Orcharding insight from Chris Negronida, Orchard manager at West Haven Farm, Black Diamond Farm and bartender at FLCH.
While reading through The Apples of NY, (S.A. Beach, 1905) I came across this photograph of a Baldwin orchard taken in Monroe County, NY. The source did not sight the date, but I imagine it was taken sometime in the last half of the 19th century or the early 20th century. The orchard pictured was owned by a man named Foster Udell. *Insert historical picture* The predecessors to the dwarf and semi-dwarf trees that make up many of today's orchards, reached heights that seem almost mythical. The pickers themselves seem truly dwarfed by these imposing trees; gatherers in a forest rather than harvesters in a field. The wild, unruly shapes taken on by the trees, allows me to conceive that there is in fact, a Kazakh relative deep in their genetic lineage.
My best guess as someone who has climbed my share of ladders, is that the ones pictured are well over twenty feet in height, perhaps 24or even 26 feet. The ladders seem to almost disappear into the tops of the trees, I can hardly imagine what it was like to reach into the depths of the tree, what green surprises you would find within; apples without the rosy blush of sunshine.
As I picker I love to pick in large trees. In the time it takes to pick a large tree, even half the size of the ones above, you start to form a relationship with each tree. With a good crop on it, a standard tree can easily take an hour to pick, yielding 10 or even 20 bushels. On each trip to the bin, with a heaping bucket of apples, you notice the unique things about the tree; the knot in an outstretched limb, or the vines of Creeping Virginia that wind up the center of the tree and spill over the top. The tree begins to take on a personality. You learn to approach each one differently. A skillful picker makes many choices when picking a large tree, much more so than a small tree, who's apples can all fit in one or two buckets. There are choices about where to place the ladder, which limb to pick next or which way around the tree is the quickest back to the bin. You make note of where to put the ladder next and learn which apples are worth stretching for and which are best left for the next ladder set. It becomes a dance, in which the tree leads and the picker follows. I can only imagine what kind of tangos took place in the old orchards of the Northeast.