A Breath of Fresh Apples

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Apples Breathe. There’s something new I learned today. Even after they are plucked from the branches of the loving arms of their mother tree, apples breathe. They continue to take in oxygen and they give off carbon dioxide. And the aroma that a cold storage unit filled with apples emits is a pheromone that makes me want to guzzle apple cider or bake an apple crumb pie.

What I know of apples has been pretty limited to our annual fall outing to pick apples at the orchard. I had no idea the amount of innovation required to maintain an orchard. A visit to Shanesville Fruit Farm in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, with a tour by owner/CEO/Farmer Lee Spencer showed me something more.

Here on the farm that has been owned by his family for 85 years, Lee Spencer and his small staff carefully manage the sorting, washing, waxing, drying, sizing, boxing, shipping and sales in a warehouse next door to the farmhouse where Lee grew up.

Lee purchased the farm in 1976 from his parents. In 1978 a fire destroyed all of the buildings on the property except for his home. Lee says it took him until the current day to rebuild everything that was there before the fire. Insurance covered only ten percent of his loss. Yet, he also admits, that the destruction probably forced him to innovate more quickly than he might have otherwise.

I don’t know about that though. Lee is an impressive man – in stature, in kindness and in knowledge. I have a feeling that – fire or not – Shanesville Fruit Farm would be blossoming. (pun intended)

As we drove through 200 acres of Lee’s beautiful rolling hillside property, I remarked how his orchard looked just like the vineyards I visited in Germany a few years ago. And Lee said – yes!  He had traveled throughout Europe, studying growing patterns and adopted the trellis system of the vineyards for his apple orchard.

In the orchard, farm laborers carefully cradled apples from tree branch to bin. Forklifts move the large bins onto a truck and back to the three huge cold storage units adjacent to the warehouse processing facility. Once inside the warehouse, bins of apples are carefully managed one bin at a time. Shanesville Farm invested in high tech equipment for their fruit sorting and packaging several years ago. You can see some of the assembly line process in the video below.

First, the bins are very carefully, gently tipped into a bed of water in the machine – so that they float and do not bruise. A handful of workers, pick out low quality fruit and set those aside. The rest of the apples float through the system, being washed, then waxed, dried, and, sorted by size for packaging. Pack house manager, Doreen Spencer, programs the computer to identify which apples will be individually labeled and which will be left unlabeled for packing into consumer bags.

I was surprised by the fact that virtually all apples are waxed after being washed. Here’s why. If you have ever picked apples fresh off the tree, you probably noticed that the fruit naturally has a waxy coating. Mother Nature knows that a coating is needed to prevent degradation of the fruit – and farmers reapply a light coating of a food-grade wax to the apples after they are washed and before they are boxed for the same reason.

I have to tell you – the wax is not cosmetic!  When you look at the brief photo video below, I hope you will be able to see that every apple shipped to a grocer was beautiful before it ever hit the waxing process.

 

Despite all the technology and innovation, the farm remains very much a family venture with Lee’s nephew Dean, Dean’s wife Doreen and nephew Dana sharing management responsibilities.

Thanks to Lee for sharing his business – and his very deep passion for growing and contributing something of value to all of us. If you are in the Berks County, Pennsylvania, area or Lehigh Valley, it’s a lovely drive to the Shanesville Fruit Farm. Try the Jonagolds – they’re my new favorite.

 

 

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