Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery


Certified Organic Hard Ciders and Apples
Apples

Apple season has begun

We had a busy, fun opening weekend. This was our first weekend in the new retail space in the barn, which worked very well. Lots of folks tasted hard cider, ate donuts, and picked all of our Liberty apples. We are lucky to have help from Jen and Steve’s parents, both while we are open and working in the orchard before and after. Our sons are old enough to help out too, so if you stop by Aidan or Elliot might be ringing up your order, or directing you to the trees we are picking.
This coming weekend we will be picking Cortlands and Freedoms. Most years we have Libertys for two weekends, but they had a light crop this year, so they are all gone. The weather for this weekend is forecasted to be fantastic. We recommend coming in the next two weekends for good U-pick availability - if we have good pickers, we won’t have a lot of apples available for pick-your-own by Columbus Day weekend. We will be open Columbus Day weekend regardless, and will have pre-picked apples (including Northern Spys), in addition to sweet and hard cider, donuts, jams, jellies, and vinegar.
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Last weekend of picking apples

This weekend we have the Freedom variety still on the trees, as well as cider and apples for sale in the cider mill. Although the rain has passed, it is very breezy (OK, windy) and cool up here, so if you’re coming to visit, bring an extra layer or two.

We will be picking the rest of the apples this week and putting them away for cider for a few local events. These are the Sanderson Academy PTO’s Local Goods catalog, which raises money for the school by selling goods and services produced in Ashfield and Plainfield; and Franklin County Cider Days the first weekend in November, when we will be open for orchard walks, cider and baked goodies, and we will host a talk by Michael Phillips, author of
The Apple Grower. Check our link to the Cider Days website for more details on this event if you’re interested.

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pick-your-own limited next week

The apples are really starting to drop from the trees, so we will be picking most of the apples this week. We will leave a few Freedom trees for pick-your-own next weekend, but mostly we will have cider, pre-picked apples, and fall views from the orchard available next weekend.
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Varieties available this weekend...

for pick-your-own are Golden Delicious, Liberty, Cortland, and Freedom. This is likely the only weekend we will have so many varieties available at one time. Freedoms are a great storage apple, good for fresh eating and baking. The foliage is still heading toward peak, so the views are great from the orchard.

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When will we open?

We should open the weekend of September 11 for pick-your-own, cider here at the farm and farmer’s markets. The recent cool weather slowed down the ripening, so a Labor Day weekend opening is not going to happen (phew! That’s just too early). The apples are still ahead of schedule but not 3 weeks ahead, as they were before this recent cool snap.

The barn is really coming along - siding and roofing on this past week, the floor will be poured this coming week. Right now it’s in the giant covered sandbox phase, complete with our son’s dump trucks and other sand toys.
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Apples are still ahead of schedule

As the picking season grows closer, the apples are still way ahead of schedule. The apples on our summer apple tree were ripe about 2 weeks ahead of schedule, and our neighbor Alan Suprenant has some varieties that are 3 weeks ahead! So, we will likely be opening two weeks earlier than we did last year. That would mean opening early to mid-September, with the season peaking around the beginning of October rather than toward the end.

We have a lot more varieties fruiting this year, including Cortlands, Golden Delicious, and MacIntosh, so there will be plenty of apples to choose from. Every tree looks like a wall of fruit, it is truly an amazing fruit year this year. So despite the hail damage there should be plenty of apples for everyone.
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Hail

Well, we dodged the bullets of frost, fungus, and various insects, but got hit by hail. Pancake-shaped hail an inch or more across fell (well, blew horizontally) for what felt like forever but was probably a few minutes. Some apples were damaged; we haven’t done an extensive survey to figure out the percentage. Not having had hail damage like this before, we aren’t certain the impact it will have on apples when they are ripe, but they will certainly be marked. We are thankful that we are not selling to supermarkets, where apples with any blemish, however superficial, can’t be sold. Our larger commercial neighbors are not so lucky. Hopefully you folks who buy our apples can stand the “hail-kissed” look on some apples this year; if not, there is always cider Happy.
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So far so good

With the hot, dry weather we have been having, there is very little chance of scab infection, and we see next to none in the orchard. Also a reduced chance of getting late blight on the tomatoes and potatoes, thankfully. Not too many insect pests either, so far. More waiting to go before we know how the insect damage will be. Meanwhile, the apples are starting to turn red and continue to get bigger despite no rain. The weather couldn’t be more different than it was last year, it will be interesting to see if the apples taste different when they have ample sun and heat.
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Thinning done. Phew!

