods fundraiser. We are very sorry to miss those of you who didn’t get to come while we were open; perhaps we will see you at Fall Festival?

Happy to be selling apples at last

After a season of working on and worrying about our apples, it is reaffirming to have folks come and be happy to pick and eat them. By selling directly, here on the farm, we get to talk with our customers about what they want in their food, what they believe is best for themselves, their kids, and our planet. We also strongly believe people should have the opportunity to know exactly where their food is coming from, and it is great to provide that for the crop we have to offer. This is something we would not get if we sold wholesale, and I’m not sure if we could continue the work and worry part without that sharing of values with the people who eat the apples. So, to all of our customers, thanks for coming!

Opening late

There is no arguing with Mother Nature. We have been waiting and watching the apples, hoping they would be ready this weekend as we had planned to open then. However, the apples are delayed and will not be ripe this weekend. We should be all set for next week though, so we plan to be at the Conway market Thursday, Shelburne Falls market Friday, the Ashfield market Saturday, and pick-your-own all weekend, September 24-25.

Orchard work

We had a satisfying couple of days fitting in orchard work amidst nonstop food preservation and firewood gathering. We picked up drops in a large portion of the orchard, especially under varieties that are susceptible to apple maggot fly (which we control solely via picking up drops). These apples are now sitting in buckets so that if any pests crawl out of the fruit to continue their life cycle, they will not find the soil they need to do so. We also cleared around the young trees and refitted cages around their bases, for protection from voles this fall and winter. We found two trees infected with apple borer, which eat the inside of the tree until it snaps off. Out of a few hundred trees, that is not a bad rate, but sad nonetheless. We will endeavor to be more vigilant about this pest, which must be caught before it can burrow too far into a tree. Our boys helped with these tasks, and we all got to enjoy the many monarch butterfly crysallises we ran into while clearing around the trees. Our dog Watermelon also enjoys orchard work; she alternates between digging giant holes after voles, and running up to the brook for a quick dip.

Unscathed by Irene

The orchard was unharmed by the hurricane. We got 11 inches of rain but little wind, and the trees are perfectly happy to get some rain. Most of it ran off the hill really quickly, forming torrents and eroding any human-shaped areas (such as driveway and road) but the turf-covered orchard just got wet.

We are heading toward orchard season - apples are sizing up and turning red, though they are a ways off from ripe yet. We will be sticking to our pick-your-own schedule from last year of Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and will be at the Ashfield, Shelburne Falls, and Conway farmers markets when the apples come in. Stay tuned for which weekends that will be.

cider vinegar

We have finally bottled the cider vinegar we made last year. We ended up with about 150 16-oz bottles, plus some we had to leave with the mother to keep it alive and thriving for the next batch. We are happy to have this vinegar for sale; we have been enjoying it ourselves for several years, but it has been a matter of experimentation to make more vinegar at a time successfully. It is delicious in salad dressings.

Organic certification

So this year we decided to get certified as organic growers. Our apples, cider, and cider vinegar are now certified organic, as well as any other tree fruit we decide to sell. We have been hesitant to undertake this process, since it requires some hours in paperwork and annual inspections, but we decided the word organic allows our customers to know something about how we grow apples without each one of them needing to ask us about how we grow apples. Of course this has not changed the way we grow; we have been growing to, and beyond the organic standards since we started. Growing apples organically is certainly a challenging job in many ways, and we want to be able to let folks know without pussyfooting around the “O” word. So, we now have the legal right to say our apples are ORGANIC! We are still more than happy to talk about exactly how we grow apples, since organic growers use many different practices (and there are pesticides allowed under organic certification that we are unwilling to use). So feel free to ask.
There was a really large application, asking many questions that we couldn’t answer, like what our crop rotation practices are. But the certifying agency (Baystate Organic Certifiers) were very helpful, the inspection was thorough but pleasant, and the process went quite smoothly. We are happy to have one more bureaucratic hurdle down. Amazing how good you have to be with legalese, tax law, etc. to be a farmer. Any small business owner needs those same skills I guess.

A beautiful day in the orchard

Thinning was a wonderful way to start the day yesterday. It was sunny and breezy, the dogs were playing, and it smelled like the wildflowers that grow under the trees. A chipping sparrow yelled at me with a beak full of insects, and when I looked around, there was a delicate little nest with tiny new chicks opening their mouths. I was thinning near the sheep pasture, and they came up and yelled at me until I trimmed some apple greenery for them to eat. They ate a few of the larger apples too, but they really prefer them riper. Thinning of the pick-your-own varieties should be complete today.


