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October is high apple season at Connecticut’s 80 commercial orchards. Though this is roughly half the number of orchards that the state could claim at its peak in the 1940s, State Department of Agriculture marketing representative Rick Macsuga points out that right now we’re producing just as many apples every year—roughly half a million bushels—as we did back then. The development of dwarf apple trees in the last 30 years has made that possible. “Standard apple trees can yield up to 30 bushels apiece, but you can plant only 35 trees to the acre,” explains Easton farmer Irv Silverman. “You can plant 600 to 700 dwarf trees to an acre, so even if they yield only a few bushels apiece, you’re ahead.”
Dwarf trees, standing just 6 or 7 feet high, have proven just as big a boon to agritourism and the growth of pick-your-own (PYO) farms. Though most Connecticut farmers do some wholesaling, our orchards are really not set up to compete with the big boys in other states. “In New York, which is the second-or third-largest agristate in the country, you have orchards that spread for 1,000 acres,” says Macsuga. “Here, the average is smaller than 100.” For them, direct sales are more profitable—and people who pick their own actually help small farmers to harvest their crops. The one challenge is, to make their orchards an appealing “destination,” owners need to offer more attractions than just the apples one can find in a local Stop & Shop. Here’s what 10 of ours have cultivated.
Belltown Hill Orchards
We suspect some people visit 150-acre Belltown Hill for the sheer sweeping “purtiness” of it all—the orchard is one of a minicluster of pick-your-own spreads situated off Matson Hill Road—but in reality this farm is a sophisticated small agribusiness with an ambitious bakery that whips up its own line of pies, cookies, cider doughnuts, chocolate whoopie pies, brownies, fudge- and caramel-covered apples. In addition, Belltown wholesales its applesauce to Whole Foods and retails products from nearby Win-Gait Farm, which raises angora and nubian goats (resulting in skeins of mohair yarn, goat’s-milk soap, bath salts and bug sprays).
Twenty-four apple cultivars are found here, including a selection of rare heirlooms—Baldwins, Stayman Winesaps, Northern Spys—and a new November ripener, Pink Lady, which the orchard is specially licensed to grow. Visitors are permitted to pick almost everything on the farm from cherries (Belltown is the largest grower in Connecticut) to pumpkins; only the vineyard, producing red, green, and Concord table grapes, is off-limits. One attraction Belltown has yet to put on is a harvest festival, but next year is its centennial—so it’s almost a sure bet. (860/633-2789; belltownhillorchards.com)
Macsuga calls Bishop’s, also a stop on the Connecticut Wine Trail, the “Mercedes-Benz of Connecticut orchards.” Its sleekest feature is the 24-foot-long wine bar opened last spring to better showcase its 12 award-winning potables. Two-thirds of these are apple-based wines—including the new Amazing Grace, an apple-cranberry blend that recently won a gold medal from the Finger Lakes International Wine Festival—but other fruits take the spotlight in the semisweet Crimson Rose (strawberries and raspberries) and the semidry Blushing Beauty (peaches). In previous years, customers could taste any wine for free, but the new digs have inspired a more upscale plan: A flight of six tastes now costs $6. Those who prefer a touch of the grape should know that vintages from Chamard, Hopkins, Jonathan Edwards and Jones wineries are also sold here.
Though roughly 25 varieties of PYO apple are available, the dominant pick is Macoun (a hugely popular “snack” apple with a short season); diversions include pumpkin picking, a hay maze for kids to run through and an animal farm with llamas, alpacas and goats. Bishop’s farm market, open 358 days a year, stands apart in that it now sells organic and free-range meats, including beef from Washington State. (203/453-2338; bishopsorchards.com)