Photos by Linda Belt-Burnier
Hidden in plain sight on busy Route 30, four miles south of Middlebury, lies a small gem of an apple orchard, Windfall Orchard. At the town speed limit of 50 miles per hour through this stretch of Cornwall, population 1,000-plus, it’s easy to breeze right by and miss this Vermont treasure.
But every Sunday in October, wooden crates filled with apples labeled with yesteryear names like Ida Red, Crispin and Spitzenburg, prop open the doors of a small, weathered barn that serves as this orchard’s command central—store, cider-making center and fruit storage facility all under one roof. More than 80 varieties of apples as well as numerous types of pears, plums and apricots, many of them heirloom varieties, hang from trees on the slope that recedes from the barn and stretches out to an expanse of well-tended orchard, invisible from the road.
Here, green- and gold-leaved fruit trees meet the Cornwall Swamp grasslands; the view then extends out to the distant relief of the Green Mountain range. It’s a breathtaking scene— one that the property’s current owners, Brad Koehler and Amy Trubek, have worked hard to revive and maintain over the past decade.
Back in 2002, Koehler and Trubek, both former instructors at the New England Culinary Institute, were looking for a home closer to their new jobs—he as a food services manager at Middlebury College and she as an adjunct professor of food studies at the University of Vermont. Given their interest in and knowledge of food, Koehler says, “We were thinking of a small-scale agricultural-based property.” When they looked at the Windfall Orchard property, which includes a family home in addition to three acres of orchard, he said that the realtor downplayed the orchard part of the deal.
“The orchard was pretty overgrown, not much had been done to it, but it seemed to make sense though I wasn’t sure where we’d go with it.” He adds that “It was as accidental as anything that it ended up being apples.”
Koehler says that he and Trubek knew “something had gone on back there, and it was more than a couple random McIntosh.” But it was only after they bought the property and moved in that they learned the full scope of their backyard orchard. In two cardboard boxes left in the house they uncovered an archival treasure trove of growing manuals, slides of the many apple varieties, and old orchard maps (the original Windfall Orchard combined two separate orchards). The property’s previous owner, the late Dr. Ted Collier, local physician, was also a passionate orchardist who, over decades of work, had built up the orchard to nearly 200 trees by the time of his death in 1998.
Koehler and Trubek never met the doctor. But armed with the notes and maps they were able to begin piecing together the orchard’s story through Collier’s diary, which detailed the painstaking process of planting, grafting and budding the numerous trees that comprise the orchard. Although Koehler studied horticulture before he switched to cooking, he says he never studied anything specific about apples and so had a steep learning curve in getting started with the orchard. Koehler gives a lot of credit to Arthur Blaise, Collier’s righthand adviser and friend, for helping him get the orchard going again after seven years of lying untended.
“When Art would come over, we mostly talked,” Koehler says. “Talked about different apple varieties. We talked about growing techniques in general ways and talked about disease management—particularly apple scab. Early on he showed me some pruning techniques I was unaware of and towards the end of his life [Blaise passed away in 2011] he spent time with me teaching me grafting techniques.”
Next came more cleanup and pruning and learning how to manage his crop. Apples, Koehler discovered, are extremely difficult to grow 100% organically. So in an effort to grow his apples in an environmentally responsible manner, he uses a system called integrated pest management, which relies on computer and weather data to determine the best times to treat the apples, with a minimum of spraying (he does not use any organophosphates).
In the past two years, Koehler says he has resumed the grafting work Blaise and Collier started at Windfall Orchard many years ago. “This year we are set to graft at least 10 new varieties into the orchard,” he says. Most of these new varieties will be apples suitable for the hard cider they produce.
A stroll with Koehler through the orchard on a clear late-October day is a lesson in variety. The branches of a small, crooked tree standing a bit apart from its more robust neighbors hold deep-dark, almost black, apples.
“That’s an Arkansas Black,” notes Koehler. He points out one of the largest trees, and the oldest at nearly 100 years, a Rhode Island Greening. Its enormous green apples are, according to Koehler, excellent for baking. We walk by another tree loaded with rust-colored fruit. The Golden Russet—also named for its color. Because these apples don’t ripen until late in the season, Koehler says that they are just now ready for picking. With permission, I pull one off the tree and take a bite. Its somewhat thick parchment skin yields to a crisp tingling sensation of serious sweetness with just the balance of acidity— think SweeTarts (the candy) that are actually good for you.
Other trees we walk by display more apples with fanciful names: Winter Banana, Red Ida. The Fameuse or Snow apple is a mediumsized red-streaked apple with pure white flesh that was originally brought to Vermont by French-Canadians. The trees with earlier season apples, like Cortlands and Yellow Transparents, have already been picked clean. The late-season apples, like the Arkansas Black, Keepsake and Crispin, are good apples for winter storage according to Koehler. For baking, he suggests Northern Spy and, of course, the Rhode Island Greening. When asked if he has a favorite eating apple, Koehler hesitates.
“That’s a hard one. It depends on the season. But Macoun is definitely one of my favorites.”
Mixed in with some of the apple trees are other fruit trees: Seckel and Comice pear, Asian and European plum, and apricot. Bountiful, well-ordered vegetable gardens frame the far side of the family’s house. Koehler acknowledges that their location near Lake Champlain plays a part in their ability to grow such a variety of fruit and vegetables. “Our first and last frost dates are a lot different than other parts of the state,” he says. “So that really gives us a proper growing season for nearly all of the apple varieties—even the late season varieties like Granny Smith or Arkansas Black—as well as it being temperate enough to successfully grow the plums, pears, apricots.”
Since leaving his job at Middlebury College more than two years ago, Koehler tends the orchard full-time during the season. He also manages trees on a neighboring property and may take on more.
“We may continue to grow by reaching agreements with other landowners who have abandoned-type orchards.” He’s added about 20 new trees in the past years, although some of these replaced older trees that had died. Koehler says that they’ve lost some of the original varieties that Collier planted years ago, but, he adds, “We’ve replaced them with others. This year’s grafting project will represent the first real net addition to the number of varieties grown here.”
In addition to apples, he makes and sells the products from their land year-round: sauerkraut and fresh, hard and a dessert-type ice cider. And, although their orchard is only open to the public on Sunday afternoons in October, Koehler says they sell their apples and apple products and other fruit and vegetables at the Middlebury Farmers Market throughout the summer season as well.
Trubek’s work and “mom” time with their 12-year-old daughter, Katherine, keep her too busy to be a full partner in the business of running the orchard, but she oversees the marketing efforts and makes good use of their apples and other fruit and vegetables in her cooking. She’s also written a few books. Her latest, A Taste of Place, talks about how and where something grows can affect its taste. Can apples have a taste of place? “It depends on the definition you use,” she says, “but certainly, they’re a long-lived tree.”
While I was chatting with Koehler in the parking area before heading back onto Route 30, a young woman pedaled up on a bicycle, and glanced at the Windfall Orchard sign. “Do you have any cider?” she asked. “We’re making some right now,” Koehler said, pointing toward the open barn where a small handful of volunteers were loading apples into the mill. I imagine the bicyclist couldn’t believe her good luck, her windfall, as she wheeled her bike over to the barn where the fragrant, rejuvenating juice of the season’s uneaten apples was being bottled right from the tap.