Lost and Found

A team of cider makers, foragers, and orchardists are bringing forgotten apple varieties back from the past.

THE RANDOM APPLE TREE on a rugged clip of Galvin Road in the town of Cornwall, Vermont is unremarkable. Knob-kneed and overgrown by brambles, its wiry limbs are bare of fruit on a 12-degree day in January. The tree flanks a mottled fence opening onto a frozen slab of land sprawling toward the state’s Green Mountain range ten miles west. Wrapped bales of hay wait out the winter under leftover snow. It’s an unassuming starting point, though perhaps that’s true of many things lost and found.

“This haphazard tree is the full circle of the Lost Apple story,” says David Dolginow, co-founder of Shacksbury Cider and a member of the Lost Apple Project, which seeks to ensure that heirloom apple varieties, like the one this tree bears, don’t slip into extinction.

Along with Colin Davis, his fellow cider maker and business partner, Dolginow forages and grows fruits and ferments artisan hard ciders in Vermont’s Champlain Valley region. Most of his ciders have a short ingredient list: apples. The ingredients, or lack thereof, stand out in a drink the commercial beverage industry often enhances with added sugar, artificial coloring agents, preservatives, and commercial yeast strains. What the Shacksbury label doesn’t reveal, however, is the depth and breadth of apples used, which include varieties culled from European heirlooms, wild Vermont seedlings, and fruit salvaged from the edge of extinction by a cadre of local foragers and orchardists.

Cultivation of the salvaged apples — the almost-lost breeds — began five years ago with the help of the so-called “Mother” tree on Galvin Road. It was Dolginow’s friend Michael Lee — an award-winning cheese-maker and goat farmer in Cornwall — who came across the Galvin Road tree while foraging for apples for a homemade cider. The rough-skinned apples he picked up, later labeled “Galvin Russets,” would become the first lost varietal that the Lost Apple Project began to propagate.

“We tried hundreds of foraged apples in the field,” says Davis. “We were looking for apples that matched cider-making potential with natural resilience to native pests and climate mood swings. We tasted them fresh, then in small-batch ferments; we had close to 40 trial fermentations in one year.” From that research, Davis and Dolginow selected 11 “superstar” varieties to ground a project bridging historic traditions with modern trends, magnifying the sheer breadth of character in an otherwise humble fruit — and harkening back to a time when diversity was the standard, not the exception.

“From an ecological perspective, diversified agriculture is a lasting way to build the future landscape,” adds Dolginow. “The apples are native to this environment. Their genes are built to survive here. We started to think: If [these trees] can thrive growing wild, what’s their potential with a skilled orchardist?”

That seed of a thought became the Lost Apple Project.

SHACKSBURY’S LOST APPLE TEAM is formed by a small crew of Champlain Valley farmers and foragers. Lee, finder of the Galvin Russet mother tree, fronts foraging efforts along with Ryan Yoder of Yoder Farm in Danbury, VT. Nurseryman Nicko Rubin of East Hill Tree Farm grafts and grows lost apple trees from scoured budwood, the twigs and buds from a mother tree used for propagation. Brad Koehler, cider maker and owner of Windfall Orchards, harbors trees at his home-orchard in Cornwall; so do Gregor Kent of Kent Ridge Orchards, as well as Barney and Christiana Hodges of Sunrise Orchards — their 165-acre operation houses over 200 once-lost apple trees alongside heirloom English breeds and more commercial varieties. Another 100 trees sit on an east-facing slope behind Davis’s home in Shoreham.

photo of the Galvin Russet mother treeThe Lost Apple Project can be traced to Michael Lee’s discovery of the Galvin Russet “mother tree.” H.B. Wilcox / hbrookephoto.com.

This assemblage of lost apple seekers and growers can be traced to two budding partnerships and one tree-killing frost. After graduating from Vermont’s Middlebury College in 2010, Dolginow began doing business development work for a fellow Middlebury alumnus, Sunrise Orchards’ Barney Hodges, who had just received a Rural Business Enterprise Grant from the USDA. The gist of the grant was to assess potential value-added products from ingredients distinct to Addison County (a division of the Champlain Valley) using the space at Vermont Refrigerated Storage, Hodges’ 70,000-square-foot storage unit. Hodges and Dolginow batted ideas around — they considered using the space for everything from an indoor mushroom-production operation to a slaughterhouse. They landed on apples.

