Bumper crop

For the first time in recent memory, one farm celebrates a bountiful yield of apples

WEST BRATTLEBORO — Despite the perception that they only bustle with activity in the fall, apple orchards require constant year-round activity.

Nancy Miller and her son-in-law, Dean Miller, own, operate, and maintain the five-acre Cortland Hill Orchard off of Bonnyvale Rd. entirely on their own, pruning, planting, and harvesting apples and other fruits.

For nearly all the orchards in the state, this year is a heavy crop - more bountiful than any year in recent memory, according to Nancy Miller.

This year, fruit on some of the trees was so overabundant that the Millers “just had to pull some off when it was small and throw it away, otherwise all the fruit would have stayed very small and could have broken the limbs,” she said.

Miller's husband Francis, who died in 2000, initially operated what is now the Dutton Farm orchard a few miles down the road, selling commercially in mass quantities.

The couple planted the first of the two current orchards on the hill behind their home in 1984 before selling the much larger, original farm.

Approximately half of the trees they planted were Cortlands. The orchard is named for this all-purpose variety, good for both eating and baking. Cortlands produce less acid than normal apples, and as a result, they don't discolor when exposed to air.

Apples, peaches, and plums

The orchard later expanded to a second field down the road, and the annual crop has increased in both volume and variety.

Today, the two Millers farm not just Cortlands, but also Macintosh, Paula Reds, Honey Crisps, Empires, Northern Spy, Rhode Island Greenings, Macouns, and 20 Ounces.

In addition to apples, they also farm peaches and plums.

Although the bulk of the farm's business is pick-your-own, Miller said they also sell seasonally to the Brattleboro Food Co-op and a few nearby roadside stands.

And for the fourth year in a row, the orchard is participating in the Vermont Foodbank's Pick For Your Neighbor program, where customers are given the opportunity to pick additional bags of apples to donate to the organization.

Thanks to the high yield this year, Miller said, the orchard is matching, peck-for-peck, what its customers pick for the initiative.

In addition, Miller recently hung a small, wooden apple on one of the apple trees. Whoever finds it while picking and brings it to the stand will receive a free bushel of apples and gallon of Dutton Farm's apple cider, which is stocked at the farm stand alongside locally-made jams and conserves.

“It's still early in the season and the nice cool weather has actually brought a lot of people out,” Miller said. “The picking is just fantastic.”

Perpetual planting

In the off-season, Dean Miller spends much of his time maintaining the orchards and preparing for the following apple season.

In 2008, he planted an additional 200 white- and yellow-peach trees, which are notoriously fragile and require near constant attention in their early life. With an average lifespan of only 12 years, that planting cycle never entirely ends.

By August, much of the peach crop is ready for harvest, beginning the three-month period of fructification for the various trees on the farm.

It's an arduous task, but the orchard has reached a balance between manageability and financial feasibility, Nancy Miller said.

“We hope to stay the size we are and just keep up with what we have,” Miller said. “We're really proud and happy to be one of the last orchards in Brattleboro that still exists.”

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