Picked Perfect: From Apple to Cider with Diane Kearns

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Show Notes

Diane Kearns, Orchardist from Fruit Hill Orchard and Winchester Ciderworks

Summary

On this episode of the Farm Credit AgVocates Podcast, we interviewed Diane Kearns, Orchardist from Fruit Hill Orchard and Winchester Ciderworks in Winchester, Virginia. In this episode, you’ll learn about favorite apple varieties, what goes into making an award winning hard cider and how female orchardists are playing an important role in Shenandoah Valley orchard production.

Links

Transcript

Johanna Rohrer:

Welcome to the Farm Credit AgVocates podcast. I'm your host Johanna Rohrer, Marketing Specialist at MidAtlantic Farm Credit. March is Women's History Month and we wanted to continue sharing great stories of awesome farm owner operators. Diane Kearns is a fifth generation orchardist from the Shenandoah Valley. After completing her schooling, she returned home to the family farm, Fruit Hill Orchard to stay close to the land and to learn from her father. Today she manages over 2,500 acres and produces over 700,000 bushels of apples each year. Some of their apples are then processed into hard cider at Winchester Ciderworks. In 2012, she started Winchester Ciderworks, which is located in Winchester, Virginia, and is known for creating award-winning hard ciders.

Diane, let's get started chatting about all things apples. Hi, Diane.

Diane Kearns:

Jo, how are you?

Johanna Rohrer:

I'm good. I thought it might be interesting to talk first about what it means to be an orchardist.

What it Means to be an Orchardist

Diane Kearns:

Well, an orchardist to me is somebody, number one has got to like to work outside. You've got to enjoy the outside. You need to be a plant person and I'm definitely a plant person. In this day and age, you need to be a problem solver because there's plenty of problems to solve.

Johanna Rohrer:

You spend a lot of your time tending to the fruit trees in your orchards. Could you tell us a little bit more about your farm operation and your business?

Diane Kearns:

Well, our organization is called Fruit Hill Orchard and it has been around like you said in the introduction for about five generations. We are a commercial processing grower, so we grow apples that have been destined for a processor for apple sauce, apple juice, and apple slices, etc. We have had in the past a large amount of acres. We've had up to 3,000 acres of apples and our largest harvest ever was about 1.3 million bushels, which was a lot. Currently that's changing a little bit because it's extremely difficult to make a profit these days in processing apples. That's sort of where the cider concept came in. We were looking for ways to morph our orcharding operation into something that's a little bit more profitable.

Johanna Rohrer:

You've been able to use innovation and that value added piece to enhance your business. Do you see more female owned operators in the fruit business today?

Diane Kearns:

Yes, relative to when I came back because I am 62, I'm not a spring chicken, but yes more than when I first showed up. Now there are actually some of the younger generation coming up. Plus you see more partnerships where the husband and the wife are participating in what's going on, which is really good.

Johanna Rohrer:

Yes, it's really neat to see other people getting involved in the fruit industry and seeing that next generation transition over some of the responsibility. What does your day-to-day work look like? Do you have a favorite season that you work in the orchard?

Day-to-Day in an Orchard

Diane Kearns:

Well, I would say first of all, my day-to-day, you just never know what's going to happen. It changes from season to season what you end up doing. I wish I could say I were outside all the time, but I'm not. I have to take care of all of the business end of things, so there's a fair amount of time spent in the office doing stuff.  I am not, unfortunately our main horticulturalist. I wish I had that job, I wish I could be outside all the time looking and scouting orchards. I actually have another guy that helps me do that. What my day to day world is, come in and fire up the computer, answer the messages on the phone and just see what's going on. Of course in the spring time, like now, there's a lot of planning going on for what our plans are going to be for the growing season. Of course, you never know what that's going to be.

During the growing season, it's a lot of monitoring what's going on and how you have to adjust those plans. Then, you get into the fall season- which I love the fall. As far as the weather, it’s just tremendous and it's great to be out there, but boy, it’s usually a lot of work. Particularly when in the past years, we've had these massive crops and you have to get it all off as quickly as you can, because all of our apples are handpicked. There's lots of labor, lots of payroll, lots of details to take care of. Then you get into the winter time, which we're just coming out of now. It’s a slow season because everything's asleep and you're pruning. Every now and then you get a day off because of the weather or whatever. You just never know, pick a season and I can tell you a little bit more specifically.