Meanwhile, Dolginow and Davis crossed paths at a pickup soccer game. A mutual friend had recently urged Davis, the then-vice president of Good Point Recycling, to taste some proffered Basque Country cider. Says Davis, “It blew my mind. Shacksbury wasn’t even a twinkle in my eye at that point, but the hard cider business stuck in my head from one sip.” A blossoming fascination with cider, and the apples at its core, brought Davis and Dolginow together for an off-the-cuff tasting group, pitting friends’ homebrews against popular commercial brands. By accident, the homemade ciders had three things in common: foraged wild apples, natural fermentation, and in-bottle aging for over two months.

“These basement ciders blew my mind the same way the Basque cider did,” says Davis. “They weren’t just on par with, but far better than, the money-making commercial brands. It gave us the inspiration and the confidence, bluntly, to jump into an industry we knew nothing about.”

Location helped. Davis and Dolginow were firmly planted in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, a place backed by myriad apple-growing and cider-making traditions since English settlement in the 1700s. Historians trace the roots of apple cultivation in the United States to early 1600s Virginia, specifically to the country’s first permanent English colony in Jamestown. Until the 1900s, when railway shipping and mechanical refrigeration enabled large orchards to distribute apples year-round, local orchardists and homesteaders in Champlain Valley used to grow apple trees from seed. Once a year-round market was possible, cultivation through grafts, which assured consistency in apples for the market, took over. Before this, the apple world was ruled by variety and local use, and many of these old “wild” trees and their progeny still dot the local landscape.

Says Dolginow, of the region’s rich apple legacy: “Look at what we could do here.”

Dolginow and Davis started Shacksbury in 2013, the year after a massive late-season frost wiped out most of New England’s 2012 apple bloom and caused a regional apple shortage. “2013 was an epic year for wild apples,” says Dolginow. “When trees lose their fruit the year before, they build up so much energy from that stunted growth, from thinking they’re going to die, and they put out tons of fruit the following year. There was no plan, but so much wild fruit that we just began foraging.” An idea brewed: Shacksbury could propagate these native trees and use wild fruit from plants inherently tolerant to the Champlain Valley environment to make exceptional, complex ciders.

Shacksbury’s first vintage of “Lost and Found,” a series of ciders fermented from lost apple varietals, was released in 2014 using 2013’s foraged fruit. It was dubbed “1840,” after the year a pair of saw mills in Shacksbury, VT swapped ax handles for apples and produced the first recorded barrels of cider for the community. Since then, Dolginow and Davis have kegged and bottled over 80 different ciders, each fermented from 20 to 30 varieties of apples — fruit gathered (and grown) from Champlain Valley farmsteads and a handful of close partnerships with Old World orchards in England and Spain.

To find the centuries-old trees they rely on for fruit, the Lost Apple crew forages through farm pasture, woodland, bygone homesteads, and abandoned orchards. They trace dirt roads winding circuitously through the valley, and weed through mountain passes formerly intended for cows. All the while, they are looking for robust and flavorful varieties bred by settlers before Red Delicious and Granny Smith came to dominate the marketplace.

To find heritage apple trees, the Lost Apple Project crew forages across Vermont’s farmland, woodland, and bygone homesteads tasting new varieties as they go. Promising apples may end up in fermentation trials, and the tastiest varietals end up in wild-apple ciders. Photo by Michael Tallman.
To find heritage apple trees, the Lost Apple Project crew forages across Vermont’s farmland, woodland, and bygone homesteads tasting new varieties as they go. Promising apples may end up in fermentation trials, and the tastiest varietals end up in wild-apple ciders. Photo by Michael Tallman.

“The range of flavor these apples cover is absurd,” says Davis. “We have apples that are bright and bittersweet while others are earthy and deep. Apples that taste like lemonade. Like strawberries.” Animal Farm is a chalky, aromatic breed from a tree owned by local butter makers. Gil’s Peach is dense-fleshed and floral, like tropical melon. Blue Bitter has the tongue-gripping pull of bitter tannins; Apple Hill was found at a defunct orchard recently added to the national historic registry.

Though the project is young — it takes four to five years for a grafted tree to bear fruit — it is gaining momentum. From their cider mill in Vergennes, VT, Shacksbury now distributes three core ciders across the United States — complex “Arlo,” light and crisp “Dry,” and blushing “Rosè,” which is made with apples aged on red grape skins. So far, the team has released five vintages of “Lost and Found” and six other wild-apple ciders across the country, and has garnered a string of laurels for their fermentations.

APPLES HAD THE GOOD FORTUNE of surviving and flourishing post-import to cold colonial New England. Though the US is the second-largest producer of apples behind China, the country’s only native species is the crabapple — an astringent, high-tannin fruit better for cider makers than fresh-apple eaters. Apples aren’t from China, either; they’re from Kazakhstan. They came to America via a trickle-down process explained by Dolginow in short: “Kazakhstan, Silk Road, Roman Empire, Europe, England, America.”

