Written by Ian Merwin
BD orchardist, cider-maker and flx pomme expert
2017 was a year of surprises for Finger Lakes cider growers, as Nature kept us all in suspense about the changing climate. Balmy weather in February pushed apple bud development way too fast, and then near-zero cold came back in early March. According to reference texts for apple bud survival of lethal temperatures, the orchards should have lost 90% of their flower buds the night of March 7th. Imagine our surprise to see millions of flowers in the orchards when Spring arrived in May. Only compulsive optimists and gamblers should grow fruit for a living!
Then Nature dealt her next card: It was so rainy and cold during bloom time that our honeybees couldn’t get out of the hives. It was up to the local native bumblebees to get the job done. Cornell entomologists have done extensive research on our farm in recent years, trying to figure out why we have such large and diverse populations of native bees. It’s likely because our three orchards are small (2, 5 and 7 acres) and each is surrounded by meadows, woods and hedgerows. That landscape diversity provides ideal habitat for a dozen native bee species on the farm, and they did a great job pollinating our trees in 2017, while our honeybees shivered in their hives. There was enough bloom and fruit set in the orchards for us to harvest our biggest crop ever this year! The resilience of apple trees never ceases to amaze, and the old-time varieties that we grow seem to be especially hardy and adaptable.
The next surprise came in April, when we had 1200 baby trees to plant in a new cider orchard. It started raining in late March, and when the farm finally dried out in August we had received twice the “normal” rainfall. Muck boots and good friends came to the rescue…we managed to get those trees in the ground during a few brief dry spells. This new orchard includes a dozen cider varieties that we imported from Spain way back in 2002. After 15 years in virus quarantine at the USDA, these Asturian apples are now available to US cider-makers (check with Wafler and Cummins nurseries for details). Some have great names like Piel de Sapo (Toad Skin), Perezosa (Lazy Girl) and Limon Montes (Mountain Lemon); it will be fun naming those ciders! In a few years the Spanish trees will begin to bear, and we can make some Finger Lakes versions of the exquisite Asturian ciders we tasted back in 1997, on our first cider visits to Spain and France. As our production of American and European heritage cider varieties triples over the next few years, we will be making more small-batch varietal ciders, and can once again provide fruit for other local cider makers.
Continuing this climate roulette theme—there was a serious drought across the Finger Lakes region during 2016, and we ran out of water to irrigate our young trees. So this year I rented a D7H Caterpillar to dig some more ponds. The Honeoye soils on our farm are deep and fertile. But if you dig down enough there is a densely packed layer of clay deposited by receding glaciers 12,000 years ago, which provides a perfect basin for catchment ponds. The ponds we dug this year should provide enough water for irrigation during future droughts. My grandson Callum rode shotgun with me in the dozer, and I hope he will remember this when he is my age, just as I vividly recall riding in a bulldozer with my father in 1957, as we dug ponds on our Hudson Valley farm.
As Black Diamond’s cider-makers, the greatest challenge for Chris Negronida and me is to take the fruit that Nature gives us each year—always different from other years in this part of the country—and work with each vintage to make the best possible ciders. We hope that people will recognize Finger Lakes terroir in each year’s cider blends, and also appreciate the lineage with our previous years of orchard-based ciders. This year we had enough fruit to make some new varietal ciders with Ashmead’s Kernal, Geneva Tremlett’s Bitter, and Reinette Musquee (a.k.a. Margil in the UK). We look forward to sharing some new ciders and enjoying the serendipitous fruits of 2017 with cider lovers at the Finger Lakes Cider House during the coming year.