As we started thinning apples, we realized that plum curculio were still active so we had to spray clay once more at the end of June. We have never had to spray clay after the 15th of June, but it has been so rainy and cool I guess the little buggers have been delayed. Thinning with fresh clay on the trees is difficult and unpleasant, as the clay makes the apples hard to see, and of course it rubs off on you as you move through the tree. So, we have taken a short break from thinning. It rained a bit last night, so I will start thinning once again over the next few days. The crop on the Freedoms is certainly thin, but the Libertys look ok (not much hand thinning to do though Happy, and the Northern Spys look great. Interestingly, the scab-immune varieties seem more attractive to plum curculio - some of the Freedoms and Libertys are really covered with PC-scars and need to be thinned off, but the older varieties - Northern Spys, Golden Delicious - have much less PC damage. I guess there is always a tradeoff; if an apple was immune to scab and unattractive to all insect pests, it would probably taste terrible and have no nutrients.
Soon we will be hanging traps to monitor apple maggot flies. This is mostly to give us an idea of the pressure in the orchard, since we don’t have any way to deal with AMF at this point in the season. We can only hope our orchard sanitation last year was good enough that we don’t have to deal with this pest. Still, it’s satisfying to see those little flies stuck to the traps - each one is one fewer to damage the apples.
Our little ram lamb Gimble is growing incredibly fast. He is fat, fat, fat, despite not having started eating anything yet. His little horns are growing, and we have had to work on keeping him from butting us - not a good habit for him to develop. We are making every effort to keep him tame, unlike the rest of our sheep, so he enjoys lots of petting and getting picked up. We will try him on a halter soon, he is almost big enough for one to stay on I think. I have never seen a Shetland sheep who is well halter trained, even the ones people show tend to lay on their backs when they are led on a halter. Worth a try though.

orchard season moves along.

We are starting into the thinning season, when we pull off a lot of tiny apples to leave room for the biggest, healthiest ones. Many of our varieties have reduced fruit due to poor pollination this year so we expect this will not be as time-consuming a task as it is most years. Our Northern Spys are fruiting heavily for the first time, so we are watching to see how much of the fruit will fall off without our assistance before we start hand thinning. Some varieties self-thin more than others, and we don’t know the tendencies of the Spys. We have seen a small amount of the fungal disease scab on some of the Cortlands, but not on our other scab-susceptible varieties (the two MacIntoshes we have left have very little fruit on them, so I haven’t checked them very carefully). Over the next few weeks we will gain a much better idea of the fruit we have, or don’t have, on trees this year as we thin. We are approaching the end of spraying trees with clay too, which is always a relief. Since the clay gets washed off when it rains, we have to reapply a lot some years (and this was one of them).

New lamb

We welcomed our newest farm member on June 3rd when Blondie gave birth to her son Gimble with Steve & Jen in attendance (not that she needed us!). He is perky, friendly and inquisitive, and currently looks like an animated stuffed animal he is so cute.

Farmer worries begin

We finally have some sunny, warm weather, and most of the trees are done flowering. We had really excellent flowers, but they bloomed right during a period of cold and wet - poor weather for pollinators. It looks like our midseason apples - so the vast majority of our fruit - had lowered rates of pollination, and our fruit set is lower than we’ve ever seen it. We are going to keep taking care of the fruit, but it’s possible that we will have a smaller crop this year. Certainly we have less thinning to do than most years. Our one late season variety, the Northern Spys, were covered with flowers this year - a first for us, and they bloomed later than the other varieties so may very well have fruit. We’ll see how they do this season, maybe we could even sell some! They have been extremely reluctant to fruit, preferring to become giant, impenetrable shrubs, but maybe years of ruthless pruning is finally having an effect.
We have started to spray clay on the trees to ward off plum curculio and other insect pests. The trees will be white for about a month, forcing plum curculio to lay their eggs in the fruit on our trap trees (a few scattered trees in the orchard that are not sprayed with clay). We can then collect the damaged fruit from those trees, reducing the numbers of plum curculio in the process. The clay must be re-applied every time it rains, so our current dry spell is welcome.
So, we will just have to see how things go - at least we have some fruit. We feel particularly grateful as we know another orchardist who has already been hit with heavy hail damage, and of course many orchards had little to no fruit due to a late frost last year. Hope must spring eternal, when you are a farmer.

