Reviving forgotten UMD orchard may add to local food sourcesIf an apple a day can keep the doctor away, then maybe a whole orchard can help a community save the Earth.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
If an apple a day can keep the doctor away, then maybe a whole orchard can help a community save the Earth.
That’s the premise of an effort to revive a century-old orchard just outside Duluth that holds unique varieties of apples bred for the Northland’s short and unforgiving growing seasons.
“Some of these varieties may not be found anywhere else,” said Cindy Hale, UMD researcher and part of the UMD Sustainable Agriculture Project. “Some are listed as endangered.”
The orchard, at the UMD field station off Jean Duluth Road, was planted around 1911 by University of Minnesota horticulturists to develop new, northern-hardy apples for local farmers and residents — not just apples to eat off the tree but to store in cellars for long winters and to make into pies, ciders and sauces.
The last known map of the orchard, with records that identified trees by variety, was drawn in 1948. By the 1970s the orchard was abandoned. But a new generation of apple fanciers, researchers and promoters of local food say they stumbled onto a treasure trove when they rediscovered the old orchard in 2009 hidden among pine trees that had sprouted over the past 40 years.
Since then they’ve found rare northern apple varieties with names like yellow transparent, hibernal, Goodland and Cortland — some unique, some old favorites — along with a few varieties still unidentified.
The old orchard was part of a network of University of
Minnesota experimental stations aimed at developing crops that would thrive across the state’s vastly different landscapes and climates. The university encouraged small, diverse farms with a variety of livestock, fruits and vegetables for farmers to feed their families and sell locally.
“It’s the same thing we’re trying to encourage now. There’s a movement back to small growers supplying local, sustainable, organic food,” Hale said. “What they were learning 100 years ago can help us get there again.”
Growing food locally reduces transportation, which reduces fossil fuel use and air pollution, including greenhouse gases. Local produce generally requires few or no pesticides and little irrigation. And supporters say growing food close to home — apples from Jean Duluth Road, vegetables from Wrenshall, grass-fed beef from Meadowlands or eggs from Embarrass — provides jobs and income locally.
“There’s a good chance the apples you buy in the store now are from Fiji or Argentina or, at best, Washington state,” Hale said. “The average apple sold in the U.S. travels 1,500 miles to get to the table.”
About 35 trees have been identified across five acres on the 65-acre UMD property, but only part of the orchard has been cleared by UMD students and staff. Some of the remaining apple trees date back to at least the 1930s and maybe earlier. A logger has been hired to remove pine trees to make more room for the apple trees to thrive.
Meanwhile, Hale and other orchard fans are hoping to win a grant for 50 new heritage fruit trees through a national online contest sponsored by Edy’s Fruit Bars. The grant also would pay for site preparation and for a community planting celebration, Hale said.
“The fruit from those trees will be available to the entire community for free,” she said. “This will be Duluth’s community apple orchard.”
The orchard also will serve as a living classroom both for backyard apple growers and small, commercial orchardists trying to expand their product line to sell locally. Growers can come to see not just which varieties do well, but how to prune and graft trees to get the best apples.
The goal isn’t to develop a big new commercial apple industry to sell apples to Minneapolis or Chicago, but to supply the Twin Ports with the apples it needs.
“UMD Food Services buys and sells about 52,000 apples every year, and they are interested in moving that to a local supplier,” Hale said. “When we get the big hospitals and schools and grocery stores and restaurants buying locally, that’s when local, organic, sustainable food can really make a difference.”
The orchard is just down the road from UMD’s sustainable agriculture garden and from the new Duluth Community Farm, a new “urban edge” community farming project where vegetables will be grown starting this summer. All are examples of how local people can be in control of their food sources, and reduce their environmental footprints, even in the land of May snowstorms and September frosts.
Jamie Harvey, founder of the Duluth-based Institute for a Sustainable Future, said food production “is tied in an intimate dance with the environment and social health of communities.”Local food production renews the relationship between food, environment, community and the land, he said.
“Farmers are not only food producers but stewards of the land and the communities in which they live. Their livelihoods are dependent not only on the health of soils, clean air, pollinating insects and more, but on the communities that consume the food they grow,” Harvey said. “Our current food production model of distant food production with intensive chemical and energy inputs has divorced farmers from this relationship.”