Oct. 29 2008 12:00 AM

Hour of the apple Local orchard, festival bite into fruitful tra

Jonathan apples, a late harvest variety and one of the most common in Michigan, await their fall fate at Apple Schram. (Joe Torok/City Pulse)

In Michigan, apples do a lot more than repel doctors or roll around in lunch pails.

They’re big business. The state produces over 19 million pounds per year, on average, and perennially ranks among the largest producers in the United States, behind only Washington and New York. Each year, apples haul in about $125 million in cash, second only to blueberries among Michigan fruits.

One bite from the apple of apple knowledge makes you hungry for another. For example, the apple is the heart of an American icon — apple pie — but not native to this continent. (The apple originated in Central Asia.) Apples are often called the king of fruits, and are closely related to roses, the king of flowers.

In Michigan, most apples grow on the west side of the Lower Peninsula, but orchards like Apple Schram, near Mulliken, a small town west of Lansing, are common throughout the mitten. Jane Bush has operated Apple Schram for 21 years. Lenore and Hugh Schram, her aunt and uncle, founded the orchard in the early 1970s.

Bush’s 15 acres of apple trees, which number around 1,500, are certified organic. Late October marks the end of the growing season, although some varieties ripen as early as the end of July. Growing apples organically isn’t as easy as pie. The orchards at Apple Schram were originally designed for conventional spray farming, in benighted times when nobody cared which variety was planted next to any other. Bush said the haphazard arrangement makes it hard for organic farmers to fight disease.

“Some resistant (species) are planted next to varieties that aren’t resistant to scab and other fungus,” she said, naming the most common problems.

To hedge against apple fickleness, Apple Schram has diversified its output. In addition to vegetables grown in a hoop house, Bush has recently started raising pasture hogs for those who like their ham and bacon nitrate free. But the farm’s titular fruit is still the star, and it comes in many forms. Many are simply sold to eat out of hand. Bush cracked that they’re “already in their package on the tree,” but first the fruit has to come down, and the harvest is labor intensive. Workers pick them by hand, filling baskets that hang from their shoulders.

When these “frontpacks” are full, the load is dropped through a false
bottom into a bigger bin. Many apples are worked into products such as
cider, applesauce and apple butter, all of which are sold year-round at
the Lansing City Market and seasonally at the Allen Street Farmer’s Market.

such ancillary products greatly magnify the economic impact of apples.
Toss every apple-related product and industry into the state economic
pie and you get over $700 million generated by apples, according to the
Michigan Apple Committee, a quasi-governmental agency.

apples into sparkling liquid, runny goo or creamy ooze is almost as
labor intensive as picking them. Last weekend, Lansing’s Fenner
Arboretum celebrated a three-decades old tradition with its annual
Apple Butter Festival.

The Friends of Fenner assembled about 40 volunteers for the event, many of whom spent hours peeling and slicing apples.

festival provided a demonstration of how apple butter was produced over
100 years ago. In an enormous copper kettle seated above a wood fire,
Gair Tourtellot, a retired researcher from Boston University
volunteering at the festival, held a seven-foot pole with a paddle on
the end and moved it methodically through gallons of boiling apples.

don’t want to stand too close to the fire,” Tourtellot warned. As the
famous song goes, “smoke gets in your eyes,” and don’t forget that less
famous ditty, “bits of boiling apple occasionally jump out of the

At Fenner, three gallons of apple cider were heated
in the pot first, and apple slices were gradually added until the
kettle was just over half full. For approximately six hours, depending
on the heat of the fire, volunteers took turns mixing the apples.
Gradually, the moisture evaporated, transforming the mixture first into
a lumpy applesauce, then into the familiar darker brown of apple

Many people enjoy apple butter unsweetened, but sugar
can be added, along with spices such as cinnamon or cloves. Clara
Bratton, the recently retired naturalist for Fenner, made the process
sound like wine-making, with different results each year. “Some years
the apples are real sweet and juicy and we hardly use any sugar at
all,” she said. In other years, the sugar bags empty fast. The Fenner
festival also gave visitors a chance to taste different varieties of
apples, some not so well known.

There are over 7,500 apple
cultivars, or selectively bred varieties, worldwide, even if you’ll
typically find only five or six at the supermarket.

At Fenner, Red and Golden Delicious were nowhere to be seen, but Arkansas
Black, Wealthy, Gravenstein, Ben Davis and Wolf River varieties were
abundant. A personal favorite was Yellow Bellflower, a firm, juicy
apple more tart than sweet.

Perhaps the most important thing
about apples is that they keep so well. In cool conditions, many
varieties store for many months and at home they can last two weeks or
more in the refrigerator. Apple butter has lasting power, too, thanks
to the preserving power of sugar.

“You’re concentrating the
sugars in the apple when you boil it down,” Bratton said of the
delicious spread. “I’m eating last year’s right now because it got
shoved to the back of the fridge.” Try that with corn on the cob.