Settlers cultivated seedling orchards that bore hundreds of novel varietals adapted to endure their new native surroundings. Apples are heterozygous, meaning their inherent makeup includes randomly combined genetic variations different from the apples’ parent breeds. No two offspring are exactly alike, making apples similar to another highly heterozygous species: humans. Any identical apple trees are therefore grown via grafting, not planted from seed. This is significant: it indicates that by the early nineteenth century, most seedling apples in orchards and plant nurseries were distinct to America itself — trees held a growing gaggle of apple offspring as genetically variable as the farmers that planted them.

The US government, more nascent than the country’s apple trees, soon recognized the fruit’s economic viability, nutrient density, hardiness through winter-long storage, and high-yielding agricultural potential. During the Civil War, incentives like Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 Homestead Act shifted land development to American citizens, trading property ownership for agricultural cultivation and allowing colonists to claim 160 acres of government-surveyed land. Grassroots figures like John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, introduced apple trees from the East Coast to Illinois, leaving a combined estate of over 60,000 trees and 1,200 acres of budding nurseries when he died in 1845.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the number of varietals in the US was immense, and mushrooming. A 1905 United States Department of Agriculture bulletin titled Nomenclature of the Apple: A Catalog of the Known Varieties Referred to in American Publications from 1804 to 1904 listed 17,000 different apple varieties. Though some of these are actually differently spelled versions of the same varietal, historians estimate the number of distinct apple varieties grown by Americans in the nineteenth century was around 14,000. In 2019, that number is 2,500.

Fortunately, Shacksbury’s Lost Apple Project isn’t alone in its efforts to search for and restore native breeds. John Bunker, a lost apple seeker and self-proclaimed “unusual apple grower” in Maine, is a nationally known apple savant and historian. He started scavenging Maine’s forgotten fruit in 1984 under his company FedCo Trees, which sought and propagated wild apple varieties found on roadsides, falling from branches into neighbors’ backyards.

Much of Maine’s small-scale farming tradition was already dead when Bunker was a 21-year-old foraging for snacks, not profession, 47 years ago. But the remnants of the past were everywhere: moldering barns, underused fields, and deserted apple orchards.

“I see these apples as a gift from the past,” says Bunker, “From anonymous farmers and grafters to the towns they lived in.” Wild apples, otherwise lost in the ether of commercial agriculture, form a timeline between the past and the generations to follow. “It’s a gift from gone farmers that’s incredibly generous and selfless,” he continues. “Are we just going to let this resource end? Isn’t that the definition of arrogance — ignoring the things passed to us through time?”

ACCORDING TO THE US APPLE ASSOCIATION, the country currently fosters a $4 billion apple industry with $15 billion in related economic activity — that includes all the pickers, processors, truckers, grocers, and restaurants transporting, transforming, and selling apple products. The 7,500 American apple producers give preference to just a small number of apples — 15 varieties, including long-reigning leaders like McIntosh, Red Delicious, and Granny Smith. These 15 account for 90 percent of the apple market. There are a few new market darlings — the trademarked apples such as Jazz® and Pink Lady® — but even these are bred on a commercial scale and mass-produced.

Heritage apples aren't a profitable undertaking for orchardists, but the Lost Apple Project is doing what it can to boost demand. Photo by Michael Tallman.
Heritage apples aren’t a profitable undertaking for orchardists, but the Lost Apple Project is doing what it can to boost demand. Photo by Michael Tallman.

The arc of the American apple mirrors that of many crops scaled for modern conveniences like consistency and quantity. Diversified farms and orchards gave way to industrial models. Family farms were consolidated into agricultural behemoths. And as the smaller-scale, diversified farm model became scarce, so did the diverse varietals once propagated by these family farmers. Hundreds of types of corn and tomatoes, of lettuce and melons, were forgotten, suddenly obsolete. In total, it’s estimated that 90 percent of historic fruit and vegetable diversity in the US has been lost.

“As America moved to mass-scale farming, 99 percent of apple types were tossed in the dustbin of history,” says Bunker. Perhaps these apples didn’t grow quickly enough in the nursery, or the tree didn’t bear fruit annually. Apples were too small, or too big, or unappealingly dimpled. Or they made an excellent pie, but were too tannic for snacking. By necessity, Bunker explains, commercial orchards demanded a certain kind of apple: annually bearing dessert apples meant to be eaten fresh.