Johanna Rohrer:

I think that's what's so neat about orchard production. I myself grew up in an orchard operation and I think one thing that I've always been able to admire is that the work changes throughout the season. In the winter you might be pruning and doing maintenance in the orchard. Then in the spring, the blossoms start to show and I always feel like it's a time to remember new life. I think I get excited around that time because it feels like the start. Then over the summer you get to watch the apples grow.  Then in the fall, you have that opportunity to reap and benefit from the harvest of what you've been working so hard to produce all year long.  I think when you're in orchard production, it's neat to look at it from different seasons because your work changes throughout the year.

Let's talk a little bit about the idea of planting a new tree. We talk a lot in orchard production that it's called tree stock. You decide you're going to plant a new apple tree, Diane what does the growing and the timeline look like? From the time you plant a tree to the time you actually pick a perfect apple and get that peak production.

Deciding to Plant a New Tree

Diane Kearns:

Well first of all, when you decide you want to plant an apple tree, you probably should start planning about three years ahead because all the commercial apple trees are grafted, essentially cloned. What you need to do, I mean you can certainly grow them yourself, but you have to start with a rootstock. You choose a rootstock, which needs to grow for a little bit before it gets the scion or the top wood grafted onto it.

If I were going to buy a tree from a commercial nursery, I would need to tell them three years ahead that I want this particular rootstock, so they can get that rootstock growing. Then, I want this type of wood on top of it. They'll then put that wood on top of it and then they will grow it for a year before they give me a tree. It’s a little wick, maybe slightly bigger than pencil sized and it might be three, four feet tall. That’s when we would set them out into our orchard to start growing them.

I am very familiar with the semi-dwarf trees. We do not grow any of the very high-density type of rootstocks that need to be trellised and irrigated. All of our trees are freestanding, although they only get to be about maybe 18 to 22 feet tall. You plant a tree like that, a semi-dwarf tree and you want the tree to have its skeletal system before you allow it to bear. You don't allow it to have apples, you drop the crop for at least two to three years after you put it in the ground to allow the tree a chance to grow the skeletal structure in the wood needed to hold a full crop. After that, you can begin cropping the tree and generally apples have a tendency to be biannual.

If you don't do anything, they will have a heavy crop one year and not much of a crop the next year and then a heavy crop, then not much of one. That's not particularly desirable from the commercial point of view. You'd like to know and have an even crop, so then you began trying to do things like chemically thinning the crop. You get it even, and then a lot of the semi-dwarf trees will sort of hit their peak production at about 15 years, so they are on a bell curve. They sort of ramp up and their curve goes up and at 15 years they peak and then they will start down the other side, so production will begin to drop off.

The tree itself can live for quite a while. It could live for 25 or 30 years, but the production will just be less and less. In the commercial processing world, you are looking at moving on in about 20 to 25 years after you plant a tree. That's how you get to the perfect gap. You wait about six years after your concept and then you'll have a tree that's producing, assuming that you have managed all the bugs and the diseases during the growing season.

Johanna Rohrer:

I think sometimes as consumers we kind of take it for granted. We go into the grocery store or into a farmer's market and we pick up an apple, but never think about how long it truly can take from start to finish. It's a very long timeline and I think it takes some patience to be in this business. To put those roots in the ground and then wait a number of years until you actually have that production piece off of it. It's a lot of nurturing.

Diane Kearns:

Definitely, definitely. That's one of the reasons when the economics are very different than other things because you have a lot of capital intensive in the very beginning and you have to wait years for that to pay off. That’s one of the things that's interesting about orcharding- that it is a very long-term big picture thing, but at the same time you get the seasonal cycles.

Each year it starts over again and you get to try to make things better. Then even within the year, as you pointed out, you have different seasons, so things are always changing, but there's a big picture to it.