Rain, rain, go away

We have had rain, fog, and drizzle almost steady for the last week, right during peak bloom for most of our trees. This leaves us to worry about pollinators - will our hardy native bumblebees, mason bees, and other native species be up to the task in the cold and damp? We are thankful we are not reliant on honeybees, which are not as willing to go out in cold weather. At least some of the blossoms I checked today were pollinated, as the little swollen base of the dying-back flower can attest.
Our other concern is the fungal disease scab, since we are right in the middle of the primary infection period for that disease. Scab spores can only infect the apple leaves when wet for a certain number of hours in a row, so this time of year we spray our scab-susceptible varieties with sulfur when we expect a sufficient wetting period. We are not sure what a week-long wetting period means for scab infection, though it’s quite possible that a higher-than-average percentage of spores were able to infect leaves due to sulfur washing off the trees. Fortunately all of our pick-your-own varieties are scab-immune, so we should have a good crop despite this. Also, last year was an exceptionally low scab year owing to little rain during the infection period, so there should be fewer scab spores available than in many years. We will look for signs of scab infection over the next week or two.
Today I took advantage of a short break in the rain to ruthlessly cut off the flowers growing on our one-year-old trees. We need these tiny trees to invest in roots and wood, not fruit, so must get rid of their flowers before they spend too much energy on them. I was happy to see ladybug larvae and spiders patrolling the trees already. I didn’t see any aphids for the ladybugs to eat, but there were some insects like tarnished plant bugs and one ant for the spider to live on. Go predators go!

Orchard is starting to bloom

With some warm weather, the trees are awakening, with flowers that are at the pink stage in most of the orchard. A few apple trees have even opened their blossoms, joining our plum and peach trees which are covered in flowers this year. We finally have accumulated enough degree-days to spray sulfur on our scab-susceptible trees, in preparation for the rain forecasted to fall tonight. With that rain, all the matured spores (like seeds) of the scab fungus will try to grow but the sulfur will prevent them from doing so. Meanwhile, many birds are courting and building nests in the orchard, including the bobolink and Baltimore oriole that we saw in the trees today. The oriole was busy hunting around the blossoms, presumably eating the little caterpillars we have seen that eat some blossoms before they can open. The more birds, the better! Even species that usually eat seeds or nectar feed insects to their young, so we are thrilled to have lots of nesting birds here for many reasons. Every year we see nests padded with wool from our sheep, very fun.

The orchard is in good shape, as we spent last weekend spreading bark mulch around the young trees and removing the big branches we pruned off earlier. Smaller branches remain in the orchard where we mow them to return their nutrients to the soil. Most of the trees are blossoming heavily, even our reluctant fruiters the Northern Spys. We’ll see if that translates into fruit set later on. A good start to the growing season.

Spring arrived at last

With a smidgen of good weather, we have planted our new trees, set up the nursery bed for newly grafted trees, and should be done pruning this weekend. Just in time, since the trees are showing some green at last. Now we need to begin counting degree days so that we can track disease and insect development. The season begins!


In 2010 we had 1/4” green tips on April 7th, very early. This year we still had complete snow cover in the orchard on April 7th, and today a winter wonderland. We only have a little left to prune, and a bunch of new trees to get in. However, the weather is not making it easy to wake the orchard up so far this year.



This week is our pruning week, when Jen has a week off from teaching and we can work together to trim the trees. We have been blessed with two beautiful sunny days so far (and one horrendous slush-fest during which we did indoor tasks), and have pruned a good portion of the orchard. Our work of shaping the trees in previous years is paying off this year, as pruning is far easier than it has been in the past. Part of that might be that we are more clear on what we are trying to accomplish, as well. Steve will need to go back through with a ladder for the tops of some trees when the snow finally melts, but we can get to a good portion of the semi-dwarfs.
This is also our chance to see how the orchard fared during this long, snowy winter. Snow increases the risk of vole damage to trees, since they can stay all cozy and safe under the snow and eat bark off the trees. Indeed, many of our full grown trees show some areas of vole damage, hopefully not enough to hurt most of them. But a few of our new trees were girdled, since the snow was well above the level of the wire cages we surrounded them with. Most of the new trees have avoided damage, though. No sign of damage from cold, ice or other weather, as is usual for apple trees.

