Joe Rolfe, a late-in-life orchardist who’s learned the skills needed to grow dwarf apple trees, supported by trellises, points to the many native and imported pollinators at work on a sunny day this spring.
Photo by Edith Tucker

by Edith Tucker

BELMONT, NH – Joe and Cindy Rolfe took a chance when they decided to take up a relatively new way of growing apples in order to make the 72-acre farm they bought pay its own way – and maybe then some.

Joe, the sixth of seven kids, moved to the farm with his family in 1963 when he was only a six-month-old baby. He had a happy childhood growing up on Stone Mountain Farm, a former dairy farm.

The couple bought the place from his parents in 2009. “My father was a blue-collar guy who worked construction and was a skilled machinist,” Joe explained. “He enjoyed living on a farm but was not a farmer. He grew and cut hay, gardened and raised some livestock.”

Joe and Cindy, who both have full-time jobs, realized they wouldn’t be able to afford to maintain the place simply by cutting hay.

Joe owns and operates Stone Mountain Masonry. Cindy is an R.N. who works for a visiting nurse association that’s been very busy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joe credits the Belmont County Conservation District and UNH Cooperative Extension for coming up with the advice and hands-on teaching that led them to creating a high-density orchard.

Two UNH Extension specialists played key roles: now-retired fruit specialist Bill Lord recommended planting fast-growing dwarf apple trees, supported by trellises, and field specialist George Hamilton has phoned, texted and, most importantly, showed them how to do things the right way.

Joe planted his first dwarf apple trees in 2013 and continued planting each year for the next six years; this is the first year he hasn’t planted any trees.

Building a sturdy, long-lasting trellis system is a big investment in both dollars and sweat equity, requiring a design optimal for specific site conditions, Joe explained. “The poles that support the trellis and the fruits’ weight is 14 feet long – 10 feet visible above the ground, and four feet below, bringing it below the frost line. Each tree produces one and a half to two bushels, yielding about 1,385 bushels an acre,” he said. “Each row – clearly marked with the name of the variety – has about 100 trees, and I have 95 rows.”

Stone Mountain Farm now has a pond that supports a drip irrigation system, an increasingly important factor due to climate change.

A compact orchard not only reduces labor costs but also requires less land, explained Joe, citing research done at Cornell.

Annual pruning is done during the trees’ dormant season and usually completed by the end of March. This gives time for Joe to organize the rotational planting of an annual crop of colorful pumpkins, winter squash and gourds on six acres. Visitors in autumn can ride up the hill in a tractor-pulled wagon. “Our prices are competitive, and our customers also buy some of the 40 or so varieties of apples we grow, including eight of McIntosh,” Joe said.

The couple’s next big project is to stabilize the foundation of the old cow barn, remove the stanchions and set up a cider press and an attractive retail store.

Joe delights in some of the unique experiences his fruit-growing career has provided him. A couple of years ago, intrigued by the catalog description of an apple named “Candy Crisp,” he ordered and planted a row’s worth, but was unhappy when the fruit didn’t ripen until the first week of November. “I nicknamed them ‘Halloween Apples,’” he said. “Few customers are visiting by then. So I decided I’d use some of those trees for grafting.

“The story goes that in the 1860s, Jerimiah Rolfe – no relation – over in Cumberland, Maine, was given an apple tree by a local parson. Jeremiah recognized the value of the apple and he named it for himself.” A couple of nurseries in Maine sell Rolfe scionwood, and last year Joe ordered some to top-graft onto the Candy Crisp tree trunks he’d cut off. His graft didn’t take, however.

This year he bought more scionwood in the first week of March, properly refrigerated it and then grafted it in the last week in April, covering the site with a jute cover and it appears they took this time. He is looking forward to the fun of having – and selling – Rolfe apples.

In another fun surprise, Joe noticed in 2016 that a single tree he’d bought from a nursery in Washington State produced apples that seemed to be an anomaly – odd color, odd texture, but a terrific taste. “I asked to have it checked out, and the grower told me that this apple is unique to this orchard so that I can name it. I’ll be calling it Nelson, after my father. I plan to graft and grow at least five of these trees.”

In February, Stone Mountain Farm was designated a 2020 New Hampshire Farm of Distinction at the state Farm, Forest and Garden Expo in Manchester.