2013-09-05 / From The Garden

A Century of Bountiful Fruit

By Cynthia Gibson

The Rhode Island Fruit Growers Association (RIFGA), founded in 1913, is celebrating 100 years of providing our state with fresh apples, peaches, plums, and berries. Orchard owners joined together to form the association to serve as a resource and a consistent sounding board for farmers’ issues. After a century of supporting the efforts of its stalwart growers, the association is opening orchards throughout the state for fairs, tastings, pickings, and festivals. September is also the official start of apple picking season in many orchards.

Orchards are an enduring symbol of agrarian society. The Reverend William Blackstone, who sailed to America from England in 1623, planted the first orchard in New England. Sailing ships carried apples as a staple food at that time, and Rev. Blackstone saved the apple core from every apple he ate throughout the long voyage that landed in Massachusetts. His first orchard was planted on what is now Beacon Hill in Boston, where he developed the Yellow Sweeting apple. In the mid-1600s, Blackstone made his way to Cumberland and started a large farm. The farm included Rhode Island’s first apple orchard, planted from his apple core seeds and Yellow Sweeting transplants. After a few years, the Yellow Sweeting became known as the Rhode Island Greening. The apples were shared and other seeds and apple cores came to our shores during this period of exploration and the founding of the country. Apples are hardy and store well, and grew to be a staple of American cuisine supported by a small industry of growers.

Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. Especially in light of this history, Rhode Island fruit growers have something to celebrate. The apple growing cycle involves a great deal of work, including planting, pruning, spraying, thinning, and harvesting. It takes many hands to do these jobs. In Rhode Island, only the months of December and January are taken off to re-order supplies, check nettings, plan for orchard extensions, or plan for different varieties. A remarkable amount of work is required to produce a working, viable, and profitable orchard.

Middletown’s Sweet Berry Farm is open for apple picking through October. Owner Michelle Eckhart reports that McIntosh, Sansa, and Zestar varieties are just waiting to be picked, and Macoun, Gala, Empire and Honey Crisp apples will be ready soon. The Rocky Brook Orchard, owned and operated by Greg and Katy Ostheimer, is the oldest “pick your own” farm on Aquidneck Island. The Ostheimers purchased an existing orchard with trees at least 30 to 40 years old and opened to the public in 2001. Visitors can choose from over 60 varieties of apples, with a color-coded system showing which fruit is ready to pick. Open only on weekends, Rocky Brook is comprised of eight acres of edible fun.

Join in on the fun and celebrate apples and orchards. The next time you take a bite from what you might think of as an ordinary apple, remember that a lot of work produced that treasure in your hand. We can thank the RIFGA for keeping orchards alive. Help celebrate its 100th birthday!

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