Preservation Orchard at
Arbor Day Farm
By Summer Miller
Photography by Alison Bickel
Elaine Kramer stepped off the Discovery Ride at Arbor Day Farm one day in August, looked straight at me and asked, “Where is theWolfRiverapple? I came here to see it.”
The spry 87-year-old Wisconsin native was unaffected by the 100-degree heat, and was eager to reconnect with the mammothWolfRiverapple of her youth. The highly sought after fruit is both prized and easily recognizable since bakers need only one or two apples to make an entire pie.
It is one of the many antique and heirloom apple varieties planted on the one-acre preservation orchard tucked into the larger landscape at Arbor Day Farm inNebraska City,Nebraska. Lovers of diversity, history and flavor would be wise to seek out this silent but sturdy orchard that is slowly receiving a makeover and some much deserved attention.
Adam Howard has been with Arbor Day Farm since 2008 serving as the greenhouse and hazelnut consortium manager. In January 2012, he added “orchard manager” to his title. Adam, along with Heather Austin, curriculum coordinator, are working to bring the preservation orchard to the forefront of the visitor experience, and for it to serve as a genetic repository for antique and heritage apple varieties.
“We want to expose visitors to apples, obviously, but also to how they used to taste, look and feel before the global market took over.
Many of these are regional apples that people planted long ago,” Adam explained. “Hopefully we can connect people to what we have
here and expand on that. It’s important to hold onto these varieties so they aren’t lost over time.”
The Preservation Orchard’s Beginning
Arbor Day Farm’s commitment to the apples of yesteryear actually began decades ago when John Rosenow, founder and president of the Arbor Day Foundation, visited a preservation orchard inMassachusetts. The experience impressed upon him the value such an orchard could bring to the farm. He set forth the expectation, and “Mort” Porter, the orchard manager at the time, welcomed the opportunity.
In the spring of 1986, Mort planted the first trees in honor of his father, “Grove” Porter, in what he refers to as the Grosvenor M. Porter Preservation Orchard, although a sign saying as much does not exist on the farm. Instead, a humble unassuming sign marks this space as “Preservation Orchard.”
Stories of life and love linger between the rows of gnarled branches bursting with apples in hues of pink, green and bright red. Not the least of which is the life of Mort. His full name is Joy Morton Porter, named after the son of J. Sterling Morton, the founder of Arbor Day. The Morton and Porter families have a long history of mutual respect, as well as a passion for horses, trees and most importantly, apples. As Mort explained, “My dad had the youth and knowledge, and Mr. Morton had the money so they were a good pair. They had what it took to see it through.”
Today, the 86-year-old Mort lives with his wife, Mary, in a beige house in northwestOmaha. Knock Out roses adorn the foundation and new trees—a maple in front and lone apple tree in the back—dot the unassuming lot.
Mort sat in a wingback chair and welcomed me into his home on another hot August day. His hair was combed perfectly to one side. He has kind eyes and a gentle face—perhaps the way honest would look if it was a person. He was quick with kind words and praise for the people in his life. Most of all for his father, Grove.
He was a great man, a proud man,” said Mort. “I never did get his shoes filled. I tried for many years, but the preservation orchard was in many ways my effort to remember him properly.”
Inside his home, bowls of apples, framed advertisements of the farm and large antique furniture from J. Sterling Morton’s mansion pay homage and hold captive stories of this orchard man’s storied beginnings.
“I spent my whole life on that farm, and every rock, every bush, every tree, every valley is like the back of my hand,” said Mort. “So it’s been a special place for me, and it was extremely hard for me to leave. It was so much a part of me. I just wanted to be there all the time. I still want to be there all the time.”
His family has had many notableNebraskamoments. It is the only family to have three generations of Nebraska Cornhuskers football players. Mort once cared for the Triple Crown-winning champion racehorse namedOmaha. Perhaps the greatest legacy was Grove Porter’s decision in 1975 to sell his land to the Arbor Day Foundation and Mort’s commitment to work that land until his retirement at age 80.
“My dad was reluctant to sell. He had hoped to keep it in the family, but he liked the idea that it would stay a farm and orchard forever. He knew that Mr. Morton would favor that type of land use as well,” Mort explained.
Although the land no longer belonged to the Porter family, it was as much a part of Mort as anything at the time. Perhaps the best way he portrayed that commitment was in his unpublished two volume memoir.
“It has been my good fortune to spend most of the days of my life exploring, working and thoroughly enjoying the land that was Joy Morton Orchards, later Porter Orchards and Farm and is now known as Arbor Day Farm,” he said.
The Preservation Orchard Today
According to Mort’s memoir, preservation orchard trees were selected based on five criteria: antique; in danger of becoming extinct; historically linked to a famous person, place or thing; grown in the original orchard by Joy Morton and Grove Porter; or having an unusual size, shape, color or flavor. The preservation orchard originally had 180 trees representing 160 varieties. Today, 126 trees representing 92 varieties grow in the orchard.