At last, the pick your own varieties are thinned. We just don’t have the labor to thin everything, and with apples we will cider it is not necessary. We got a start on pruning off watersprouts too, usually an August job but thinning is easier if we cut some of the rampant growth out of the tree first. We have a giant pile of thinned-off apples - we keep them in 5-gallon buckets for a week if possible so that exiting pests can’t find soil to pupate in, then we pile them in a wagon until they are good and aged, again so any possible pests have difficulty surviving. Eventually we compost them. The apples we left on the trees are getting huge. It is so satisfying to see them sizing up, all spaced out and healthy looking.

Now we move on to worrying about our last pests of the season - keeping our eyes open for codling moths, checking apple maggot fly traps, and watching for secondary scab lesions. We will find out if our work last season picking up all late season drops has reduced these pests. Let’s hope so!
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thinning time

Every spare moment is spent thinning apples these days. Apples blossom in clusters, and despite a hard freeze locally we had very good pollination on most of the trees, so we have a great deal of work to do to get each cluster down to one apple. The pick-your-own varieties in particular fruit very heavily and need a lot of thinning. The apples are sizing up quickly this year, as the season still seems to be advanced compared to prior years. We will be watching for when our earliest variety becomes ripe so we can tell when our commercial varieties will be ready.

All of our biennial trees are fruiting this year, and since we have little to no scab in the orchard this year, even our macIntoshes are fruiting. So we have lots and lots of apples that look great at this point.

Lots of life in the trees as usual - lots of lady bugs and daddy long legs, as well as other spiders, and of course a chorus of birds all over in the orchard. We have one deer that visits regularly this year, nipping branches off the trees closest to the woods. No big deal, as long as the newest trees aren’t targeted too much (and he or she doesn’t start bringing friends).
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Season winding down

The past week or so we have finally found time to do some orchard cleaning by picking up drops and clearing the last of the Freedom apples off the trees for Cider Day cider. We had a few very cold nights, which softened the Freedoms a little, and between the cold and the wind, many started dropping off the trees. Waste not, want not - those fresh drops will be our own hard cider and vinegar for the season, as we had very little time to put cider away for ourselves while we were selling cider. We have also managed to can some applesauce, with more to come, and Steve found a Golden Delicious tree at a job site that had beautiful apples on it, with no one to take advantage of them. So, the homeowner allowed us to pick some, which will be added to the cider mix in November. They are some of the best drying apples, so we will pick some of the most perfect and dry them. Fun fun!
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pick-your-own all done

We had an amazingly busy weekend. We started with our last Shelburne Falls Farmers Market, which was very busy and we sold out both cider and apples. Then we moved on to the Ashfield Fall Festival, where we sold a few bushels of our own apples and some of our neighbor's low spray apples from Clark Orchard, as well as many gallons of cider. Meanwhile, while Steve was at the festival Saturday and Sunday, Jen was at home for pick-your-own customers. Saturday was fairly quiet thanks to the on-and-off rain, but Sunday was so busy I couldn't keep track of the number of apples people took home. Even today, Columbus Day, we had a steady stream of visitors, selling out of the cider Steve pressed in the morning and picking the last of the Freedoms. All told, we made 15 batches of cider - at least 160+ gallons - and sold every half gallon. We don't have a single bottle right now!

It was great fun talking with so many people about apples, farming, sheep, chickens, and other topics. We will be at the Ashfield Farmer's Market with some cider (cold and hot) this Saturday, and will be open here at the farm for Cider Days November 7th and 8th. If you need a cider fix we will have some then, along with baked goods.
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Season drawing to a close?

Despite wet weather this past Saturday, we sold plenty of cider and apples, both here at the orchard and at the farmer's markets in Ashfield and Shelburne Falls. Our Freedom apples are ripening and looking good, and we look forward to the coming weekend, when we will have the last Shelburne Falls Farmers Market on Friday, apple picking at the orchard, and a tent at the Ashfield Fall Festival, which is held Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 5pm. With any good weather, we are likely to be low on apples by the end of the weekend. Therefore, at this point we think that the following weekend, October 17-18, will be our last weekend open. So, if you've been meaning to drop by and stock up on apples and/or cider, time is running out. We will be open again with cider and baked goods for the Franklin County Cider Days event on Nov. 7th and 8th. Hope to see you there.
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On to a new apple variety