Johanna Rohrer:

Apple producers say this all the time, you can't make good cider with bad apples. I'm curious, what you do to ensure your apple crop is high quality for your cider master?

What types of things do you focus on as an apple grower?

Things to Focus on as an Apple Grower

Diane Kearns:

Well, I would say one of the first things is in a commercial cidery, you’re trying to make a consistent product so we have a certain blend. Of all the apples I grow, I sort of know what mix of fruit we want to send to the cidery on the base that of a lot of our ciders is an apple called Gold Rush. It gets a lot of sugar and also has a good acidity to it, which is necessary for good cider. What I would say for that one is making sure the Gold Rush basically get enough sugar and are of the size that we want.

One of the things that's really sort of interesting as far as making a good apple for hard cider, is that the developing research hasn't even completely been done on things like the microbiome of the apple, and the fungus. Sulfur is one of the classic things that you put out in the orchard to control fungus, particularly in the late season. Well, too much sulfur can actually affect the fermentation.

I'm thinking about things like that, even though I can't tell you all the great details about that because nobody can yet, we're still researching it. I am thinking about that, looking at the fruit that goes to the cidery and taking notes of what happens during fermentation and trying to see if I could figure out how to make that better. One of the big things I think any cidery would tell you is sugar, because the sugar content is what dictates alcohol content. You can always dilute it if it's got too much sugar, therefore too much alcohol, but if you don't have enough sugar, you are not going to get it. You have to let the fruit ripen appropriately.

Johanna Rohrer:

That's really interesting because one thing that I thought about just in researching before this conversation was what apple varieties do you particularly grow to make hard cider? One of the questions I kept coming back to was, I wonder if they use sweet or tart apples in their apple blend for cider production. I was used to pressing fresh cider as an orchardist with my family's operation, so it was more of a blend of a little bit of sweet and tart in there. From what I hear you saying, the sweetness side to make the fermented hard cider is really important.

Diane Kearns:

It's very important and actually what we try to achieve with our ciders is a consistent balance of acids and tannins which again, naturally occur in apples and we don't need a lot of tannin. It’s the balance of the acid, tannins and of course the taste.

Apples are all over the map and the taste of the fruit is really important, then the sugar is really important. One of the things I think that is absolutely key, and again this is not me- it's my cider master Stephen, to be able to taste fruits and then extrapolate what it's going to be like once you've fermented it and blended it. You have to blend the apples because nothing has the exact mix that you're looking for. A lot of people do single varieties, but a blend allows you to use different kinds of fruit because the fruit is different every year.

Every season, the growing season is different so the fruit is slightly different. If I make a cider out of a single variety, like nothing but a Pippin or nothing but a Harrison, that cider will be slightly different year after year because that's the way the apples are. By using a blend of apples, we're trying to hit a more consistent product across the board. There's a lot that goes into the fruit selection for ciders.

Johanna Rohrer:

You know, I think it's a good reminder that there's a lot of science behind what we do every day. There's a ton of science and innovation behind all of the agricultural goods so many of us enjoy including hard cider.

What made you want to get in to the hard cider business?

How Diane got Started in the Hard Cider Business

Diane Kearns:

That's an interesting question because actually we got into it before I really completely understood what I was getting into. It was a bit of a fluke. I won't bother telling you the whole story that Stephen and I just randomly met. My Fruit Hill Orchard randomly ended up with some pressing equipment, like juice pressing equipment. We just started this business and I really didn't understand all of the ABC alcohol laws, which they're significant. I didn't really realize everything it would take to get started nor did I realize how much I was going to get into it once I got into it.

We started with a very small group, very organically because we had other jobs to do so whenever you could put your time to it, you could. The more I got into it, the more I really enjoy the cider apple thing. What I realized now, it sort of goes hand in hand with my concept of organic growing because I can do different things horticulturally with cider apples and I need to understand things more.

The learning part and the working with plants is really fascinating, which I really love. One of the things I'll point out, is having that sugar is really important. When the fruit is fully ripened, they'll also have different flavors. I want a fully ripe apple, but what happens to a fully ripe apple; it falls off the tree. In the commercial processing world, we can't pick any fruit off of the ground because of the chance of contamination.

