New approach could boost orchards, cider makers

This is the third in a series profiling the effect of the hard cider boom on Addison County apple orchards.
CORNWALL — Sunrise Orchards and Vermont Hard Cider are in the midst of a bold experiment — possibly the first of its kind — to see if there’s a new approach to raising apples.
That approach, if successful, could put the cider market front and center for local orchards and help both growers and cider makers improve their bottom lines.
The key will be finding a price point for apples grown just for cider that works for both sides, said Ben Calvi, director of cider making at Vermont Hard Cider in Middlebury (formerly Woodchuck Cider). The project focuses on mature trees in varieties standard to the Vermont table apple market, such as Macintosh.
“The real challenge and task is can a cider maker convince a grower to grow apples for them,” said Calvi. “And so far nobody has convinced a grower to plant cider apples specifically for them … As the cider category increases over time, there’s not going to be enough cull apples available to cider makers.”
BEN CALVI, DIRECTOR of cider making at Vermont Hard Cider in Middlebury, wants to boost production of cider-specific apples in Vermont. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Culls, said Calvi, are the foundation of the Vermont and U.S. craft cider industry. Culls are apples raised for the table market, but deemed not perfect enough for consumers. Some higher-end craft cider makers also use heirloom apples grown specifically for their product, but these apples sell for at least four times the price of culls.
Thus, culls are the workhorse apples for the craft cider industry. But selling culls to local cider makers only goes so far for area orchardists, according to growers like Barney and Chris Hodges, co-owners of Cornwall’s Sunrise Orchards.
“The hard cider industry has definitely increased the demand for process-grade fruit and raised the floor of that market from pretty abysmal prices to … doubled, in some cases, tripled, the price,” said Barney Hodges. “But for a farm that needs to be profitable those are not prices (for culls) that you can run your business on.”
Like many local orchards, Sunrise takes a multi-pronged approach to growing and selling apples. Most of its business is focused on growing for the retail market, while it also sells culls to Vermont cider makers.
And like other local orchards, Sunrise has begun planting small plots of traditional cider heirlooms, such as Dabinett, Yarlington Mill, Ashmead’s Kernel, and Wickson. These trees, the oldest three-years-old, have just begun producing, and Sunrise sells the apples to Shoreham’s Shacksbury Cider at about the same price as a bushel of table apples.
Now Sunrise is taking another approach in its collaboration with Vermont Hard Cider. The goal is to learn whether traditional Vermont table apples like Macintosh, Empire, Paula Red and Red Delicious can be grown just for cider, but in a way that allows orchardists to make a profit.
Vermont Hard Cider’s investment in a pilot project with Sunrise includes a multi-year commitment to buy what both sides are calling “cider-specific” apples at an above-market price, about twice that for culls, Calvi said. Typically apples sell for between $24 and $50 per bushel, while culls go for $6 to $8 per bushel.
The Hodges noted that Shacksbury also agreed to support the pilot project by buying fruit raised on the cider-specific acres.
Calvi is hopeful.
We’re trying to ask Sunrise, ‘Can you grow us a substantial number of acres of Liberty, Cortland, Macintosh at a profit for you and a profit for us?’” Calvi said. “I’m not aware of anybody solving that problem yet. But what we said with Sunrise is let’s try, let’s actually put our money where our mouth is and try it.”
Hodges said Sunrise is investigating ways to grow and harvest apples on its 30 cider-specific acres that will lower the cost of the fruit and its production.
Sunrise is looking into spraying less fungicide and insecticide, pruning less often, and changing storage and harvesting methods.
“What we’re trying to figure out is where is the margin and what can we charge that allows us to be profitable, and frankly take less risk,” Hodges said. “There’s more stability hopefully in that market, whereas right now with the fresh apple market it’s just very, very volatile … The cider industry is very interested in stabilizing that market so that they can count on it to be a certain price, and we can count on it to be a certain price.”
Enhancing quality is also a goal for Sunrise in its cider-specific-acres approach.
“I think growing cider-specific acres is really important to the quality of the juice,” Hodges said.
Vermont Hard Cider agrees: It is creating an entire brand around Sunrise’s cider acreage.
The new brand, Vermont Cider Company, will launch in December with a flagship blend called ‘Addison’ made from Sunrise’s cider-specific acreage’s apples and named after the county.
Calvi said the new brand and collaboration with Sunrise represents a long-term investment in the growth of the hard cider market and in the demand for locally sourced products.
“It’s important to us because we want to be here another 25 years. We’re a 25-year-old company that’s looking long-term at the future of cider and where growth is, and we see the craft segment continuing to grow,” Calvi said.
And if cider were to grow from its current volume of equal to 1 percent of the beer market to 10 percent, Calvi said that cider makers nationwide could need 45,000 more acres dedicated to cider apple production.
If the current collaboration bears fruit, Hodges said Sunrise could see refocusing the orchard from table fruit to cider apples.
“We would love to see cider apple production here become our focus and less so on fresh apples, because we’re controlling our market a little bit more than we are with the fresh industry,” he said. “We want to be the best grower of cider apples around.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree may be reached at [email protected].

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