Taking advantage of the snow

Today I took advantage of the snow day, and the feet of snow in the orchard, to do some orchard management. Each spring, every tree is covered in flowers, and if all goes well most of those flowers turn into tiny fruits. The tree can’t possibly support every fruit, so many are abandoned by the tree. Most varieties of trees drop these abandoned fruits right away, but for some reason Cortlands hold onto these dead fruits by the hundreds. Each one of these dead fruits becomes something like a biobomb - the fungi and other microorganisms that decompose dead fruits are now to be found up in the tree rather than on the ground, and these decomposers can infect living fruit if the dead fruits remain on the tree. We pick off the dead fruits when we thin in July, but we can’t get every one. Every time I go by the trees in summer and fall I pick off dead fruitlets, but I can’t reach those high up in the tree. Right now with feet of snow on the ground I can reach nearly the entire tree. I just have to be careful not to step on and damage branches under the snow, and I don’t want to push into the tree, as branches are much more brittle this time of year. So, thanks to the snow, I can reduce the disease pressure the tree will have to fight this coming season.

We have some help in the orchard with vole management this year, as a fox has been frequenting the orchard. We saw it dig up a rabbit and trot off one morning this week - that doesn’t help the orchard much but is a relief for the kitchen gardens the rabbits discovered last year. Hopefully the fox is eating its share of voles as well. It must be eating well, as it is incredibly healthy looking. We have heard a lot of fox barking and screaming at night, perhaps part of courtship? I hope for a nice den of kits somewhere nearby to work on our vole population. We will have to be careful of the chickens though!

Cider Vinegar

This year we experimented with making cider vinegar in 5-gallon containers. Cider vinegar is certainly easy to produce, since it occurs naturally with cider exposed to air for enough time. However, you do need some helpers - yeast which turn sugar to alcohol, and a good mother - a specific bacteria that turns alcohol into acetic acid. If your cider is colonized by poor strains of these creatures, or by a fungus or some other kind of bacteria, you don't get good vinegar. Many mothers of vinegar produce off flavors rather than good ones, so to start with you must just put out a bunch of samples of cider and hope to catch a good strain. In previous years we brewed vinegar in 1/2 gallon and gallon jugs, ending up with a mother that we like - the vinegar it produces smells fruity and delicious. Last year, we seeded 5-gallon carboys full of fermented cider with this mother, and we are happy to say the experiment paid off. So, we are trying again with another few carboys. We hope to sell some of this in the fall.

In case you are interested in trying to make vinegar for yourself, the process is quite easy - at it's most simple, you just leave fresh cider out exposed to air, and wait until it is sour. Here are some steps we found that made the process more consistent.

1. put cider in a container with a relatively small opening, such as a plastic gallon jug or a carboy. We did try making vinegar in buckets, but had trouble with mold colonizing, and also the water evaporated at a higher rate. In any case, cover the opening tightly with a cloth, and keep the vinegar in a dark location.
2. you can use already fermented cider if you wish; if so, just begin the process by adding an airlock to the opening of your container. The possible benefit to this is less chance of your cider being colonized by something you don't want in there. Once the cider is done fermenting, it's time to expose the cider to air to continue the process.
3. If you wish to capture a mother native to your own space, simply leave your container (with its cloth cover) and wait. These bacteria appear to be quite abundant; all of our trials turned into vinegar after a waiting period. Your mother will produce a gelatinous growth in the cider. It's good to stir the cider some during this process - ideally every day toward the beginning in particular.
4. If you wish to use a pre-existing mother, you need a sample of some unpasteurized cider vinegar that you like. Many people on the internet use Braggs vinegar. Most of the guides I have seen online use a lot of mother, up to a 50-50 mix of vinegar and fresh cider. We have never had that much mother to work with, but a small sample of a good mother appears to overwhelm any other mothers that might colonize your cider. A few tablespoons of mother (the gelatinous stuff from a previous batch) or a glug of the unpasteurized, unfiltered vinegar will likely do the trick in a gallon jug.
5. Once there is a good growth of gelatinous stuff in your cider, you can start tasting to see if it's acidic enough, and whether you like the taste. I read somewhere that when the mother grows a skin on top of the vinegar its time to check it. This can take from weeks to months, depending on how much mother you started with, the temperature of the space your vinegar is in, and no doubt other factors.
6. We have found that the final product varies widely in acidity, anywhere from 3% to 8% in recent batches. No real idea why - it could have something to do with the apples we used in the cider or the amount of evaporation that happened. However, the 3% vinegar appears to stay good for a long time, and tastes plenty vinegar-y. You can get a pH test kit at a wine store that allows you to test for your vinegar's acidity, though you have to modify the instructions that come with it since vinegar is about ten times more acidic than juice. I am probably not going to use my vinegar to preserve pickles until we get more consistent acidity. But it's delicious in salad dressings, cole slaw, and other recipes.
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