In the cider world, it's quite interesting. The creation of the alcohol, when the sugars turn into alcohol by the yeast, that's a kill process. Anything else gets killed because it can't live in the alcohol, which means that I can actually pick that fruit up off the ground. There's a bunch of different things like that on the horticultural side that just allow different things in the cider world that perhaps wouldn't be allowed in the commercial world. There are a lot of things you have to pay attention too.

Johanna Rohrer:

What types of signature ciders are available at Winchester Ciderworks?

Winchester Ciderworks

Diane Kearns:

Well, I would start out with the very first one that we created was an entirely apple cider and a blend of five different varieties and we called it Malice, which is a takeoff on the genus name of an apple, malus. That would be our signature, number one brand. Stephen really enjoys experimenting, so what we create is basically English style ciders from where he grew up with sort of a new twist. We do different flavors.

The signature ciders, I would say what we call our flagship which are basically the same apple blend. We have a black currant, ginger, pear and then there's a combination of the black currant and the ginger. We also have barrel-aged ciders. Instead of the cider being aged in stainless steel tanks, Stephen puts it into a barrel. If the barrel happens to have a flavor like bourbon, rum, or brandy, it picks up that flavor, which really adds a different, interesting taste to that. We also do some natural fermentations.

The two types that I was talking about prior is when you introduce a yeast, a strong strain of a yeast that will basically overpower the natural yeasts that occur. We also do fermentations where you don't add any yeast and it naturally begins fermenting from the yeast that's floating around in the air, which creates a slightly different animal.

Johanna Rohrer:

Where can we find your site or [where the cider is] sold for all of our folks listening? What is the best cider to try first?

Diane Kearns:

Well, we currently have distribution in basically the Mid-Atlantic region. We have distributors in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. We're getting ready to move into North Carolina. Right now, other than online through a company called Tabor in Washington State, that's the only place you can get it.

Within the Mid-Atlantic region, you can find it in Trader Joe's, Martin's food stores and in specialty beverage shops. The way the alcohol laws work is that we sell our cider to a distributor and the distributor then has the sole discretion who he sells that product too. Of course we try to collaborate, but I can't tell you exactly where all of our product goes. I do know in our region Martin’s food stores, Trader Joe's down toward DC has moved quite a bit. We are in Wegmans and most specialty beverage shops.

Johanna Rohrer:

If I'm going to buy my first cider from you guys, what do you recommend?

Diane Kearns:

I would suggest you either get the Malice cider or the 522 Black Current. The 522 Black Currant has been super well received. Many people tell me it tastes slightly sweeter. Both of these ciders are what they consider off dry. It's about 2% residual sugar, so there's a tiny bit of sweetness, but not much. The acidity on the 522 is a little bit different than the Malice, and that's why people think it's sweeter. Actually it's not sweeter, it's just the acidity is there.

Johanna Rohrer:

Okay, I want to come buy some hard cider, hopefully soon! I really want to try some of this. I'm looking forward to taking your recommendations and having a taste test here in the near future.

Besides hard cider, do you have any other favorite ways that you enjoy apples?

Favorite Ways to Enjoy Apples

Diane Kearns:

Well, as you might imagine, I eat a lot of apples. I would say the best thing is just fresh. Picking one off the tree or having a few in a basket or refrigerator or whatever. I do like to eat fresh apples a lot.

I guess I would say one of my favorite ways, is take an apple, it doesn't matter whether it's sweet or tart, cut it up and eat it with a little bit of caramel. That's one of my favorite desserts. Also, I've been trying to perfect my apple pie. For years, I made apple crisp and then recently I felt like I needed to get better at making pie. I don't think it's perfect yet, but it's a lot better than it used to be.

Johanna Rohrer:

Yep. I enjoy making apple pies. I have a favorite apple that I always go to for apple pies.

Diane Kearns:

Which is what, what's your favorite for apple pies?

