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Liking them apples

Third-generation family farmer tends to the orchards

WEST BRATTLEBORO—Dean Miller calls his apple crop “small potatoes.”

He works the five-plus-acre Cortland Hill Orchard, on Miller Road, just off Bonnyvale Road in West Brattleboro, by himself, for the most part.

He said he does it because he loves it.

During winter pruning and summer picking periods, he spends at least 40 hours a week in the orchards, and that’s when he isn’t at his full-time job at Fulflex in Brattleboro.

He also owns a 35-acre wood stand and smaller sugarbush.

Miller and his stepmother Nancy Miller, who used to be an elementary school teacher in Brattleboro and Dummerston, are partners in the year-round operation. She also laughed heartily at Dean’s new joke about his apples being small potatoes.

“I grow and she sells,” he says.

They live in separate houses on family property. Nancy is in what was a guesthouse on the original Miller Farm. Dean, with his wife, lives in a 2,700-square-foot log cabin that he built not long ago. Between the two of them, they own about 70 acres of the original 200-acre farm.

Nancy Miller does the marketing and runs the farmstand, stocked with the latest crops of apples, nectarines, peaches and plums, as well all the ancillary products, such as jams and jellies and baked goods and other farmstand fare, across the road from her house.

Cortland Hill is a very small operation, but still is large enough to be included in the numbers compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, which lists orchards that grow at least 100 trees.

NASS, which has offices in Brattleboro, does an annual census on apple production, but the agency’s most recent figures are from 2007.

According to Vermont Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Diane Bothfold, the state is home to 40 commercial apple orchards, planted on 4,000 acres. The orchards range in size from 25 to 60 acres, and Windham and Addison counties lead in apple production.

The state’s apple crop produces about 900,000 bushels a year in good years, and a bushel weighs between 16 and 19 pounds, depending on the variety.

This year, the estimate is somewhat smaller — not because of Tropical Storm Irene, but because of a year’s worth of wild Vermont weather.

A wet spring, particularly in northern Vermont, caused pollination problems which in turn, delayed setting. Hail also played a part in scarring the apples, making them commercially problematic.

Fortunately for Windham County’s growers, Bothfold said, they escaped the worst of the weather damage, while those in Addison County were badly affected.

According to 2007 figures, says Dana Rupert, a program technician at NASS in Brattleboro, Windham County is the second-largest producing region with 561 acres in apple orchards.

Addison County is the top apple-producing region in Vermont, with 1,109 acres of apple orchards.

The Millers’ stands are planted in about 450 semi-dwarf trees, approximately 230 apples trees and about 200 peach, nectarine and plum trees.

The apple varieties they grow and sell include Paula Red, Cortland, Empire, McIntosh, Macoun, Granny Smith, Honey Crisp, Northern Spy, Greening, Golden Delicious, and Jonagold.

Cortland Hill Orchard also grows about seven varieties of peaches and nectarines, as well as purple plums.

Most of their apples are sold to pick-your-own customers, and to a few retail outlets, such as the Lilac Ridge farmstand in Brattleboro and Walker Farm in East Dummerston. The peaches are all sold from shops and farmstands.

The 51-year-old Dean Miller works the orchard alone most of the time, harvesting what he can reach from the ground and placing the apples in his picking bucket, suspended from his neck and resting on his chest. The peaches are placed in baskets.

He also climbs a ladder, made for apple picking, for the high-growing fruit.

The orchard lanes are periodically mowed, and the fruit pruned, fertilized, and harvested in a timely manner. However, because that work is done by one man, a natural landscape prevails.

He says that apple growing is really a year-round job.

“I’ve spent so much time this year because we had so much rain and I have to keep the fields mowed,” to rid them of small animals, he said.

Agricultural dynasty

The Miller clan traces its common roots to Joseph Arms Miller, of Dummerston, who was killed in September 1910 when he was accidentally thrown from a train at the Dummerston station. He was 63.

The Vermont Phoenix, a weekly paper in Brattleboro, in a lengthy obituary, called Miller “one of Dummerston’s most prominent citizens and the largest grower of peaches in Vermont.”

The article went on to say that the town and Windham County lost not only a prominent citizen and farmer, “but a man of sterling character and correct moral principles...Of courteous and genial bearing and robust health, he was a fine type of sturdy New England stock.”

His descendants, in separate operations, run Cortland Hill and the Dwight Miller and Son Orchards in East Dummerston. Dean Miller is the third generation of his family to run Cortland Hill.

The Millers once owned a 50-acre orchard down the road from the family’s current holdings. That property was sold to local grower Paul Dutton in 1990.

Some of the current Miller orchards were planted in the mid-1980s by Francis Miller, Dean’s father and Nancy’s husband, as retirement orchards, according to Dean. Many of the standing peach and nectarine trees were planted by Dean.

The Miller farm stand opened in 1999. Nancy Miller said she started first by going to farmers’ markets, where she sold, among other things, baked goods such as raspberry and blueberry tarts and strawberry cobbler.

She’s watched as new apple varieties have grown in popularity. She remembers in earlier days when people used to say, “Green apples will never sell,” and then watched as Granny Smiths became so popular.

“I enjoy selling, and I like the marketing end,” she said.

She also generally likes apples.

“Did you know,” she asked, “when you cut an apple in half and you see that sort of star with a separate seed in each compartment? Each one of those seeds will produce a different [variety of] apple.”

She also said the farms uses “integrated pest management,” devised by the University of Vermont, to cut down on pesticide usage.

Before Francis died in 2000 and while he was well enough to work, Dean helped his father take care of the orchards. He would return from wherever he was to work for his father, but says he didn’t think it would be his career.

But now he loves it.

“I love being outside,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #121 (Wednesday, October 5, 2011).

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