People like Dolginow and Bunker are working to weave some of this lost diversity back into the agricultural system by building demand for unique apples. For Bunker, that means offering a csa box filled exclusively with rare varieties — both heritage breeds and uncommon new species. For Dolginow, it means making cider. But, for him, there’s one more impetus: McIntoshes and most other apples found in supermarkets are not that great for cider.

The arc of the American apple mirrors that of many crops scaled for modern conveniences.

“The alcoholic base of fermented eating apples doesn’t taste like much,” he says. “That’s why you’ll see so many commercial cider brands pumped with pear and ginger flavors, or sweetened with added sugar.” Popular eating apples lack the punch of tannin, acidity, and aromatics of wild varieties or heirloom breeds customary to European cider traditions.

“The point of the Lost Apple Project is to find delicious cider apples,” Dolginow continues. “We’re looking for apples that don’t necessarily want be eaten fresh; they want to ferment. It’s exciting — what if these varieties were grafted and grown to be more widely available?”

Dolginow’s partner, Hodges, threads this dream with a dose of realism. Hodges has owned Sunrise Orchards, planted by his parents in the 1970s, for two decades, managing 165 acres of trellised land that grows everything from mighty McIntoshes (80 percent of Sunrise’s apple sales) to Shacksbury’s lost apple finds. Challenges arise on a near-daily basis. Volatile weather, some of it as a result of climate change. Cutthroat supermarket consolidation stoking competition for the lowest product prices. An impossible-to-match demand for new commercial crossbreeds.

To keep pace with the modern market, many large-scale growers look for cost-cutting measures, like heavy chemical intervention coupled with cheap (read: unfairly paid and poorly treated) labor. Hodges tries to reach a better balance when it comes to ethics and economic viability. Sunrise Orchards embraces low spray pest control methods, pays laborers above the minimum wage, and, of course, grows the lost apples. They were among the first EcoApple® orchards certified by the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Red Tomato. There’s some pay-off with eco-certification, but the economic incentive for the venture isn’t necessarily high.

“Unless you have incredible capital backing,” says Hodges, “it would cost between $20,000 and $25,000 per acre to change apple varieties.” So far, says Hodges, the Lost Apple Project offers little economic value, producing little over three bushels of apples from 11 lost varietals over four years on his farm.

Bunker backs Hodges’ wariness. “There’s no mass money in breeding old varieties that aren’t dessert apples,” he says. “The public money doesn’t think it cares about this stuff. But they haven’t been given a chance to care, either.”

THE PUBLIC MAY NOT HAVE HAD A CHANCE to care about heritage apples yet, but if rare apple enthusiasts have their way, they will. Vermont and Maine are not alone in the slow-brewing “unusual apple” renaissance. Amit Dhingra, professor of horticulture at Washington State University, helms Lost and Heritage Apples of the Palouse, a public outreach program in Eastern Washington. Orchardist Tom Burford unearths vintage breeds in Virginia; he won the 2014 American Horticultural Society book award for Apples of North America. Lee Calhoun, author of Old Southern Apples, hunts and grafts native species with the Southern Heritage Apple Orchard in North Carolina. David Benscoter, a retired investigator for the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the United States Treasury, digs up lost apple varieties for grafting across the Pacific Northwest. A 2018 gathering at the USDA’s agricultural research services in Geneva, New York assembled apple collectors and academics from across the country to discuss future collaborations ensuring rare breeds don’t vanish entirely.

Bunker sees teamwork between all agents — apple foragers, artisans, academics, and mass-producing heavyweights — as the key to diversifying the apple world and challenging the go-to industrial model. That means dialogue between lost apple seekers and commercial apple orchards, and cooperation that can tap into the slowly growing demand for heirloom crops, eco-minded food production, and greater knowledge of the farmers who determine how our fruits and vegetables are grown. Says Bunker, “What we in the ‘unusual apple world’ need to do is collaborate.”

The Lost Apple Project is, in fact, a collaboration at its roots. And not just between cider makers and orchardists. It’s also a collaboration between the past and the present.

“When you’re in one of these old orchards, you can see where it was part of a grid farm centuries ago,” says Dolginow. He ponders those farms, those farmers: “Think of a day like this”— single-digits, slate sky over yesterday’s snowfall — “and you wonder, How did they last in the 1800s? Apples were an important component to that survival.” To be pruning lost apple trees and foraging scion in the curve of Vermont’s mountain valley is to be folded into a natural landscape with little to indicate the centuries that have passed. No buildings or skyscrapers. No billboards hawking burger pit-stops. It’s like staring into open ocean: This could be any point in time at all.

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