Johanna Rohrer:

Actually, it is a Lancaster County apple called a Smokehouse- it's a greener apple. It comes into season in September and by the middle of September, I'm ready for apple season. At that point in our growing season, we've finished peaches or we're coming down to the end of peach season. We’re transitioning into those early season apple varieties. I love a Smokehouse apple because it cooks down in the pie and it gets a little softer, but it still keeps its shape and I love the flavor. For me, that's my favorite local apple for pie.

Speaking of favorites, let's do a little rapid fire. I'm going to test you to see what you like better.

Do you like apple pie or apple dumplings?

Diane Kearns:

Apple pie.

Johanna Rohrer:

Okay. What about whole apples or cut apples?

Diane Kearns:

Whole apples.

Johanna Rohrer:

I'm the same way. I totally eat whole apples. I don't take the time to cut them up because it's too much work. I'd rather just eat an apple whole.

Tart apples are sweet apples?

Diane Kearns:

Oh, it depends on what kind of mood I am in. After dinner, I want a sweet apple. If it's a snack in the afternoon, that’s a tart one.

Johanna Rohrer:

I know that's the beauty of so many different varieties of apples. You can always find a flavor that's going to fit what type of mood you're in or what you're looking for.

If you had to pick one favorite apple variety, we've heard you talk about a couple of varieties throughout the interview, but one favorite apple variety. It doesn't necessarily have to be for cider production, but what's your favorite?

Diane Kearns:

Oh, you're going to have to tell me, what am I using it for? If I'm cooking, I really like York Imperial because they hold their shape. For making applesauce, something completely different, like maybe a Lodi. If I'm going to just pick one up and eat it, I really do like Gold Rush as a really balanced apple, but I also like Fuji's. They are really sweet and sometimes a Fuji is what I want. It really depends on what I'm using it for, which is like you said is the beauty. When I go to store some apples, I always put multiple varieties away, so I have that option.

Johanna Rohrer:

Yes. I asked that question as a trick question, because I think many of us in the orchard business would have answered it the same way. We have specific apples that we like for certain things. If you're listening and you've not necessarily figured that out yet, there are some apples that are better to cook with, there are some apples that are better for applesauce, and there are some apples that are just better to eat fresh. When you're visiting your local orchards, reach out to those orchard producers, they'll be happy to steer you in the right direction.

What are you are most proud of as a female apple producer?

Women in Ag

Diane Kearns:

I guess I would say the fact that everybody I work with does not address the fact that I'm female. I would say in our group of apple growers, there are girls or females that are working, doing this, but we're all the same. I guess I would say when I was younger and came in, I was happy that the men treated me as an equal. Now, I feel like we are all equals and we're all just people working in this industry. That to me is exactly what I want and exactly what I think it should be.

Johanna Rohrer:

This month is Women's History Month and I'm just curious, where do you see the future role of women in Ag heading in the future?

Diane Kearns:

Well, I hope it's going to continue to be more and more women in Ag. Eventually you would love to see the 50-50 split because I just see people as individuals. We're all individuals working toward the same thing. We all love to be outside, love to see the natural world at work, understand how it works and helping it along to create the things that we need/want from it.

I hope that there'll be more and more women that will venture out, like to work outside and feel comfortable working right alongside whoever it is. Being in a male companion, or someone from a foreign country because that's the way it is with a lot of labor right now. Actually for me, working with a diverse population is fantastic, I love it. I just hope more women get to enjoy that and get the opportunity to do it.

Johanna Rohrer:

I think agriculture just continues to grow and the network of people that we're working with also continues to grow. It's just such a nice time to be able to do business with each other and make the industry the best that we can for the future. I think that is what's so neat about how the industry is growing in the space that it's in today.

Before we sign off today, what do you advocate for in agriculture?

Diane Kearns:

More direct-to-consumer sales. What I really, really want to see happen is more people pay attention to where their food comes from, go out and seek it directly from the farmer so that they can understand where it is and the farmer can explain to them how it works.

Johanna Rohrer:

The story of how it's produced on the farm and then how it gets into family members homes is such an opportunity to make that connection. I think that's a great answer to advocate for the future of agriculture.

Well, thanks Diane so much for joining us. Remember to visit Winchester Ciderworks on Facebook, Instagram, or visit winchesterciderworks.com.

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