Stroll through Daryl Hunter’s apple orchard and walk through history – along an ancient Roman road, through the court of King Louis XIII of France, to the home of the Niagara Peninsula by Laura Secord, heroine of the War of 1812.
In some places in his orchard, you’ll get a lot of that story from just one tree.
Hunter has 150 varieties of apples, 100 of which are considered historic and often grow next to each other on different branches of the same tree.
“It’s more exercise than collecting stamps,” said the 75-year-old.
Hunter began collecting varieties of apples when the apple orchards of the apple-rich Keswick Valley were disappearing. Over 200 hectares (500 acres) in the community west of Fredericton were planted with apple trees in the 1970s.
Today there are less than 40.
Efforts are being made to revive the industry, but even Hunter, who has done so much to preserve the apple varieties of the past, is considering giving up soon. He says he’s getting old.
Since the 1970s, he has collected pieces of trees from all over the world. He places a piece of the tree on the stem, root, or branch of another tree, a process called grafting.
âIt’s kind of like immortality; the tree is not dead,â he said. “He might be dead there, but I took a piece out of it to keep it going.”
Because trees are grafted, they produce different types of apples on one tree.
Hunter, who collected pieces of trees from old Keswick Ridge orchards, said many trees in the area were “dead and gone.”
âSo I keep them alive on my trees,â he said.
Apples a “candy shape”
Hunter is part of North American Fruit Explorers, a nonprofit group that focuses on the discovery and cultivation of fruit varieties. He collected pieces of apple trees from all over North America and as far as France.
âThe goal I originally had was to try and preserve some of the historic varieties of apples that you can’t get anymore,â he said.
One of these varieties is Tolman Sweet, which is appreciated for being both sweet and dry.
In the 1800s, this combination was perfect for cutting into apple slices, which would then be hung on a string to dry.
The result, Hunter said, “was a form of candy.”
“It was a dessert.”
Then there’s the Ribston Pippin, an apple from England that was first introduced in 1688.
âIt contains about five times more vitamin C than a McIntosh,â Hunter said.
Another variety is the little red-cheeked apple, the 1600s “after-dinner mint”.
âFrench court ladies wore them in their handbags and used them as breath freshenersâ after dinner, he said.
Also known as Pomme d’Api, it owes its name to the Appian Roman Road, the first and most famous of the Roman roads.
The apple ripens in late November and has been used as a Christmas apple in France, Hunter said.
There is also the Swazi Russet, a small apple that derives from the Russet family. Hunter said he was able to obtain pieces of the Swazi Russet tree from Laura Secord’s property in Ontario.
But her favorite is the Sandow apple, which softens over time.
“They get better with age,” he said, “just like me.”
According to Nick Brown, spokesperson for the province’s agriculture ministry, grafting is usually done in nurseries.
âIt’s a technical process that requires experience and knowledge to be successful. It takes specialized skills to be successful in trading and time to learn the details and the art to do it competently. “
Brown said grafting is an effective method of reproducing plants with “similar and desired characteristics”.
âSpecialized hobby growers, collectors and breeders also use grafting to [create] unique trees with multiple varieties, âhe said in an email.
He noted that the method can also be used to re-transplant or change varieties in an existing orchard to a new variety.
A business in decline
David Coburn of Coburn Farms, a sixth generation farmer from Keswick Ridge, remembers when dozens of tractors full of apples lined up in front of Keswick Ridge Apple Co-op Ltd. in the 1970s.
The apples would eventually be sold in supermarkets and warehouses across the province.
“It would be nothing to see several wagons of apples coming up near the farm,” he said. “It was everyone who brought the harvest.”
At that time, housewives also picked apples on the farm to help fill their families’ winter pantry shelves and Christmas shopping budgets.
As more women entered the workforce, farms had to “change who harvested our apples,” he said.
“People don’t make jams and jellies anymore, so we have to adapt to society.”
And with the effects of climate change, the high costs of farming and increasing real estate, he said, the apple trade has declined in Keswick Ridge.
Even the way houses are built now has had an impact on the apple industry, Coburn said.
âWe build very energy efficient homes. They don’t have cold rooms. They don’t have a place to store the apples.
“We’re just going to keep growing”
Andrew Lovell, owner of River View Orchards in Keswick Ridge, said the apple industry will continue to grow as long as there are young people to take it over.
Lovell bought his farm in Keswick Ridge in 2012 and owns about 10 acres of trees.
Lovell, the former president of the New Brunswick Apple Growers Association, says his son and daughter want to take over the farm.
“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “We’re just going to keep growing.”
Lovell said producers must also work together to export their products around the world.
âOur industry is growing, and it will continue to grow as long as we provide markets for our product,â he said.
“You can’t do that just as a Keswick Ridge producer.”