Every apple has a story, and the third- and fourth-generation family growers in the heart of the state’s apple country can tell you lots of them. Take, for example, the original Delicious apple: “It was neither red nor yellow — it was striped,” says Tom Clark, the third generation of his family to own and operate Clarkdale Orchard in Deerfield. He adds that the flesh of Cortlands — which, like Empires, Jona Golds, and several other popular eating varieties, were born of 20th-century science at Cornell University’s School of Agriculture — doesn’t turn brown right away after it’s exposed to the air, making it popular in Waldorf salads. And the University of Minnesota has developed such cold-hardy apples as the Honeycrisp, which ripen late in the season.
The names of older varieties, called heirlooms, often advertise their special qualities: What says it better than a baking apple called Pound Sweet? Other names boast their place of origin, as in Roxbury Russet, Westfield-Seek-No-Further, and Baldwin, all Bay State towns.Massachusetts ranks 12th in the nation in apple production, and although the Berkshires and the hills edging the northern Connecticut Valley hold some magnificent orchards, the state’s traditional fruit basket is Worcester County. A stretch of Route 2 dubbed the Johnny Appleseed Trail traces this region’s northern edge, from Ayer, on the east, to Phillipston, on the west.
According to Russell Powell, senior writer of the New England Apple Association, Jonathan “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman (1774–1845) was born in Leominster and moved to Longmeadow as a child. Though the state’s apple country still claims Chapman, the seeds he planted on his westward ramble came from elsewhere. “He sowed apple orchards in Ohio and Indiana with seeds collected from cider mills in western Pennsylvania beginning in his late 20s,” says Powell, author of “America’s Apple,” a new book on the history and culture of the country’s favorite fruit.
By extending the Appleseed Trail west, the following east–west route samples orchards from Stow to Shelburne, all just a few miles off Route 2, but many others lie within a slightly longer drive. Most apple growers also raise other fruits and berries throughout the summer, particularly peaches. While some focus on picking and selling, several also host events and attractions — hayrides, festivals, petting zoos — throughout the harvest season. You can find many other family-owned orchards on the New England Apple Association website.
Words to the wise: First, different varieties mature at different times in the season as the temperature gradually drops. McIntoshes and Macouns, for example, typically are ready to pick in early September, Empires and Cortlands a few weeks later. Next, orchards don’t welcome pets, because apples need to fall on clean grass. Finally, all the growers said that apples started ripening two weeks ahead of schedule this year, so don’t wait until October to go.
SHELBURNE FARM, Stow
Twenty miles west of Boston, this orchard is a holdout in a fast-suburbanizing area. Visitors pick more than 20 varieties, from McIntosh to Mutsu, and sink their teeth into the renowned homemade caramel apples. All of the self-pick varieties, plus several heirlooms — Northern Spy, Winesap, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Rhode Island Greening, and others — are also sold in the Apple Shop. Later in the season, pumpkins will be ready for the picking. Hayrides, pony rides, farm animals, live music, and a mini hay maze are among weekend offerings, and visitors can chow down on hotdogs and fresh ice cream, baked goods, and hot cider. 106 West Acton Road, 978-897-9287, shelburnefarm.com, daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m., weekend attrac-tions 10-5.
CARLSON ORCHARDS, Harvard
Founded in 1936 by Walter and Eleanor Carlson, the orchard is operated by their sons Bruce, Frank, and Robert, who grow fruit on 120 acres. In a town noted for fine orchards, this one dares to boast that it makes “the best-tasting apple cider available anywhere” — half a million gallons of it a year. On 50 rolling acres (including fields and a frog pond), visitors can pick or buy seasonal varieties from the 21 grown here. Granny Smiths and Pink Ladies wind up the season. The Carlsons offer hayrides in pumpkin season, typically late September to early October, and the farm starts selling hot apple crisp and cider doughnuts in early September. 115 Oak Hill Road, 800-286-3916, carlsonorchards.com, daily 9 a.m.-4 p.m., call in advance for weekday group tours.