Heather joined Arbor Day Farm in 2008, and made the preservation orchard her special project. She and Adam continually work to identify, label and educate others on the history, characteristics and flavor profiles of each tree in the orchard. It’s not uncommon to find her walking between rows and testing apples for ripeness by picking one from a tree and biting into it. “It’s very scientific,” she said with a smile.
She was a teacher before moving toNebraskafour years ago fromFlorida. Her bachelor’s degree is in English with a minor in history, which has made combing the archives and documents at Arbor Day Farm especially exciting. Her enthusiasm for the preservation orchard and the treasures it holds is contagious. She was positively ecstatic after showing me the Almata, which is an apple with red skin and pinkish-red flesh. She brims with historical details about backyard orchards and the importance of the apple in American history.
“I love the stories that go with the apples. I love the history and the sentimentality. Just because an apple isn’t fashionable anymore or money-making doesn’t mean we should plow them under,” explained Heather. “I think it helps to teach and show people that there is value in something that has a neat story.”
Approximately 7,500 varieties of apples are grown worldwide and 2,500 varieties are grown in theUnited States. According to the United States Apple Association, nearly 100 varieties are grown commercially. In 2008, 90% of the commercial production was made up of only 15 varieties: Red Delicious, Honeycrisp, Braeburn, Gala and Granny Smith, among others. At Arbor Day Farm, visitors on the Discovery Ride are likely to hear a guide mention a not-soshocking statistic that the average American has only tried six types of apples.
Certain characteristics, especially in theUnited States, make one apple more popular over another. Chief among them is its shipping capability. Local food and slow food movements are helping to shift the tides by inspiring a stronger desire for taste, quality and regional products. That shifting tide, along with Heather and Adam championing the preservation orchard’s efforts at Arbor Day Farm, could lead to enhanced taste bud exploration for thousands of future visitors.
Apple trees are susceptible to many diseases and environmental factors. They typically have a life span of 30 to 35 years. The genetic lineage is continued through grafting or tissue samples. Since Mort first planted the orchard, some have died, many have been replanted but not identified and others are just past their prime. Efforts are currently underway to replace and add new varieties to the orchard.
In 2011, Arbor Day Farm added the Winter Banana, which is named for its alleged banana-like flavor, and Scarlet Surprise, a pink and red-fleshed apple. Still others were replaced, including Elaine Kramer’sWolfRiver, which was damaged after being struck by lightning. “We planted five [WolfRiver] in spring 2011. In 2013 we should have good-sized apples,” said Heather.
The best way to ensure access to the preservation orchard is to take part in the Discovery Ride. A large tractor pulls a shaded trailer through the farm, while a guide shares stories about the past, present and future of the farm, its wildlife and apple production. Toward the end of the ride the tractor stops at the preservation orchard, where riders exit and are encouraged to explore and pick an apple or two before moving on.
Although you can’t pick an entire bushel of apples from a preservation tree, you can linger, daydream a little bit and discover a new flavor—maybe even one worth returning for when you’re 87.
Preservation Orchard Apples
Almata: Is a red apple with a crisp, tart flavor. Is most prized for its red- or pink-hued flesh.
Arkansas Black: Eggplant purple when ripe, and known to be a good keeper. Tastes OK in October, but will taste even better in November or December after being stored in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator with a damp cloth for moisture.
Calville Blanc d’Hiver: Classic dessert apple ofFrance because it holds its shape when baked. It has a banana-like aroma and more vitamin C than an orange. It has been cultivated since the late 1500s, and was grown by Thomas Jefferson.
Chenango Strawberry: A conical-shaped apple that is greenish or yellowish-white with red stripes. It is pink or blush on the side that faces outward and gets sun which is known as the “sunny” side. It’s very aromatic; good for cooking or eating fresh. It is Mort Porter’s favorite apple.
Cox’s Orange Pippin: Discovered inEngland in the early 1800s. Best known as a dessert apple. Should have a semi-crisp bite and a mild to sharp flavor. Known to be an excellent fresh-off-the-tree apple.
Esopus Spitzenburg: Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apple. Discovered in the 1700s on a farm near Esopus, a town inNew York’sHudsonValley. A superb dessert apple. The skin is orangered with gray spots. Improves after picking and keeps well.
Newtown Pippin: The oldest commercially grown native variety in theUnited States. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both liked it. Mentioned as early as the 1700s. Makes a thick sauce, excellent pies and clear cider; stores well.
Wold River: Discovered in 1875 along the lowerWolfRiver nearFremont,Wisconsin; known for its size. A single apple often weighs more than a pound, requiring only one or two of them to make a pie. Most commonly used for baking or cooking. It is fairly sweet and requires little sugar.
Sources: Joy Morton Porter, Heather Austin and OrangePippin.com
Summer Miller is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in Every Day with Rachel Ray, AAA Living, The Reader and more websites than room to note. She lives with her husband and two children in Elkhorn, Nebraska, where she spends most of her time thinking and writing about food. As of late, she has been traveling the forgotten plains of Iowa and Nebraska writing her first book, which is, of course, all about food and those who love it.