As a grower and marketer of premium tree fruits for the fresh market, Craig Campbell had to adjust his mindset when he got into the cider-making business.
For fresh apples, he carefully monitors fruit maturity so he can pick at the best time, depending on when they’ll go to market.
For cider apples, he just looks at the orchard floor.
“With cider apples, one of the best indicators is when they start falling off the tree,” Campbell said. “That’s the biggest single difference.”
Apples that are “dead ripe” have more complex sugars and make a better cider, says Campbell, who operates 350 acres of orchard in Tieton and Yakima, Washington, and grows cider apples for Tieton Cider Works, a business that he and his wife, Sharon, own.
Growers in traditional cider regions sometimes shake the crop off their big, old trees, instead of picking. But Campbell has been planting cider apples on modern systems—typically a slender spindle with ten feet between rows and three feet between trees—that will form a fruiting wall.
Pickers will harvest the fruit from a platform, and there’s the potential for mechanization.
Although establishment costs are $30,000 per acre (not counting land), Campbell said the fruiting wall is efficient and should generate high yields, which lowers costs. The market price for cider apples is 40 cents per pound, if you can find them.
This spring, Campbell went into partnership to form a new venture called Cider View, and planted 30 acres of cider apples on this system at Tieton, using benchgrafts on Malling 9 rootstocks planted in place. He believes his is the largest cider apple orchard in the West. The largest cider apple grower in the country is reputed to be Steve Wood, who owns Poverty Lane Orchards and Farnum Hill Ciders in New Hampshire. He has 70 acres and sells his apples across the country.
Cider View also grafted over five acres of Fuji apples to Ashmead’s Kernel, a sweet-sharp apple that can be used to make single-variety ciders, blended, or sold fresh.
The thinking behind the new partnership was that planting cider varieties would be a good investment, given the rapid growth of the cider industry and the shortage of apples for cider making.
It’s every bit as good a bet as growing apples for the fresh market, Campbell said. “We could well be in an oversupply situation with apples because of all the plantings.”
How it started
The Campbells became interested in hard cider production five years ago after a friend, Cindy Richter, who worked for an organic apple marketing company in San Franciso, took a cider-making course at Cornell University, New York.
“She was excited and said, ‘Why don’t you plant some trees,’” recalled Craig, who also gets excited about doing anything new.
While a proportion of certain dessert apple varieties can be used for blending, traditional cider apples (which are classified as sweet, bittersweet, sharp, or bittersharp) lend the cider more complexity and authenticity.
Campbell started by planting a two-acre test plot with about 25 different varieties of cider apples. With the help of English cider expert Peter Mitchell, along with his own observations, he narrowed them down to the eight most suitable for commercial production. Some cider varieties are prone to extreme alternate bearing, and some mature very early when the weather is too hot in Washington, for example.
The varieties they selected are: Yarlington Mill, Golden Russet, Harrison, Dabinett, Harry Master’s Jersey, Kingston Black, Wickson Crab, and Stoke Red. He’s also experimenting with red-fleshed varieties that would make pink cider.
Craig said chemical thinning is critical to overcome biennial bearing. “We’re learning each year how to chemical thin them,” he said. “That’s the key to being successful with these because you want a crop every year.”
Although it’s been thought that cider apples would grow best in a maritime climate similar to that of England or France, where most of them originated, Craig thinks they can be grown anywhere—though they might fare better at high elevations than in hot areas.
Most of the Campbells’ acreage is at Tieton, where Craig’s grandfather Lloyd began farming in the 1920s, at an elevation of 2,000 feet. Craig earned a degree in horticulture from Washington State University in 1973, but his father, Jim, encouraged him to go learn more about the sales business rather than return immediately to the farm.
He went to work for a distant cousin who had a produce brokerage company in California and in 1977 formed CDS Distributing in San Francisco, where he has been a partner ever since. CDS represents several major fruit growers and shippers in Washington as well as produce shippers in California and other regions.
In 1981, he bought a 50-acre orchard at Tieton from a cousin, and after the Alar scare of the late 1980s, transitioned into organic production.
When he took over the family orchard after his father died in 1997, 80 percent of the acreage was Red Delicious. Campbell diversified into new varieties and now has only a few acres of Red Delicious. In addition to cider and perry varieties, he grows apples, pears, cherries, and apricots for the fresh market and recently planted a new white-fleshed apricot from New Zealand called Le Crème. Most of his production is organic.
He divides his time between CDS and the orchard, and calls Seattle home.
With his marketing insights, he tries to figure out what he can grow at his specific location that will match the sweet spot in the fresh market.
“We’re in the fruit distribution business, so you have that information,” he said. “Most growers go to their packing houses or they get their information from the grower groups, which is fine. But having this information has really helped us to know what to plant and to have a plan for how we’re going to sell it before we plant it.”
He’s got Honeycrisp, which he thinks is a good fit for the high elevation. He also grows Pinova and Ambrosia, and what he calls “heirloom” varieties.
“In Seattle, you can go and buy Gala and Fuji, and there’s no excitement,” he said. “Ashmead’s Kernal, Spitzenberg, Gravenstein—those are the apples people want. It’s a little niche thing. If you have the distribution and you want to spend the time to do it, it’s good business.”
Campbell says plenty of CDS’s customers are happy to take a few thousand boxes of an heirloom variety. What you won’t find is a packing house willing to handle them, so Campbell rents warehouse space to pack his own. They sell for $40 a box f.o.b. and retail for around $2.99 a pound.
One of his favorite apples is PixieCrunch, a small, early season apple with a similar texture to Honeycrisp, which was developed at the PRI (Purdue-Rutgers-Illinois) cooperative breeding program.
“It’s a fun little apple, and if I had enough guts, I would plant an orchard of it because I think it would be a home run,” said Campbell, who sees demand for smaller apples than the apple industry at large produces.
“We think we have a good future up here with our mix,” he said, noting that he can’t hope to harvest the tonnage that Columbia Basin growers do. Focusing on niche and heirloom varieties means he’s unaffected by the commodity apple market.
“Whether Red Delicious are selling for $5 or $50 a box, it has no effect on this orchard whatsoever,” he said. “This is for a different usage. There’s no competition. The big packing houses don’t have the least interest in this thing.”
This article by Geraldine Warner is the first of two parts. Coming next: Should the Campbells expand their cidery?