As the apples mature, we switch from earlier to later varieties that are available. This coming weekend we will have the Freedom variety available for pick-your-own, rather than the earlier Liberty. Freedom is another scab-resistant Macoun relative, good for pick-your-own since it doesn't require fungicides to reliably have good apples. Freedoms do not appear to have the pest damage the Libertys did - we will assess this for sure just before the weekend when we pick our cider apples, but at this point we expect the quality of these apples to be good. Still organic, etc. so not grocery-store perfect, but much better for you!
What are Freedoms like? A good sweet-acid balance, crisp and super-red. They will be early in their season this weekend, so more acid this coming week than in later weeks, when the sugars will take over the flavor. They work well for fresh eating, baking and saucing.
As for the cider, the super-ripe Libertys will provide a lot of sweet aromatic juice at this point in their season. A good time for thinking about hard cider! Since you know what happens to all that sugar when the yeast get busy... We should have a good cider blend with apples at different points in their season balancing sweet, tart, and aromatic.
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First weekend of the season

After two farmers markets and one day of pick-your-own business, we are finally into our apple season! The cider has been fun to press, and we ran out at our Saturday farmers market despite getting up early that morning to press another batch. We will have to make more on Friday to get ready for the farmers markets next week. I have to say, it has been great to have fresh cider around once again to drink for ourselves, and our customers seem to be enjoying it too. As for apple picking, we have been disappointed with the apples on the trees - there are plenty, but not the perfect apples we were hoping for. Thus, we will be discounting pick-your-own apples this season. Most of our customers have that organic-food mindset that allows for some tolerance of imperfect fruit, so hopefully you won't be too disappointed if you come get some for yourself.
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current tasks in the orchard

Our current focus is picking up dropped apples. Apples that drop before they are ripe are generally pest-filled, so if we pick up as many as we can, those pests will not develop into next year's problem. Our sheep LOVE almost-ripe apples, thankfully, so they are happy to clean up the apples we pick up. They were not interested in the apples earlier on, when we were thinning the tiny apples in June/early July, so we are glad they like these more ripe apples. Any coddling moth (CM) or apple maggot fly (AMF) larvae that the sheep eat now are individuals that will not damage our apples next year. Ideally, these pests can be fully controlled by this method, although in our area there are a lot of unmanaged, old apple trees on neighboring property so we may always have some AMF and CM pressure. If there are too many apples for our 6 sheep, our neighbor's cattle love them too!

We just returned from a trip to Washington DC and Monticello, where we attended a fruit-tasting event of fruit grown at Monticello. We tasted a number of old apple varieties, as well as grapes, peaches, figs (too bad we can't grow those!), heirloom tomatoes, and others. It is interesting to consider Thomas Jefferson's fruit growing experience - very few American varieties were available at that time, so he experimented with European varieties, many of which were not very well suited to Virginia growing conditions. He was certainly growing without chemical help, but since apples were grown almost exclusively for cider making at that time, apples didn't need to be picture perfect. We also visited Albemarle Ciderworks, a small family-run orchard in Virginia that has just begun to sell hard cider like Colonial-era drinkers enjoyed. We enjoyed a cider tasting in their new building - some very fine cider indeed. We feel very inspired after this visit, having talked with other farmers who are passionate about apple varieties and traditional cider. And we may need to plant another variety of apple...
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Cider mill is finished

The cider mill is finished. We have had our initial Board of Health inspection as well as plumbing, and will have the the many final inspections in place well before we need to start. Not to worry, we are providing business to all branches of bureaucracy this season.

As we have mentioned it has been quite a difficult summer for disease and pests. The cold wet weather has made it hard to keep up with all that is going on up there - sprays that should discourage pests or prevent fungal growth get washed off the trees, and the cool wet weather has been fantastic for insect pests as well as fungus. Even conventional apple growers have had trouble with the fungal disease apple scab this season. We do have a lot of good apples, but not in as many cultivars as we would like.

We have been enjoying apples from our single 100-plus year old Red Astrichan tree in recent weeks. It is our first apple ready for personal use and always a nice sign of what is to come. It is a tarter apple with good fruity flavor, and makes for some complex eating and drinking. We also like it for the tannins it adds to our hard cider when blended with other dessert apple cider we make later in the season. We grafted Red Astrichan onto rootstock this spring, so we can share this apple with our customers in the future.
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real food

This is something of a rant, set off by a machine I saw in a catalog that treats maple sap with UV light. Why might you run maple sap through UV? Sap is boiled for hours to produce syrup, arguably an hours-long pasteurization. The reason is not food safety, but consistency. The maple flavor is actually produced by bacteria in the sap, and the longer the bacteria are active, the more maple flavor the syrup has. For a producer to have a consistent product, big operations keep sap chilled and zap it with UV to neutralize those bacteria. The result? A full season of "Fancy" grade syrup, pure sweet sugar with minimal maple flavor. And for those who like their maple syrup to be dark and maple-flavored? We had better hope that small producers using traditional methods continue to make syrup that we can get our hands on.

