Valley Bounty: Brook Farm Orchard
Published August 13th, 2022 in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
By Jacob Nelson
“These apples have soul,” claims Alan Suprenant, owner of Brook Farm Orchard. Rooted, appropriately, on Apple Valley Road in Ashfield, the orchard grows nearly 60 varieties of apples, peaches, pears, plums and other fruit too.
Suprenant established the orchard in 1990 and currently runs it with his partner Hana Martin, who’s also an assistant manager at Old Friends Farm in Amherst. “There are 125 trees here, producing 400 bushels of fruit per year,” he explains. Apples are primary, with 45 varieties that ripen on a staggered schedule from now through the first hard frosts of November.
The size of the orchard fits his land and his life. “I drive a propane delivery truck in the winter and paint houses in Ashfield here in the summer, and have for 35 years,” he says. “It lets me be flexible to work in the orchard too.” Eventually he plans to pass the land and orchard on to Hana.
After working on conventionally managed orchards in the 1980s, Suprenant had enough of spraying trees, and inadvertently himself, with chemicals. “I wanted to grow food that I felt was healthier for people,” he says. Now he and Martin manage land with biodynamic practices. Developed by Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner and advanced by farmers around the globe, biodynamic farming promotes gentler inputs and a more holistic view of plant health.
“I learned so many tasks in conventional orcharding that still apply here,” Suprenant says. “What’s different is what we feed the trees, and how we approach caring for them.”
Rather than focusing on eradicating pests and diseases, they concentrate on growing resilient trees that have the best chance of weathering any adversity. This starts by using nature’s playbook as a guide.
“There’s a whole ecosystem that already exists here in this orchard,” he notes. “We’re just trying to orchestrate different pieces of it to our advantage. Like when you plant comfrey beneath the trees, its deep taproot accumulates all these minerals. When it dies in the fall, it leaves them higher in the soil for the trees to use. We don’t have to do anything.”
They also add natural fertilizers to the soil each fall and spray plant and seaweed ferments on the leaves as another way of delivering nutrients. As Suprenant puts it, “we feed the tree both from above and below.”
Biodynamic farming emphasizes aligning tasks with nature’s yearly cycles, both to maximize the intended benefit and ideally making the farmer’s life easier. For Suprenant, the cycle begins in winter.
“That’s when the Earth breaths in,” he says, “so I fertilize around trees in November. Winter weather works it down into the soil, and in spring it’s there for the roots to absorb.”
In March it’s time to prune the still dormant trees. Pruning creates space between branches, which improves airflow to decreases disease risk.
“Then we lay the pruned branches in rows between the trees and chop them up with a mower so they can decompose back into the soil,” explains Suprenant. “It’s another way to feed the trees in the spring.”
Come May the orchard bursts into bloom – stone fruit first, then apples. As pollinators arrive “the trees actually hum, which is really beautiful,” he says. “A lot of honeybees come from my neighbors at Red Gate Farm, and I try to give them apples every year as a thank you.”
Next, around the summer solstice, apple trees are thinned to encourage larger fruit and more balanced harvests year to year. “We thin by hand rather than with chemicals, and try to keep one apple for every six inches of branch,” says Suprenant. “That leaves about 100 leaves to ripen each apple to a decent size.”
“Then we start harvesting plums and peaches in late July and pears in early August,” he continues. Apples start ripening in earnest right about now, though a few of their varieties were ripe by the end of July.
Now is when they start selling their fruit at the Ashfield Farmers’ Market, which runs 9-1 every Saturday on the town common. They’ll start attending next week, August 20th, bringing peaches from their farmer neighbors at E & J Scott Orchards along with their own plums and some early apples.
“It’s the only Saturday market in the Hilltowns,” states Suprenant, noting how the weekend schedule encourages a leisurely atmosphere that allows friendships to gel. “People come just to hang out. Bread Euphoria is there with sweet treats, someone else makes breakfast sandwiches. At our table, since we have so many varieties of fruit, people can try all kinds of different colors, tastes and textures throughout the season. They’ll come back and ask ‘what’ve you got this week?’”
Suprenant also teaches classes on orcharding techniques for homeowners in the winter and spring, and consults for commercial orchards in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.
“I like doing all of that, and you make a lot more money consulting and teaching than growing apples,” he says. “But you don’t get the connection of watching kids eat your apples and watching their face light up.”
In a way, Suprenant’s desire for both rootedness and connectivity has grown as he observes the same qualities in his beloved trees.
“Biodynamics teaches that trees connect the earth to the sky,” he shares. “The way I care for them connects me spiritually to the work too, and gives me energy.”
Weaving in the human relationships, “I treasure the retail side of the business, and how it connects me to the community through food,” he adds.
“Nobody’s grumpy when they’re buying apples,” he says. “And if they are, they can sit down at the farmers’ market table and we’ll talk about it.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about what’s in season at local farms and markets near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.