Established during George Washington’s presidency, the picturesque Scott Farm in rural Vermont has been in continuous operation since then. The farm is owned by the non-profit Landmark Trust USA and rests on nearly 600 acres boasting 23 restored structures, each listed with the National Historic Registry. While a non-profit owns the property, the farm operation is a for-profit business, under the watchful eye of orchard manager Zeke Goodband.
Goodband said his formal education in Chinese history and ecology complement his work within the orchard, “When you’re growing fruit trees; the patience, the historical perspective is helpful.”
The Scott Farm is steeped in history. The property neighbors Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling’s estate and is home to several old barns and outbuildings. Moreover, the farm boasts a different kind of history, one grafted into the restored orchards.
Apples are heterozygous, meaning they produce offspring that vary significantly from the parent tree. Propagating apple trees means collecting scion wood, or recent growth of a selected variety and grafting it onto rootstock from another. This process reads like poetry to Goodband, who appreciates that with each tree planted, a legacy is continued.
“It’s a cultural heritage just like, in my opinion, pieces of music, or pieces of literature. These were one time creations, some of them going back hundreds of years, and in order to preserve them for our enjoyment today or our enjoyment in the future, they have to be somehow transcribed and kept going,” explained Goodband. “Just like Monks writing out literature by hand and copying it, the grafting is from hand to hand. You’re passing something on.”
Goodband said he started out growing seed crops at the start of his farming career, “You get almost instantaneous results with that compared to growing trees.” As a youth, Goodband had watched his father tend apple trees, so when he discovered a long abandoned orchard near his home in Maine, he asked whether he could exchange care for the trees for a portion of the harvest to sell at market.
Goodband described his discovery, “There were purple apples, russeted apples, tear-drop apples. People of my generation grew up with the same two or three apples, so I knew people were going to be interested in these.”
From that point forward, Goodband moved from Maine to Vermont, transporting his family and tree nursery with him. Today, Goodband lives near the historic Scott Farm and has worked on the property since 2001.
When Goodband first arrived to the farm, the orchard was planted in McIntosh apples primarily, but the trees were only 12 or 15 years old, so he began the slow process of cutting the trees back, and using bark grafting, transitioning the orchard over to antique varieties.
Corner on the Market
As it turns out, specializing in unique and antique varieties is profitable. “Everyone’s got McIntosh apples. And the stores, they can get a lower price from anyone who’s standing behind you in line. But when you’re growing Blue Pearmains or Cox’s Orange Pippin, you get to set the price.”
With more than 120 varieties spanning a diverse 30 acres home to more than 6,000 trees, there’s not only room for profit; there’s a longer harvest window which translates to fewer opportunities for disease or weather to decimate a growing season.
Kelly Carlin, who oversees daily operations at the Scott Farm property, said 20 percent of sales are retail. The farm has an onsite farm market and offers CSA shares in apple varieties. “People come and get a different bag of apples each week,” said Carlin.
The vast majority of apples, approximately 20,000 bushels each season, are sold locally, said Goodband, “Eighty-five percent of our wholesale market is in Vermont or just over the border in Massachusetts.”
“A lot of the larger orchards who can afford to do it are planting the more interesting heirloom varieties,” said Carlin, “Apple growers are there to make money, so if you can grow a crop that you know has a market and will bring in a profit, then why not?”
Ecological Growing Practices
Scott Farm is moving from conventional practices to one that is ecologically integrative.
“Because I spend most of my time here, I’m very particular about where I work and I’m very particular about the health and safety of the people I’m responsible for. And it’s my responsibility that the fruit we send out is the safest fruit that I can grow,” said Goodband, who began transitioning the orchard over from a conventional spray regimen to a practice that stabilizes the ecosystem sometime around 2001.
“We see the orchards as an ecosystem. The more stable an ecosystem you have, the fewer pest problems you have. So, my goal here is to enhance the biodiversity of the orchard and anything I can do there will result in fewer problems with pests and less spraying,” he explained.
Goodband does not utilize herbicides and works to monitor insect populations in the orchard to determine any potential countermeasure. “You can go out and find some of these insects, but just not at the levels that cause problems,” he said.
For Goodband, insects in the orchard are vital: “Most of the insects in the orchard are benign, and the thing about it is the benign ones play as big of a role as the beneficials because they’re taking up space, they’re taking up habitat, they’re occupying a niche,” he said.
Goodband explained that by letting the orchard go back to nature, to a large degree, it reduces the costs up front for expensive fertilizers and pest control.
“It took a little while, but things bounce back quickly,” said Goodband. “If you let them, these orchards can be very resilient, ecologically speaking. It didn’t take too much work.” The cost savings in the first few years was impressive, with the new management strategy for pest control and fertilizers costing less than a third of what it had previously.
Educating the Consumer
A primary component of the marketing strategy at Scott Farm is consumer involvement and education, whether it is a local customer or the wholesale buyer. Goodband laughed as he recounted a story about a wholesale purchaser who had gone on vacation, leaving a substitute to do orders.
The sub ordered the apple of the week, Knobbed Russet, a lumpy English variety with good spritely flavor despite its haggard appearance. “A day or two later we got a call, ‘We want credit on this box of Knobbed Russet; we’re sending it back.’ When we opened up the box, it was perfect. That’s just how they look; like a bunch of shrunken heads,” said Goodband.
Carlin called it an “opportunity to educate customers on another apple variety.” She also said the farm hosts an annual Heirloom Apple Day each Columbus Day weekend to give customers an opportunity to try new apple varieties and learn about the history and unique qualities of each. “When they realize all the different colors, sizes, shapes and flavors, it’s an experience they talk about for years,” said Carlin. “And a lot of those people come back year after year and bringing new people with them.”
Carlin credits Goodband’s passion for apples as a large part of Scott Farm’s success. “We make sweet cider on site and Zeke is incredibly talented at choosing the apples that go into it.” She said the farm also produces apple pies, “Zeke will choose the apples that go in and that’s it – no sugar, no lemon, no nothing. Apples. He’ll put something that has a little cinnamon flavor or a little citrusy flavor and it will give that flavor you’re trying to create with the lemon or sugar or syrup.”
In addition to apples, Goodband is diversifying the crop, and has planted a few varieties of pears, medlar, quince, grapes and hops.
His passion for apples and their diverse qualities is clear. “The flavors of these apples – I once told someone – I grew up with Red Delicious and Mac and Granny Smith, sort of like a monochromatic palette or like drawing with a charcoal pencil. Then all of a sudden, you walk into this old abandoned orchard and it’s like getting a box of Deluxe Crayola® crayons in terms of flavor,” said Goodband.