Since childhood, I dreamed of raising apples and blueberries – apples owing either to Walt Disney’s lovable though historically inaccurate Johnny Appleseed character or to my latent rebellion at being a minister’s son, given the story of Adam and Eve. Just hearing the theme song from that Disney movie would cause a Pavlovian mouth-watering response from the memory of apple taste. And I loved the pot for a hat!
Blueberries – blueberries were different altogether. My love there was deep, abiding and mysterious, perhaps owing to a combination of their taste, shape, size, smell, and most of all, color. After all, my favorite things were blue – mountains, sky, ocean, river, lilac, lavender, and my toy car. I remember smiling the first time I knowingly saw and tasted a blueberry -- and always treasured the location of wild huckleberry bushes on my granddaddy’s farm and the rabbit eye blueberry bushes in the riverbed I found while in graduate school.
My farm plan called for apples and blueberries in abundance even though I had never grown either in my years of gardening before moving to Country Pleasures. They would become the farm’s anchor crops – the blueberries providing financial stability, the apples pulling the checking account back beneath the surface waters of financial solvency.
The blueberries make for happy farm memories for most of us, save our daughter, Alex, who always dreamed of mowing them down, permanently, with the bushog. For the rest of us, blueberries mean picking parties of friends with good food, drink and conversation. Blueberries mean high skies, gentle breezes and bright sunshine. Blueberries mean a smile on my partner Lori’s face, the blueberry queen, as she satisfies her quart-a-day habit.
Blueberries require patience and hard work - several years of planting, feeding, weeding, watering, and waiting precede a first harvest. We ceremoniously planted the first bushes during a visit of the Sodek family from Canada with whom I had planned the blueberry patch; then, my neighbor Kirk and I spent hours acidifying soil, adding even more organic matter, carrying water, weeding, and running from the nasty-dispositioned bees that lived on one end of the field but helped with pollination. So, it was with great anticipation that I awaited the first harvest, three years from planting the original small bushes.
In late June, the clumps of green berries of my early variety, Blue Jays by name, were sizing (growing larger as they moved toward harvest) and turning bright blue. Everyday the berry sugar was getting sweeter, the color turning darker, and the aroma growing stronger. The harvest looked as though it would begin on July 4, so I spent the week leading to the holiday in preparation. With daytime temperatures in the mid-90’s, I prepared for the picking party each morning and retreated inside each noon to work on a report due in mid-July.
Monday -- I called the 25 folks who had asked to be part of the inaugural picking party and excitedly told each about the weekend events. Then I planned the rest of my week.
Tuesday -- I cruised the bushes removing any berries that looked like they might contain a berry fruit worm and mowed the grass runways between the ten rows of ripening berries. I also found and cleaned the grill for the anticipated barbeque of Country Pleasures beef and portabella mushrooms.
Wednesday -- I bought beer and wine for the party, washed the gallon buckets into which I expected folks to pick their berries, and located the old tin washtub that would serve as a drink cooler. I also assembled and cleaned chairs and tables for folks to sit around.
Thursday -- I cleaned the scale so folks could weigh their bounty, got money from the bank to make change, began making snacks to accompany the libations, and tidied up around the buildings.
Friday -- I mowed the grass between the 300 plants we were to pick.
I munched a mouthful of plump, sweet, juicy berries as I looked back at the field on my way into the house to write on Friday afternoon. What a glorious sight -- neat clean rows of green foliage and clumps of blue berries swaying in the breeze!! I could hardly wait till the next day!!!
At dusk on Friday, I walked back to the blueberry field to admire my handiwork and have a bite of blue dessert. As I approached the bottom of the field, about 50 yards away from the ripe berries, I was puzzled to see the ground appear to move in the top of the field. It looked almost like a grain field swaying in the wind or sports fans performing a wave in a stadium. I quickened my pace; as I trotted into the rows, I discovered hundreds – maybe thousands of adolescent robins, starlings, cowbirds and catbirds running along the ground away from me. I walked among them, moving many with my boots. Some birds literally ran into me; others fly a few feet before tumbling ungracefully to the ground or becoming tangled in a blueberry bush. Most ran on the ground, tumbling, rolling and squawking in loud distress.
I watched in amazement, at the sheer number of birds and because it seemed that they could not fly. It occurred to me to look at the bushes. Scarcely a ripe berry remained. It took 15 bushes to make a handful to eat. The gluttonous birds had eaten so much that they were too heavy to become airborne!
