Believe it or not, a supermarket apple can sit up to 14 months before finding its way to into your trolley. Sure, it’s red and shiny, but the shine is probably sprayed-on wax. And the uniform, unblemished skin is no guarantee of great taste.
Compare that apple to a perfectly ripened one picked straight from the tree, and, well, there’s no comparison. Think apples and oranges.
The good news is there are three orchards in Fairfield County that offer pick-your-own (PYO) apples and the season is now.
• in Bethel is a 140-acre farm with almost 10,000 apple trees, 37 varieties, and right now the PYO orchard is open seven days a week. Blue Jay is currently running a “Mother Nature Special,” with a 14-lb. bag priced at $15.00 and 25-lb. bag costing $30.00.
Located close to I-84, Blue Jay draws from both Westchester and Fairfield Counties. There is also an extensive market with honey, pumpkins and cider, as well as a bakeshop featuring pies and cider donuts.
Beth Dingee, whose parents bought the farm in 1985, relishes the opportunity to use the orchards for educational purposes. Visiting school groups learn about bees and pollination through an observational beehive and learn the value of bats, foxes and ladybugs in combating pests. “We have bats in all our barns and outbuildings,” Dingee said. “They’re considered friends of the farm.”
Each spring at Blue Jay, a bee expert arrives with 100 hives in the middle of the night, when all the bees are asleep. “The hives are planted throughout the orchard and for two weeks the bees pollinate the blossoms that will become apples,” Dingee said. “Afterward, the beekeeper takes away the hives and we buy back the honey.” Sweet deal.
• in Shelton is home to about 5,000 apples trees, including about 400 that were originally planted by relatives back in the 1920s. Beardsley offers PYO on weekends and holidays in September and October, and boasts a popular pie shop that beckons customers with mouthwatering aromas from September through Christmas Eve.
On weekends, visitors gather outside a pair of French doors to observe Dave Beardsley operating the cider press with expertise accrued over 60+ years of farming.
“Making cider, we don’t use heat pasteurization,” Beardsley’s son Dan said. “Instead, we use an ultra violet system. It saves the apple flavor and still provides the safety people expect.”
Beardsley’s cider mill also has a following of hard cider hobbyists. Each fall they come to the cider mill to fill what’s called a “carboy,” a container used for fermenting, which they take home to brew.
“We sell hard cider kits and the juice and offer advice for people to get started. It’s a niche market for us,” Dan said.
Another unique feature of Beardsley’s is that in the PYO area, guests don’t have to pick a peck, or fill any size bag because apples are sold by weight, currently $1.75 per lb. People come and pick as little as one or two apples.
The Beardsley farm has been in the family since 1849, but Dan Beardsley attributes a recent surge in popularity to the locavore movement and growing interest in all-natural food and holistic health.
• , with 15,000 trees, is the largest of the three Fairfield County PYO apple orchards. Guests purchase a $16 bag to pick a peck, or a $29 bag to fit a half-bushel, and then a tractor-pulled wagon delivers them up the hill to the trees with the ripest apples.
Irv Silverman, whose father started the farm in the 1920s, describes his great joy at playing host. “An inner-city kid who maybe thinks an apple comes from the supermarket, picks one from the tree and eats it on the spot. It’s just amazing to see the reaction.” Silverman also finds it immensely satisfying to meet adults who recall visiting the farm as children and are now bringing the next generation to pick apples.
Weekend guide Antonio Reis, a recent graduate of Wesleyan University and assistant editor at Fine Gardening magazine, explained what becomes of the countless apples that fall to the ground. “No, they’re not used for cider,” he said. “It’s kind of like leaving grass clippings on a lawn. They’re left to fertilize for next year.”
For a small fee, guests can visit Silverman’s expansive animal farm, where kids enjoy petting and feeding alpacas, llamas, sheep, goats, and fallow deer, to name a few. Longtime manager, Judy Smith, hosts weekday school field trips that include a visit to the animal farm, a scenic hayride, a pumpkin selected from the pumpkin patch, a picnic spot and a coloring book.
Join the Locavore Movement
Farmers at all three orchards went of their way to promote neighboring farms. “None of us want to see the next guy go out of business,” Dingee said. “We all support each other. It would be de devastating to see the next generation come of age without these hands-on experiences.”
Indeed, the unparalleled taste of a freshly picked apple may make a locavore out of you. After your orchard visit, consider heading up the road for some free-range eggs, a bouquet of zinnias, freshly picked tomatoes or ears of corn. Lists of PYO farms and seasonal locavore opportunities can both be found on the Web.
For another source of produce, check out in Trumbull.