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How ’bout them apples?


Local organic orchard presses ahead with cidery

HILLSDALE—The apples at Little Apple Farm on Orchard Lane are not small anymore and now they are destined for bigger, juicier things.

At a time when Ron Bixby and Alanne Baerson could be slowing down, they are instead embarking on a new venture with the apples at their Little Apple Farm: Making them into cider, both fresh and hard.

The 23-acre farm was so named in 1980 when they bought it, because the apples growing in the untended jungle of an orchard were numerous but puny.

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Ron Bixby and Alanne Baerson stand near the orchard at their Little Apple Farm. The couple will soon launch an organic cidery, which can be seen in the background. Photo by David Lee

The place was also their home away from the Big Apple, where they made their living.

So 35 years ago, the couple took on “The Renaissance of an Orchard,” which was also the name of a story written about them by this reporter in a May 1987 issue of now defunct newspaper The Independent.

At the time they were undeterred by warnings that orchards east of the Taconic State Parkway were not commercially viable, said Mr. Bixby., “Being young and stupid we went full force and decided to deal with the elements.”

Now 90% of the 400 trees in the 6-acre apple orchard are new semi-dwarfs planted by Mr. Bixby, a former urban planner, and Ms. Baerson, an architect turned psychoanalyst. But you won’t find any Fuji or Honey Crisps here, these varieties are classics: Baldwin, Cortland, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Golden Russet, Macintosh, Macoun, Northern Spy, Snow Apple and Winesap—the better to make apple cider with my dear.

“What started out as a hobby turned into a business,” Mr. Bixby said, and Little Apple Farm became NOFA-NY Certified Organic about 10 years ago. The farm undergoes rigorous inspections twice a year.

The website says that the certifying organization, NOFA-NY Certified Organic, LLC, has been accredited by the USDA National Organic Program since 2002. It provides organic certification for farmers and processors in the U.S. is non-profit organization “funded entirely by certification fees.”

As a NOFA-NY certified organic farmer, Mr. Bixby said, “You could lose your whole crop and you can’t use a pesticide to stop it. It puts you at a disadvantage, something the public would never know.

“Now there are a lot of shades of organic, other organizations that certify and other levels of being organic… they are halfway measures.”

Mr. Bixby and Ms. Baerson sell their fresh fruit at the Copake Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, which Mr. Bixby helped to organize, also at the Hawthorne Valley Farm Store, Guido’s, the Honest Weight Food Coop in Albany and the Great Barrington Coop in Massachusetts.

While the farm produces eight or nine tons of apples a year, Mr. Bixby figures more than half of that is waste.

Only a small quantity of the apples can be sold as fresh top-quality. Apples with blemishes or apple scab or those that have hit the ground can only be sold for applesauce.

Because certified organically-permitted treatments for apple ailments “are not 100% effective, they don’t kill but suppress” that results in a “tremendous amount of waste or seconds. Economically, it’s a challenge,” he said.

What to do with all those not-so-good-looking apples? Enter friend, mentor and fellow farmer, Don MacLean of the Thompson-Finch Farm in Ancram, a NOFA-NY-certified and a family-run fruit farm that specializes in growing certified organic strawberries, blueberries and apples.

“We got together and started making hard cider in the basement and garage. We used our own apples and gave the cider away,” said Mr. Bixby.

He knew someday he wanted to make his apples into certified organic cider to sell, but to do that he needed a facility built to strict specifications and licensed.

What spurred the couple to go forward were changes in New York State Agriculture and Markets Law “encouraging the drinks industry” and the farm cidery movement.

The change is part of the state’s overall effort to encourage or assist young farmers and fortify the state’s “wine trial.”

Though nearing retirement, Mr. Bixby said, “We’re not sure if we’re at the forefront or the backend of the movement but we’re investing in a cidery for the future” and they plan to get young people involved.

In the 1800s around here, there were cideries all over the place, because most farms had an orchard, said Mr. Bixby. Farmers took their apples to the cidery, then brought the resulting cider home in barrels for the winter. Cider eventually went out of favor when the beer industry took over and apple production went to the west coast, he said. He is aware of only two other cideries in the county today.

After making basement cider for several years, Mr. Bixby took the Cornell course in cider-making and contacted an architect to make plans for the Little Apple Cidery, which now stands next to the orchard and behind the house.

The new, roughly 628-square-foot facility, has a temperature-controlled room for fermentation, a pressing room, an apple storage room and an office. Equipment includes an apple-washer, grinder, a press and an ultraviolet pasteurizer.

The cidery has generated a lot of interest and orders are already pouring in, said Mr. Bixby. Though right now, they don’t have employees other than themselves, they do have neighbors like Ned Hoffman from up the road and friends like Mr. MacLean who are helping them get the facility built and set up in time for the cidery grand opening this Sunday.

The invitation-only event will feature lunch, fresh-cider pressing (guests should bring their own jugs to take some home), cider tasting, orchard and cidery tours and music.

“The market for organic has exploded,” said Ms. Baerson.

“We want to use all of our crop and we feel like we have found our niche with certified organic fresh pasteurized cider and hard cider,” said Mr. Bixby.

“Consumers care about what they are eating and feeding their kids. I think we’re on the right track.”

To contact Diane Valden email

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