Article by Ithaca Voice Contributor Adriana Darcy
TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Apples of all varieties, from the crisp Macoun to the tangy Northern Spy, are ripening on the branches of Tompkins County orchards. They end up in the hands of people at local “U-Pick” orchards, squashed into ciders or cooked into classic fall treats.
New York is the second-largest apple producing state, and though Tompkins County is not one of the top 10 apple growing counties, it still has a good share of orchards.
Littletree Orchards in Newfield and Indian Creek Farm in Ithaca both offer “U-Pick” options; customers can go onto the farm and pick their own fruits and vegetables.
Indian Creek Farm owner Stephen Cummins said in the 1970s and 1980s U-Pick orchards were popular as they provided homes with cheaper produce. Today, the produce is typically the same price or more than grocery stores, so the focus has shifted more to the experience of getting out in the field and picking fruit and vegetables.
“(Customers) have the experience of picking the fruit,” Cummins said. “It’s more of an outing, it’s more of a picnic.”
One of the biggest sellers at local orchards — besides the apples — is the apple cider.
The cider production process at Indian Creek Farm involves a worker placing hand-picked apples in an apple washing machine where they are cleaned before being moved to an apple grinder, which pulverizes them. The apple pulp is poured into a hydraulic water press, where it is squeezed against a cloth, separating the pumice and the juice. Once all the juice has been squeezed out, it is jugged and sold as apple cider.
Amara Steinkraus manages Littletree Orchards alongside her sister, Athena. Local residents can find the orchard’s cider on site or at GreenStar. While Littletree Orchards pasteurizes its cider for wholesale, other local farms opt for unpasteurized.
At Indian Creek Farm, cider is the second most popular product. Cummins says they do not pasteurize their apple cider because they prefer unpasteurized cider as it is an unadulterated, chemical-free, natural cider. Because they do not pasteurize their cider, it cannot be sold for wholesale as New York requires cider be pasteurized or treated with UV light to kill bacteria.
“Their fear is E. Coli,”Cummins said. “There’s never been a registered case in the state of New York, so what’s really happening is that the large cider makers have used legislation to eliminate competition.”
Hot, cold and hard cider, dozens of varieties of apples, doughnuts, and all sort of apple products were a big draw to Ithaca’s annual Apple Harvest Festival, which packed the Ithaca Commons this weekend. It’s the largest festival the Downtown Ithaca Alliance hosts, drawing about 40,000 people each year, according to previous figures from the DIA.
As always, apple cider doughnuts were a big hit at this year’s Apple Harvest Festival. They were first brought to the festival by Littletree Orchards — who makes between 7,000 and 10,000 doughnuts each year at the festival. This year, Indian Creek Farm also joined the apple cider doughnut scene. Though there were more doughnuts available this year from both farms and others, the infamous doughnut lines were no shorter.
Steinkraus believes the doughnut “craze” was brought on by college students.
“People from the beginning have always been pretty jazzed about them,” Steinkraus said. I think it’s grown as the word has spread through college students. I feel like college students are the main ones that have this kind of craze about them, which we’re very thankful for because it definitely provides us with much needed income.”
Littetree Orchards and Indian Creek Farm both make their doughnuts on their farms using a doughnut mix, their own apple cider and a “doughnut robot.”
Though an Apple Harvest Festival tradition, doughnut enthusiasts do not need to wait in a long festival line as apple cider doughnuts are also available at the Ithaca Farmers Market and at each orchard.
Tompkins County also serves as a testing ground for apple growing with Cornell Orchards, which was founded in 1910 and has 17 acres of apples, grapes and other fruits. Learning how to maintain fruit trees, from pruning and picking to managing diseases, is just one area of research that falls under the teaching program.
“The research and teaching component is huge,” Cornell Orchards Manager Eric Shatt said. “It’s really good for the students to be out pruning, picking and observing grape vines and apple trees, so it really is helpful for the students who are in the teaching program.”
The biggest challenges local orchards face is the weather. For orchards like Littletree, the humidity can lead to fungus. However, Steinkraus says that the orchard’s close relationship to their consumers helps prevent sale drops due to the appearance of the fruit.
“We’re lucky because we’ve really worked with our consumer base to be accepting of cosmetic diseases or fungus on the skins of the apples that are fine for you to eat but don’t look as pretty,” Steinkraus said.
Cummins says that weather is also their biggest challenge, but due to their location, it is easily controlled. The farm doesn’t have to worry too much during periods of drought because of their pond and irrigation system. One of Indian Creek Farm’s biggest challenges however, is getting customers to come when there is rain.
“Because we’re primarily pick-your-own, we only have in apple season eight weekends,” Cummins said. “if you get rained out on Columbus Day Weekend, you don’t make it up. You just simply don’t get paid that week, even though you’re still doing your job.”
Though this is a challenge, Cummins says that the farm is trying to move away from customers mostly coming on weekends. The farm’s weekly newsletter, which currently has 6,000 subscribers, and having an active social media presence helps the farm connect with the public, getting customers to come on weekdays.
Apple Picking Spots in Tompkins County
Where: 345 Shaffer Road, Newfield
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday
What they offer: Apple, fruit, vegetable picking. They also have great picnic spots, dried flowers to pick, cider, doughnuts, slushies and other products.
Indian Creek Farm
Where: 1408 Trumansburg Rd, Ithaca
Hours: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily
What they offer: Apple picking, pumpkins, winter squash, brussel sprouts, plus cider and doughnuts. For more information and the latest crop alerts, check their website or subscribe to their newsletter.
Where: 709 Dryden Rd, Ithaca
Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
What they offer: In the Cornell Orchards Store, they sell apples, cider, and a wide range of local products like honey, cheese, maple products and other goods.
Website: Cornell Orchards