Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery

Certified Organic Hard Ciders and Apples

Bummer Season

This season has been a total bummer.
This was the notice we had to post this year regarding our season-

We want to let folks know that our apple crop is light this year, and the quality is not as good as previous years. Our growing conditions are the absolute opposite of last year's, with a mild winter that killed no insects, frost limiting fruit set, rain at the wrong moments in the spring, and drought the rest of the year stressing the trees. The result is fewer apples and more damage, either by disease or insects. This is in addition to losing our entire peach crop to a -21 cold event in February.

Thus we had to close early, we were only able to be open 2 weeks for PYO, and also have a very limited crop for next years hard cider production. We are likely to have reduced fruit set for next years crop. Time will tell.

Season Opener

Lessons in recovering an existing orchard

Many of you are familiar with our patriotic lineup of pick your own apples, Liberty and Freedom. We had to determine what varieties they were based on descriptions, since we had no record of what was planted in our orchard, and these were our best guesses. We were never really confident on the Freedom apple identity, so when we had to replace a few that died, we decided to buy some Freedom apples from a nursery instead of grafting our existing apples into those spots. Those bought Freedom trees fruited this year, and it turns out the apples we were calling Freedom are something else! We went back to apple descriptions, and decided the closest match to the apples we have are the Jonafree. We may have to buy one or two of these varieties to be sure, but in the meantime that is what we will be calling those apples.

So, in this tumultuous presidential election year, we no longer have our patriotic apple lineup. Instead, we will be picking Liberty apples, followed soon thereafter by Jonafree. Same great apple, new name. We will have some availability of Cortland apples in the middle, but it was a rough growing year and the Cortlands have apple scab damage (surface blemish on minimally affected apples).



Blossom time

We are in the midst of a slow, gradual blossom season. Most of our varieties are flowering well this year, and there has been good weather for pollinators mixed with cool temperatures that have kept the blossoms going for a long time. Our later blooming varieties, including Northern Spy, Golden Delicious, and Freedom are all in full bloom, while the petals are starting to fall from Liberty, Mac, and Williams Pride. Our neighbors' honeybees are visiting, along with bumblebees and other native pollinators. A week from now we should have a better sense of fruit set, but everything looks good at this point for the apples.

It has been great to visit with people who have come to the tasting room hours on Saturdays. We have the time to really talk with folks, which is a pleasure. We love the energy and craziness of pick your own weekends and Cider Days in the fall, but it's nice to have some more laid back retail time as well.

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King blossom


Winter Planning, Spring work

Time has flown since apple season ended with our last post in this blog. We are so grateful for the seasonality of farming; we could not keep up the pace without shifts in work intensity and type over time.

Winter is our time for assessing how the season went, and planning for the future. It is also for some healing down time. And of course, it is when our cider ferments, when we do tasting and science to determine which blends we will put together, and how much of each variety of hard cider to make. We ended up bottling the Farmhouse cider in the middle of February, and the Hopped, Cyser, and some New England in April, so we will have all four varieties available when we open our tasting room May 14.

This mild, el Nino winter carried with it some concerns about the trees not hardening off, or waking too early in the spring, but so far, it appears the weather has not been catastrophic for our apple crop. There were some scares, of course; what is farming without worrying about the weather? We had a low of -18F in mid-February, which may be the reason we have no peach blossoms this spring. And then we had a mid-teens low after the trees started waking in the spring; we are still waiting to see how that will affect apple blossoms, though it appears it didn't wipe them out completely. Meanwhile, we had plenty of snow-free days to prune the orchard, and a long stretch of good weather in which we planted several hundred new trees, both replacing ailing trees in the existing orchard block and expanding our plantings. We received a grant from the Grinspoon foundation last year to put in a dwarf tree, trellis planting that is in place as of this fall. This is an experiment, to see how dwarf cider trees do in our low input, minimally managed orchard. Let the science begin!

We are in the calm between storms at this moment, when the trees are planted and mulched, we just got a good rain, it is not quite time to start spraying for pests and diseases, and it is still the off season for our hard cider tasting room. That all ends very soon, since we have an open house May 14 from 1-5 to celebrate the release of this year's ciders, and to kick off our tasting room season. The tasting room will be open from 1-5 every Saturday all summer, so folks can count on us being here if you want to stop by and get some cider. Last year the orchard was in full bloom on May 14, so it could be a spectacular day to come visit. Nothing beats walking through the orchard full of apple blossom perfume, listening to bees buzz around enjoying the flowers.


Apple season is over once again

What a whirlwind of a season. We had a great pick your own season, with plenty of apples and nice weather every weekend. It was even warm for Cider Days weekend, when we offered seminars on organic orchard management, apple scouting, making vinegar, and natural fermenting. The New England hard cider was a hit, so we are fermenting more as we speak. We were crazy busy picking and pressing apples almost up to Thanksgiving, but finally we are done, fermenting tanks are all full, and the orchard is put to bed. We took full advantage of the long fall, with few very cold days - what a contrast to last year when we were downhill skiing the Saturday after Thanksgiving. This was another year when every tree in the orchard and woods, in yards, and along roads fruited with abandon, so we picked everything we could find room for. Likely next year many of those trees will be taking a rest to recover from their overabundance this year.


