UMD researchers renew care of apple trees to help the budding 'grow local' movement bear fruit.
Cindy Hale heads through the orchard’s grasses at least once a week to inspect the insect traps, helping to learn when to apply pesticides. “We make mistakes so that the growers don’t have to,” Hale said. A year from now, the orchard will be the site of classes and more.
Even now, it doesn't look like an orchard. Gnarled, overgrown trees stand not in rows, but rise haphazardly from knee-high grass.
Seventy years ago, these same trees were producing hundreds of bushels of apples, of varieties specific to a region and a time: Yellow Transparent, Hibernal, Red Wing.
Then the trees were forgotten. Seasons of apples went unpicked.
Now, researchers at the University of Minnesota Duluth are resurrecting the acreage, once the site of the university's Northeast Agricultural Experiment Station just outside of town, as well as the varieties, many of which were suited to the area's short growing season.
The century-old orchard holds lessons for today's "grow local" movement, they say, and about food that fits a place.
"People are trying to rebuild the regional food systems that were once so vibrant," said Randel Hanson, assistant professor of geography. "Historical models are really important for sparking people's imagination."
Apples, in particular, seem to feed that nostalgia. Across the country, people are rediscovering and restarting orchards that were abandoned as food production was consolidated and the Red Delicious reigned, said Tom Burford, an apple expert and historian in the state of Virginia .
"Today, we are trying to get back to the apple culture of the 1930s and 1940s," he said, "when there were little orchards everywhere."
A grand experiment
Land grant universities, such as the University of Minnesota, were a driving force in creating that culture.
The orchards at the U's agricultural station were meant to show residents that they could grow their own apples -- despite the region's unforgiving weather. Among the varieties: Okabena, Duchess, Anisim.
"The work with apples has been very popular in Northeast Minnesota since it was widely felt apples could not grow back from the Shore," noted a 1954 publication about the Northeast Agricultural Experiment Station.
But even during a May 1942 frost "that was heavy enough to cause ice breakage in the sprayer," the publication continued, "Anisim survived in the north orchard, and a fair crop was grown in the south unit."
Apples were judged not only by their fresh, first bite, but how they cooked and stored through long winters.
Lois Mann served as taste-tester. Her father was the foreman at the station, and she grew up in her family's house next to the orchard.
"My mother would cook them up, bake pies, make sauces," said Mann, now 84 years old. "We'd rate them. We used Hibernal and Dutchess a lot. Yellow Transparent was almost an eating apple. We didn't like that one as much for sauce."
The apple and crop work at the Northeast station slowed in the 1960s and ended in 1976. In the 1990s, UMD sold almost half of the 240 acres. The rest sat largely untouched.
"Basically, it was left to go back to the wild," Hanson said.
Part of the community lore
The 5-acre orchard sits behind the tall pines and birches lining Jean Duluth Road, as the road heads north out of Duluth. Some of the land that UMD sold is now soccer fields. Nearby, UMD students stake, water and pick a new, 1 1/2-acre crop of tomatoes, kale, zucchinis.
Hanson came to UMD in 2009 from Arizona State University. He began interviewing people about the Duluth area's food systems. The abandoned land was a big part of "the community lore," he quickly learned. "It was once a very important piece of the agriculture infrastructure in this region."
He aimed to make it so, again. But in a new way.
"The whole station idea isn't going to come back," Hanson said. "That model can no longer work. But what model might? We need public spaces where we can research and demonstrate and workshop."
For now, it's being called UMD's Sustainable Agriculture Program.
The orchard, just one piece of that program, is in the second year of a three-year restoration. This summer, it was cleared of pine trees to give the apple trees space and sunlight. Next, researchers and students will prune the trees to a point where they can focus their energy on producing apples. Then, researchers will identify varieties, some of which they expect are endangered.
Nearby, they'll plant a new crop. The university recently won a grant to plant 50 trees of "heritage" varieties. All fruit from them will be given away.
Cindy Hale, a UMD researcher, wades through the orchard's grasses at least once a week. Wearing sandals, a backpack and feathers woven through her hair, she stops at each tree. She examines the leaves. She inspects its traps.
Some traps are white and triangular, others red, round and purposely apple-like.
Knowing where and when pests show up in the traps' sticky stuff will allow the researchers to apply pesticides at the right times. That precision, in turn, will reduce the need to spray.
A year from now, this orchard will be the site of classes, experiments and workshops on best practices. "We make mistakes so that the growers don't have to," Hale said.
Mann remembers the old station serving a similar purpose -- offering expertise for people just starting to grow their own food.
"It's always time to re-learn," said Mann, who tends raised beds of beets, carrots, onions and spinach behind her house in Knife River. "I think it's good for the young folks to give it a try and see what the land can do."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168