Why am I writing about maple syrup? Because this is illustrative of one of the impacts of our industrial food system. Consumers expect that something labeled "maple syrup" from a specific producer will taste exactly the same every time they buy it. This runs counter to the traditional method of producing maple syrup, in which flavor varies depending on the temperature and when in the season the maple sap was flowing. By using UV light and refrigeration tanks we lose that variability - one more aspect of the spectrum of flavor in natural foods that we lose without ever knowing it existed.

This all applies to our cider and apples. Many people ask us to describe the apples for each variety, and I find that difficult, because the apples vary so much over the course of the season. Cider is the same way - we will make cider from one apple variety a number of times in the season, and each time it will be very different. Minimal processing and eating foods as fresh as possible allow you to enjoy the subtle variations of these natural foods, whether that be an apple off the tree still warm from the sun, or a glass of fresh pressed cider that has gone from apple to cider in two steps (grind up apples, press out juice). In addition, organically raised foods encounter richer, more diverse soils, allowing the food to be more complex, more nutritious (check the Rodale Institute for studies that confirm this), and arguably richer in flavor as well.

Our industrialized food system has worked hard to make foods conform to rigid definitions that serve the purposes of marketing and distribution, not nutrition and flavor. People used to celebrate the differences in foods over the course of a season, or from region to region. I encourage all of us to seek out the diversity of flavors to be found in natural foods.
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Finished thinning, bird nests, AMF traps

Fine weather this holiday weekend allowed us to finish thinning apples. Here are some of the wonderful things we saw while thinning...

chipping sparrow chicks


kingbird eggs; notice they are using wool from our sheep in the nest!

We also put out traps for apple maggot fly - these are red and yellow traps (the AMF favorite colors!) covered with sticky goo that the pest sticks to, with lure that smells like super ripe apples to help attract these flies before they lay eggs on our apples. This is the first year we have used lure; so far, the traps with lure are the only ones to have caught flies. Let's hope they do a good job Happy
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Thinning and animal update

Given the current downpour, I have time to write an update. We have been fitting apple thinning in between rain storms, and have (almost) finished the Libertys and Cortlands, as well as our early varieties. The ever-reliable Libertys are covered with fruit; we thinned at least half a bushel of tiny apples off each tree. Given the wet, cold weather this year, the plum curculio weevils were active for a longer period than usual - they started damaging apples at their normal time, but were still active while we were thinning. It has also been a challenge keeping clay on the trees to fend them off, but the apples we left on the trees look good. We still have the Freedom variety to thin, and the old-fashioned standard trees, most of which are fruiting very lightly this year for various reasons. There is some scab on the vulnerable varieties, but nothing like last year. The down side to using less-harmful controls is that we can't eradicate scab, we just try to keep it down to a dull roar. The next break in the rain we will put up our sticky traps for apple maggot fly, which will start to enter the orchard very soon. We use lures that smell like ripe apples and traps that these flies are attracted to to target this control measure specifically to this pest.

On the animal front, the killdeer hatched last night - the chicks are tiny tiny duplicates of their parents, running around my garden and the driveway. Last year I saw the family occasionally for the rest of the summer in the same area that they hatched; I look forward to keeping an eye on this brood as well. And now I can weed my garden! If it ever quits raining, that is. As for our little lamb, Fifi has developed amazingly in the week she has been alive. Her four front teeth all came in at five days old, and she has been practicing running, jumping, leaping, so she is now as fast as the adults. She has started checking things out with her mouth, so when we pick her up she now will gently taste our skin in addition to sniffing us. She won't eat anything for some time yet, but will be playing with the idea. We try to pick her up every day at least, so she remains unafraid of us and will learn to enjoy eating from our hands, being petted, etc. Of our 5 adult sheep, I think only one got this kind of attention as a lamb, since one asks for petting and will eat out of our hands, while the others run from us like wild animals. Taming adult sheep is a much bigger challenge than taming a baby.
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Thinning apples

We have come to the point in the season where we get to know each and every tree in our orchard well. Apple trees have clusters of flowers that all turn into apples if the pollinators do their jobs, so on a healthy tree there might be 5-8 apples every few inches along many branches. We shoot for one apple every 8 inches, to lessen the fruit load on the tree - that's a lot of apples to pick off. We especially want to keep apples from touching, since many pests make themselves at home anywhere an apple is touching something. Hand thinning gives us a chance to be choosy about the apples that ripen, so that most of the apples left on the tree are free of bug bites or other blemishes. Larger-scale orchards use chemicals that shock the tree, causing it to drop many apples.
While hand thinning take a lot of time, it gives us a good look at all the trees to see what pest pressures are like this year, any signs of disease, and what the fruit set seems like now that apples are sizing up. It also gives us an excuse to be in the orchard, finding bird's nests, cool insects, and just enjoying this spot we live in.
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Cider mill + plum curculio

