Valley Bounty: Carr’s Ciderhouse and Preservation Orchard
Grow food that’s meant to grow here. Preserve it. Preserve the farming traditions of the past that still serve us. Explore what needs to change. This is what Nicole Blum and Jonathan Carr are doing at Preservation Orchard and Carr’s Ciderhouse in Hadley.
“Preservation Orchard is the overall name for our land and the projects going on here,” Carr explains.
Carr’s Ciderhouse, a two-person commercial endeavor of Carr and Blum, is the anchor farm business on that land, but they play host to other businesses, too.
Between the trees, pasture-raised sheep and poultry from Meadowfed Lamb rotate through, mowing the grass for free and fertilizing with manure. Meanwhile, honeybees from Pioneer Valley Apiaries feed from and pollinate the orchard.
“These 38 acres have been an orchard since the Civil War era,” Carr says, “but we’ve owned them since 2003.” In the years since, they’ve removed most of the existing apple trees and replanted. Apples still predominate, with over 1,200 cider variety trees producing upward of 1,000 bushels a year, but the diversity is expanding.
Blum and Carr have also incorporated new species based on two criteria — needing minimal input of resources and effort to thrive, and being well-adapted to the local ecosystem. So far, they’ve found a few good ones, including regionally native persimmons and pawpaws, heartnuts (a cold-hardy walnut from Japan), and most notably, chestnuts.
“We harvested about 300 to 400 pounds of chestnuts this year,” Blum says. “As these trees grow we’ll get more and more every year, which is really exciting for us.”
As Carr explains, chestnuts are a great fit for the land and a promising local food source for the future, because they played the same role in western Massachusetts very recently.
“The American chestnut was a predominant tree species in our region,” he notes. Some estimate that within their historic range of New England and the Appalachian Mountains, these trees comprised one of every four hardwoods. But in the early 1900s the chestnut blight — a fungus introduced by imported species — destroyed most of them.
“This made me curious if blight-resistant varieties would do well,” Carr says. “We trialed some Chinese chestnut seedlings, and they did phenomenal.”
Blum says a handful of nearby farms are successfully growing chestnuts, and there’s interest in finding cooperative ways to process and store the local crop efficiently. And while some foods make great sense to grow locally but struggle to win over consumers’ tastebuds, Blum doesn’t see that issue here.
“They’re definitely popular,” she says. “They’re part of food cultures all over the world and used to be here, too. Many people have childhood memories of them and are so excited to find them.”
Carr hazards a prediction: “I think we’re about to see a chestnut renaissance. Give it five years, I bet there’s going to be local chestnuts everywhere.”
In the meantime, the bulk of Carr’s Ciderhouse’s products still come from apples, and it all starts this time of year by loading the fall harvest — most from Preservation Orchard, some grown or foraged nearby — into their vintage cider press. The cider is collected, and from there a tree of product possibilities opens up, beginning with hard cider.
Carr’s Ciderhouse’s hard ciders are wild ferments, relying on naturally present microbes to steer a long, slow fermentation process through the winter. The result is an unfiltered, traditionally made alcoholic beverage, bottled in late spring.
Meanwhile, another portion of the original pressing takes the fermentation train past hard cider to become apple cider vinegar. Carr’s sells this directly, but also infuses it to create flavored cooking vinegars, or sweetens and infuses it to create drinking vinegars.
All drinking vinegars are collectively known as shrubs, explains Blum, but within that family are further classifications. Sweeten a shrub with honey and it becomes an oxymel, for example. Flavor it with ginger and it’s called switchel. “Sometimes we’ll add fruit syrup, like a strawberry or blackberry,” Blum says. “There’s a pretty big array of flavors at the stand right now.”
They also preserve raw cider by making cider jelly and cider syrup — maple syrup’s fruity cousin made from boiled-down cider instead of sap.
For sale at farm stand
“COVID changed a lot of things for us,” Carr says. “We used to sell mostly at farmers markets in the Berkshires and Boston area,” but the pandemic made that unworkable. “So, we opened a farm stand right here,” he says.
Blum adds, “For years we’d talked about trying to stay here and sell to our local community. When we were forced to, it actually felt like a blessing in some ways.”
Still, the switch was unplanned and abrupt, and to make it work they applied for and received a loan from the Emergency Farm Fund overseen by Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA). This revolving loan fund, strengthened by community donations, offers zero-interest loans to farmers and farm businesses facing financial difficulty caused by a disaster. Previously, the fund was only opened after extreme weather wiped out crops, but applications have been accepted twice to help farms respond to COVID.
As the climate and global economy become more chaotic, Carr and Blum are building local resilience around two most basic resources: food and community. For them, this means growing what the land will bear with less inputs and finding the right balance of self-sufficiency and collaboration.
Carr is careful not to preach, he says, and recognizes why industrial farming evolved as it has in pursuit of better living. But for him and Blum, an honest appraisal of our current food system leads to one conclusion.
“We need to figure out how to transition away from energy-intensive farming,” Carr says. “That’s our ultimate goal, and there’s a lot of farming knowledge to draw on both from the past and innovation happening now.”
Carr’s Ciderhouse’s farm stand is officially open Thursday and Friday 3-6 p.m., Saturday noon-5 p.m., and Sunday noon-4 p.m., but they can often accommodate visits at other times — text the number on their website to inquire.
For Franklin County CiderDays next weekend, Nov. 6-7, they’ll offer tastings of many products, including ciders and freshly roasted chestnuts.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about local farms, farm stands, and food businesses in your area, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.