Accompanied by the raucous jeers of the feathered thieves, I trudged to the house to call the party-comers to cancel the occasion. Then I walked to Mr. Summers’ house, my neighbor and the old farmer from whom I had bought the place. Dejectedly, I told him the picking party was cancelled -- the birds had eaten the crop in one single afternoon.
After I told him the story, he said simply, “Well Mr. Rice, at least you will eat well this winter.” I looked at him in disbelief. Had he not heard the story I just had finished? I said, “No Mr. Summers, I have nothing to pick, nothing to freeze; the birds ate almost all the berries!”
He replied inquisitively, “Well, you put them in the freezer didn’t you?”
“Mr. Summers,” I gulped, “Robins are migratory songbirds. I can’t kill them!”
After looking at me for a moment or two, he shook his head and quietly spoke: “Mr. Rice, the old people (meaning his grandparents who had been dead for at least 50 years) had a saying for this type of situation. They said, ‘If it eats your dinner, it becomes your supper.’”
Our farm was originally a land grant from the King of England to the Harley family. One of the family's decedents told us that during the Civil War the Harley's would shelter their horses along the rock ledges in Catoctin Creek. For the last several years a pair of Bald Eagles have made their nest in a Sycamore tree along our little stretch of Catoctin Creek and watched over the "keep". Linda Harrison-Parsons created this incredible image. She graces our inaugural dessert wine, "Harley's Keep", made with heritage apples from our orchard.
We grow, pick, press and ferment our apples into hard cider. Some cider we age in French Oak. Some cider our friends at McClintock Distillery distill into apple spirits for us. Then we mix the two liquids along with fresh apple juice to become a fortified wine that we age in American Oak. It becomes the magic of Harley’s Keep, our interpretation of a Pommeau.
Now let's see when we can get these labels approved by the feds. We are hoping to have Harley's Keep ready for sale in the tasting room this spring!
Gorgeous new artwork for our divine new ciders. Linda Harrison-Parsons hits another couple out of the park. We hope you'll love the new ciders as much as we do.
Roxbury Russet is believed to be the first apple cultivated by American settlers. Roxbury is joined by its cousin Golden Russet to create this etherial varietal cider. Smooth, silky, crisp and balanced. 7-9% abv
“The appearance of something remarkable or unexpected”, a fermentation apparition from our Asian pears. A unique bearing on a traditional perry.
We're going to finally blow winter outta here with music by Patty & Brent on April 14, 3-5pm. Come help us celebrate spring and our return to regular hours.
Open every Saturday and Sundays 11am-5pm. Tastings, flights, glasses and bottles of cider available for purchase. Bring a picnic, check out our farmstand, peruse the gallery of local art. Settle in with your friends and snag a board game off the shelf.
Looking forward to tucking in to winter. As the road conditions can be so unpredictable out our gravel road we will be open by appointment and for special events after January 7. On January 7 from 2-5pm you can come out and help us celebrate a great first year in the tasting room. Patty & Brent will be here to croon the cold away. www.pattyandbrent.com
Willow Oaks is featured on Maryland Public Television's program "Maryland Farm & Harvest. They cover our work to restore the Antietam Piper Orchard using historic apple varieties that would have been grown at that time. And our sweet pup Aggie gets her close-up.
The 29th Annual Governor’s Cup Competition was held on August 13 at The Center Club in Baltimore. Entries must be MD-appellation wines, meaning they’re made from Maryland-grown grapes and other fruit.
We are thrilled to report that Willow Oaks won best in class for "Gloaming", our apple/black currant cider. Gloaming also earned a gold medal.
"Vocare", our aged cider, won silver.
We were pleased to be able to tour the cider apple research facility at Washington State University in Mount Vernon, Washington. The pictures above are of some French cider apple varieties growing in their test orchard. Willow Oaks has 4 French apple varieties in the ground. Now we just wait for the fruit! http://cider.wsu.edu
Eric and Lori are on a bit of a busman's holiday, visiting with wine and cider makers in British Columbia and Washington State. The photo above is from our visit to Sea Cider in Saanichton, BC. They maintain a certified organic orchard with sweeping views of Haro Straight. We also visited Silverside and Cherry Point on the east coast of Vancouver Island where they make delicious port-style fruit wines. Today we'll head out to Alpenfire, another organic orchard and cidery.