2015 Season Opener

There are lots of apples this year. For a small operation like us, trying to pick them all will be the challenge. The apple are generally larger than normal for us too, some of the biggest individual apples we have ever had on some varieties. For the weekend of Sept. 18-20 we start the season with PYO Liberty apples, and ready picked Jon Pippin, Williams Pride, Red Astrachan, and Macintosh. We will be doing our first pressing of the season on Friday morning to supply sweet cider for the weekend. To add more, we are also releasing the 2014 Ice Cider and our first commercial version of a New England style cider which is fermented with brown sugar and raisins, and aged in oak. We are very excited to see what people think of this cider. Hope to see you!

Out scouting some wild trees.



Fruit, Fruit, Fruit

We have a selection of fruit right now, available in the fridge in our barn self-serve. We had our Reliance and Red Haven peach season, and now are on to Contender. They are juicy, good sized peaches. This is their first real year fruiting so I have not tried canning or processing them yet, but they are delicious. They need a few days ripening on the counter (or longer, in the fridge) at this point in the season.
We also have some Somerset seedless grapes this year. They are small, sweet grapes that grow so well, we will likely plant more of them. They are perfect for eating right now.
As for apples, we still have Red Astrachan, and also have Williams Pride. Red Astrachan is a relatively tart apple, and Williams Pride is sweeter, with skin so red the color bleeds into the flesh. This is the first year of production for this apple, we are excited to be able to try them out.

Apples and other fruit getting close

Our first apple of the season is the Red Astrachan (below), the first ones are ready around the first of August and it will continue to give fruit through the end of the month. Like many summer apple it is soft, tart and does not store well. We use it for apple sauce and press the rest for vinegar.
We have been plowing and prepping areas for next years plantings, about 1200’ (200 + trees) of a trellised planting using a small root stock with mostly wild seedlings that we have found, and some Golden Russet. We are doing this to experiment with how cider varieties on a dwarf rootstock will do with our low input (free range?) management approach.
We will start to see plums and peaches become available as we get into August, so keep your ears open. We have our tasting room open every other Saturday throughout the summer, so stop up and try it out, or pick up a bottle!


In the two months since I last wrote here, the season has developed. Trees blossomed well, pollinators were busy, and fruit set was very good. Varieties we planted over the years are starting to fruit, and we will taste some varieties for the first time this year. Apples are sizing up well, far too fast to keep up with hand thinning tasks. We have more plums than we have ever had on those four trees, and despite weak looking peach blossoms the fruit is looking good on those as well. We hope to offer some of those other fruits for sale when we have the tasting room open, later in the year.

Our current vintage of Farmhouse and Hopped ciders and our Cyser are now matured and ready for sale. We have restocked our retailers, and have been offering tasting room hours every other Saturday or so. The summer dates are much less crowded and hectic than fall, so we feel like we can return to our early years of selling apples, when we were able to talk with people a lot more. It has been fun. We are also pouring our cider at the Green River Brewfest in Greenfield this Saturday, June 20. That was a fun crowd last year and I’m sure will be a blast this year as well.

With the kids done with school, the orchard and gardens growing, sheep sheared of their fleece, and new chickens getting bigger, it feels like summer is here at last. Yay for the growing season!


Spring has sprung at last

After a long, cold, snowy winter, we are finally looking at brown grass instead of white snow in the orchard. We had a lot of drifted snow, so were worried about vole damage. Voles can use the snow to move around, accessing things like apple trees to eat without being exposed to cold and predators. The young trees we have wire cages on fared well, with two trees suffering damage. However, we did have a number of mature trees that lost bark to voles, both lower scaffolds of branches and some damage on trunks. Given the number of trees that were engulfed in snow up to five feet deep, the losses were light. We were able to finish pruning while the snow melted, despite a late start thanks to all that snow and bitterly cold temperatures. Now we await dry ground so we can get the pruned wood out of the orchard. Snow melt has been pretty gentle and gradual, so the ground is drying faster than it often does this time of year.

Another task we accomplished to be ready for spring was grafting new trees. We have 200 dwarfing rootstock we attached to tree varieties we want to add to the orchard, as we experiment with growing small trellised trees in our organic, low-input system. If successful, these trees will fruit in a small fraction of the time we have waited for the larger rootstock varieties to mature. It’s an amazing experience to take wood from two trees, bind them together, and watch them grow into a new tree. We received a Grinspoon award that will help us set up this new planting.

Our most recent spring task was bottling hard cider. Our hopped hard cider had taken on the hoppy essence it needed from the dry hops we steeped in it, so we bottled that variety. It was a pleasure to bottle in our new cidery, with plenty of space to work efficiently, knowing we won’t have to carry all those heavy cases of cider out of the basement. What a difference a year makes. We will bottle the Farmhouse cider soon, but the other varieties will continue to age for a while longer before bottling.

We are pleased with how the ciders are turning out this year. The base cider is more assertively flavored this year, which balances the hops in that variety, and the wood tones of the barrel-aged Farmhouse well. We will also have Cyser and Ice cider in small quantities, and we are experimenting with a New England style cider. This is cider augmented with brown sugar and raisins, and was the cider making tradition that survived Prohibition around here. We model it after hard cider we served at our wedding over 20 years ago, which was made by a local apple grower.


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