WESTWARD ORCHARDS, Harvard
Co-owner Karen Green, who grew up here, says that this 275-acre farm started out as a summer place for her grandfather Ernst Hermann, dean of the Sargent School at Boston University. After her father studied agriculture at the University of Massachusetts, “he got serious about growing them and started Westward Orchards,” she says. Now the fourth generation of the family is learning the ropes. In addition to pick-your-own fruit and pumpkins, a former dairy barn at the orchard sells gourmet delicacies, produce, and baked goods. A lunch counter serves sandwiches, soups, cider doughnuts, and other goodies. Bluegrass musicians play on Sundays, with other special events unfolding during the season. 178 Mass. Ave. (Route 111), 978-456-8363, westwardorchards.com, Wed-Mon (closed Tue) 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
SHOLAN FARMS, Leominster
“This is the last large commercial orchard in Johnny Appleseed’s birthplace,” says Joanne DiNardo, president of Friends of Sholan Farms. The nonprofit successfully pressed the city to purchase the 169-acre property in 2001, saving it from development. Although the city still owns the property, the Friends group runs everything — the 30-acre orchard, community gardens, berry patches, and a 40-acre wildlife meadow — with no city funding and largely volunteer labor. The 300-year-old farm now sustains itself on fruit sales, festivals, tours, and private donations. “And we’re running in the black,” DiNardo says. Visitors can hike 28 miles of trails or pick the 37 varieties grown here. Picnic tables and gazebos make it a popular wedding spot. “In September, we have a bride riding in on a black stallion,” says DiNardo. 1125 Pleasant St., 978-840-3276, sholanfarms.com, daily 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m., check for events, group tours by appointment.
RED APPLE FARM, Phillipston
This hilltop farm has existed since 1912 — along with the oldest commercially planted McIntosh apple tree in New England, planted here the same year. Al Rose, and his wife, Nancy, make the fourth generation to own and operate the 67 acres of orchards — though what they do goes beyond raising 50 varieties of apples. A petting zoo, hayrides, evening bonfires, and barbecues are among the activities going on throughout fall and early winter. The farm also hosts private functions and public festivals such as the upcoming Appleseed Country Fair. And in this centennial anniversary year, the Roses added an outdoor brick oven to bake apple crisp on cool fall days. 455 Highland Ave., 800-628-4851, redapplefarm.com, daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m., check for special events and evening bonfires.
CLARKDALE FRUIT FARMS, Deerfield
The third generation to run his family’s fruit farm, Tom Clark knows a lot about apples for a man who studied metal smithing in college. “It helps to have an artistic outlook,” he says. “My father is the one who studied agriculture.” Now Clark is breaking in his son Ben, who majored in theater lighting. Yet Clark knows the 50-plus varieties of apples he raises, not to mention peaches, plums, pears, and grapes. Normally, the farm offers pick-your-own in its McIntosh orchard, but this year a late spring frost damaged it, canceling that option. But visitors will find Macs and dozens of other varieties packed in bags in the farm’s store. The rural scenery in this hill country near Old Deerfield Village makes for a rewarding day trip or a weekend stay. 303 Upper Road, 413-772-6797, clarkdalefruitfarms.com, daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m., except Thanksgiving.
APEX ORCHARDS, Shelburne Falls
When Tim Smith says his 350-acre farm commands “one of the most spectacular views in New England,” it’s no empty boast. The 180-degree view on this hilltop perch west of the Connecticut River takes in Mount Monadnock, in southern New Hampshire, and the hills in between. Smith, the seventh-generation family member here, says the hill country microclimate makes for particularly fine-tasting apples. “In my opinion, flatter, hotter climates produce a softer apple, without the crunch,” says Smith. “There’s nothing like apples that come from hill farms.” A chance to pick with a stunning panorama, or buy the in-season fruit at the store, are the sole visitor attractions. 153 Peckville Road, 413-625-2744, apexorchards.com, farmstanddaily 9 a.m.-5 p.m., PYO early September to mid-October.
Jane Roy Brown can be reached at email@example.com.