When Life Gives You Apples, Make Apple Cider

Kyle Haley, fruit coordinator at the Wegmans Organic Farm & Orchard

Overlooking the western shore of Canandaigua Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes region sits Wegmans Organic Orchard, a sprawling 168-acre property where the focus is on growing fresh, organic, and sustainably grown produce. As we head into fall, the orchard team is spending their days tending to the six acres of apple orchards, harvesting fruit for our Wegmans Organic Farm & Orchard Sweet and Hard Ciders.

“When we purchased the former Miller Nurseries property in 2014, we inherited this incredible collection of heirloom apple trees – two acres consisting of 350 semi-dwarf trees and offering more than 70 varieties of apples, many of them lesser-known varieties, and some that date back to the early 1600s,” said Mark Limoli, Wegmans Organic Farm & Orchard Manager. “We knew we had something special, but in the beginning, we weren’t really sure how to move forward.”

Because the apple orchard was previously home to a nursery, the focus was on growing apple trees, not apples. Each tree was at a different stage and producing differently, which created a lack of consistency. That, combined with the distinct characteristics and flavor profiles of the many different varieties meant selling the apples at retail wasn’t an option.

“A lot of people don’t realize that apples aren’t native to the United States. Many of the heirloom varieties we grow at the orchard were brought here by settlers from across the globe, while others are cultivars that were discovered here hundreds of years ago, like the Northern Spy, which was discovered in East Bloomfield, New York,” Explains Kyle Haley, fruit coordinator at the Wegmans Organic Farm & Orchard. “As we did our research, we discovered that most of the varieties are old cider apples, and some don’t exist anywhere else, so we decided to focus on using the fruit for a hard apple cider that would be very unique to us.”

In 2014, the orchard team turned to the experts at BlackBird Cider Works, located in Barker, New York, for help revamping the historic trees and getting them ready for production. In Partnership with BlackBird, the first batch of Wegmans Organic Farm & Orchard Hard Cider hit the shelves at select Wegmans locations in 2016.

That same year, in partnership with Cornell and BlackBird, the orchard team set to work on establishing a high-density apple orchard with the goal of producing retail-ready organic apples. In a high-density orchard, the trees are planted closer together and trained vertically. This growing approach promotes air flow and sunlight, which results in less disease, and requires minimal pruning and lower maintenance. Cornell also advised the team on the varieties best suited for organic growing and shared best practices.

Unfortunately, the region’s high humidity and insect pressure make it very difficult to grow organic apples in the northeast, making it difficult to consistently produce retail-ready apples, which in turn, results in unwanted waste. Committed to sustainable growing, the team quickly realized the need to switch focus from growing table-ready apples to growing apples for cider.

“We were already producing the hard cider, combining the heirloom varieties with those from the high-density orchard,” said Limoli. “But we saw an opportunity to take it a step further and focus on a sweet cider, using apples from both orchards, for a total of nearly 100 varieties, to produce a truly unique, fresh, organic sweet apple cider.”

The sweet cider, pressed by Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva, New York, is truly unique. In addition to the 70 heirloom varieties of apples, through our work with Cornell, the orchard has become a test location for growing different unnamed varieties of apples, adding to the unique makeup of our organic apple cider.

“Apple cider may not have been in the plan when we purchased the property back in 2014, but we couldn’t be happier with the program we have today and the growth we see for it in the future,” said Limoli. “We found a way to best use the fruit from the trees we inherited, as well as minimize waste from the high-density trees we planted.”

The Wegmans Organic Farm & Orchard Hard Cider is currently available at select stores in New York and Virginia, and the Apple Cider will be available at all Wegmans locations starting in October.