When John and Dorie Belisle purchased a dairy farm in 1995, their plan was to create an orchard.
“In 1996, we started converting the pastures to apple orchards,” said Dorie. “High density plantings were just starting, so we have about 780 trees/acre. Our trees are about five feet apart and rows are 11 feet wide. For us, the goal was to have the greatest number of trees per acre for the equipment, the lay of the land and for how rich the soil was.”
The Belisles knew that they wanted apple varieties that would thrive in the maritime climate of Bellingham, WA. “We don’t have a lot of heat units compared to the east or the Midwest so we chose apples that like a cool climate,” said Dorie. “The first we planted was Jonagold. In 1996, Jonagold was considered the best eating apple in taste tests across the nation, so we geared ourselves toward that. Unfortunately, many people all over the country planted Jonagold in areas that were too warm, so that flooded the market for Jonagolds and the market dropped because it was flooded with soft apples. But we still have a strong market for Jonagolds here because they do well in the maritime climate.”
Today, BelleWood Acres has 25,000 trees representing 21 varieties. One favorite, Honeycrisp, was selected for having good texture, good crunch and good flavor. But like other growers have found, Dorie says Honeycrisp is challenging to grow. “They sunburn, every bird in the world loves them, and they get bitter pit easily,” she said. “It takes a lot of calcium to grow them, so we’re in the orchard every week spraying food-grade calcium on them.”
Dorie explains that BelleWood markets apples in several ways. “We sell wholesale to eastern Washington, sell wholesale ourselves where we wash, pack then ship to local grocery chains, and we also sell directly from the farm.” Dorie often visits the local grocers that carry BelleWood apples so customers can meet the farmer. “I think it helps them (the store), and it helps our farm,” she said. “We can talk about our farm, and people really enjoy knowing where their fruit is grown. This gives them an opportunity to ask questions.”
BelleWood’s U-pick draws visitors from throughout the state, and Dorie says that on a sunny October weekend, they’ll park 600 cars. “It’s fun to see families come out to pick apples,” she said. “We have a tasting area in the farm store so customers can sample different apples before they go out to pick. Since we have early season, mid-season and late season apples, people need to come at different times to choose different apples. That also helps us create the idea that we are open year-round.”
Three large coolers on the farm are used to store apples so that BelleWood can offer a variety of apple products as well as a large selection of other farm-fresh products in their year-round farm store. The newest cooler is airtight, so apples stored there are held the longest. “Once the oxygen is used up, it’s like CA (controlled atmosphere),” said Dorie. “We start picking at the end of August, and are finished picking by the end of October. We can keep our apples good and crunchy until the end of March or April.”
Some of the apples are used for fresh cider, a BelleWood favorite. Cider production begins on Labor Day weekend with BelleWood’s early blend, which is made with Gravenstein, Zestar and Sunrise and Sansa apples. When Honeycrisp are ready, cider is 100 percent Honeycrisp; a light, sweet cider. The season ends with BelleWood blend, a mix of all other apples. “We try to put at least three varieties in our cider,” said Dorie. “One tart, one sweet and one in between. We sell it by the gallon and also bulk for those who want cider to start their own hard cider. We also make BelleWood Bubbly, a sparkling cider.”
By April or May, the coolers are empty, and fresh cider is out of the store by February or March. However, the cider presses run constantly from January through April to make hard cider for the on-farm distillery.
“We built a new farm store in 2012, and we knew that in order to make it successful, it should be open year-round,” said Dorie. “We needed products that would be good year-round, so we make our own vinegar, apple cider syrup and dehydrated apple chips. The distillery became a nice add-on to what we were already doing.” The farms store includes a full-service restaurant that offers homemade sandwiches, soups and salads, and pies and pastries.
September brings weekend activities, mostly apple picking, then in October, customers arrive for pumpkins and squash. Other farm activities include a corn maze, corn cannon, apple cider donuts and music on weekends. “For Thanksgiving, we have a cider fest where we celebrate all things cider,” said Dorie. “We bring in other hard ciders, offer our own hard cider and the distillery is open. It brings people back into the farm to see what we do post-harvest with our products.”
BelleWood offers school tours in September and October, usually hosting two a day. If groups of shoppers come in, Dorie will take them to the orchard for a tour. “They love it,” she said. “We talk about how and why the trees stay small, how they’re grafted to a smaller rootstock. It keeps people on the farm longer, and they understand what we do, so they’re more apt to buy apples. We get to build a relationship with them and it helps everything.”
In the three weeks prior to Christmas, the farm features Christmas activities such as horse-drawn wagon trips to the orchard. Customers can shop and sip after hours, and visit the farm store that is essentially a gift store stocked with local items including an array of honeys, rubs and barbeque sauces and cherries.
BelleWood Acres values sustainability and Dorie works hard to pass that message to customers. “It’s all part of being community,” she said. “We do the best we can to make sure the farm is healthier each year. I do a lot of education on the difference between conventional and organic. We look at how orchards are kept in balance and how we use the least toxic tools possible.”