Well, the cider mill has most of the siding on it and we should be pouring the concrete for the floor in the next week or so. We have had our first plum curculio (PC) in the orchard, and they are now in full swing. We are trying to keep a good covering of clay on most of the trees in the hopes that they will move to the trees we left for them without clay (trap trees). The fruit is starting to size up now, some perhaps 3/4" and more.
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Rainy day reflection

A good rain yesterday and today should allow the remaining scab spores to release while there is still sulfur on the trees. With luck, we are past the point of worrying about scab for this season. The rain also washed all the clay off the trees, leaving them susceptible to insect damage until we can spray clay once again. Fortunately, it's awfully cold out there, so the insects should be pretty slow right now.

The orchard is a favored spot for birds, many of which are building nests right now. An organically managed orchard is a buggy place, since we tolerate insects, even apple-damaging ones, unless they cause significant damage to the crop. Some birds eat bugs all the time, while many others rely on insects to feed their babies even if they eat mostly fruit or seeds as adults. We have nesting pairs of robins, Baltimore orioles, tree swallows, kingbirds, indigo buntings, cedar waxwings, a half-dozen warbler species, and an array of other birds helping to keep the insect populations under control in our orchard.
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More clay

We added more clay yesterday morning and now have good coverage to try and keep the Plum Curculio out of the trees. It can also help keep Codling Moths' from laying their eggs, thus knocking down their first generation.

Apples forming on the Cortlands, with clay on them.

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Clay

We put on our first heavy coating of a super refined kaolin clay today, a product called Surround. We use it as a deterrent to keep certain bugs from damaging the fruit. The particles come off on the bugs as they try to move through the tree thus irritating them and hopefully making them want to move on. It can be a pain as it can wash off easily in the rain so for the next 4-6 weeks we will have to keep reapplying after heavy rains.

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Sprayed sulfur again (2nd time) this morning, there are some blossoms on almost everything at this point except the Northern Spys which are always late. We have holes on the ground for the foundation of our new cider mill. It is not going to be very big, look at it as scaled to the size of our orchard. At 14' x 18' it should allow us to make and store as much fresh cider as we can/want with an orchard our size. Very exciting!
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Blossoms


The Liberties are furthest ahead now.

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First spray

The trees are nearly at the pink bud stage, and with the very warm weather we had earlier, apple scab, a fungal disease, starts to become a worry. We sprayed sulfur last night for the first time this year and are hoping that it will be the first of only two or three times that we willl need to do it. If we can time it right. We use a product called microsulf, a micronized sulfur that is registered for organic production. We are setting out white card traps to catch insects to see what is coming into the orchard now. The pear trees are covered with pollinators and I saw my first bumble bee, all good signs.
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Red tip

Most of the trees are at, or near, open cluster with red tips just showing through. We should have good blossoms showing through soon. All of the new trees we put in this year have great looking leaves that are developing. The cherries have tons of blossoms, and the peaches are also looking good.
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New trees

We have planted many new cultivars this spring including, Esopus Spitzenburg, Wealthy, Golden Russett, Williams Pride, Cox Orange Pippen, Baldwin, and an exciting new release called Frostbite. In addition we have grafted existing cultivars to new rootstock so that we can begin to fill in gaps in rows. We are adding more Golden Delicious (older variety good ones), Freedom, Red Astrachan, Fameuse, Cortland, and Liberty.
This is all very exciting now, however growing apples is an exercise in patience, it will be at least 3-5 years before any of these start to fruit and 8-10 before a lot of them will really start to produce.
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Spring is here

Spring has arrived. Very warm weather has pushed the trees into overdrive. The swollen buds have turned into this seasons leaves and the blossoms are beginning to form, a little pink can just be seen. It is nearly time to start worrying about our first seasonal threat, apple scab. In the next week or so we will have to do our first round of spraying using sulfur. We use it in small amounts and hope to only need to spray it 2 or 3 times during the season. It is not seen to be as effective as the chemical fungicides, but it is much less toxic. Small amounts of sulfur combined with healthy living soil, which makes a healthy vibrant tree that is able to help fight scab on its own, should make for some good fruit. We have a number of varieties that have been selected to be scab resistant ,these are great because it means no sulfur for them.
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