Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Apple of the Eye

Keep me as the apple of your eye (Psalm 17:8)

Farming in Jersey today is difficult, and as some farmers retire from the industry or leave it, more land is coming available that needs to be managed - and not built upon - in the best way, to keep it available for future generations.

One possibility is to use some of the land for orchards once more, but for nurturing the distinctive Jersey apples, rather than foreign import. Slightly differently from the allotment movement, this would require a team effort - people who wanted to give some spare time to looking after - as a group or co-operative - a particular orchard and nurturing it. There is no reason why some of the produce should not be sold, perhaps via farm shops.

There are a number of groups in the U.K. doing precisely this - one example is the Wolvercote Tree group:

THE orchard was set up by volunteers from the Wolvercote Tree Group in 1994 on land owned by the Oxfordshire Preservation Trust to preserve and propagate old varieties of Oxfordshire apple and dedicated to Ralph Austen, a 17th Century horticulturalist who talks to us across the ages about self-sufficiency and the common ownership of land. The orchard now has over 30 varieties of apple tree and is used for community events including the annual Apple Day celebrations each October. The tree group is supported by the Oxford Preservation Trust and the Forest of Oxford. To date, more than 30 different varieties of apple have been planted, along with some pear, quince, cherry and plum trees.

Apples have, of course, played a major role in the Island's past. The 1861 report of the Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society mentions that an act being annulled that year which previously had prohibited "the entry of apples, cider, pears, etc."

The report notes that:

At the time when the ordinance in question was passed, we are told that " one-fourth part of the arable land was occupied by apple-trees (though, certainly, not to the exclusion of other crops), and that it was probable that in the Island a greater quantity of cider was made than in any other spot of equal extent, and that then the orcharding was still evidently on the increase." The Rev. F. Le Couteur, Rector of Grouville, informs us, in his " Apercu sur la culture des pommes," that, on the average, the annual quantity of cider produced in the Island amounted from 30,000 to 35,000 hogsheads of 60 gallons each.

The report goes on to note that "the large orchards of olden times have given way before the plough, and in innumerable places where once flourished the apple-tree, now are grown other crops, more necessary, no doubt, to meet the wants of the present day, but, nevertheless, this we maintain, that it is to be regretted that the culture of the apple-tree has been much neglected"; it also notes that there was still a substantial export market of around £10,000 to £12,000 per annum.

And finally, it suggests that the orchards should not be forgotten, and there is still a place for growing applies in the Island:

There are at this moment many spots over the Island, by far more appropriate for orchards, and which would answer best as such, that are left in a bad condition of rotary culture, and there are also well-sheltered cotils in their natural state, too steep perhaps for ordinary cultivation, but whereon apple-trees might be planted advantageously

Hamptonne Country museum, of course, has an orchard of local apples - "The orchard has been planted with a selection of island varieties of bittersweet and bittersharp apples which, when mixed together, provide the right balance for the cider we produce following the autumn harvest".

But there is no reason why the apples grown should be used solely for cider making. Jersey had its own varieties of sweet and delicious apples, and it may well be that there would be a niche for those, especially via farm shops.

In 1950, Sydney Bisson compared the indigenous local crop with that of the United Kingdom, and regrets that they were dying out. But that was in the days of mass-marketing, and the move towards organic food has led to a realisation that mass production may produce a bland product, and the time may be right again for a revival of the Jersey applies. Here is Sydney Bisson, writing in the 1950s:

I am grieved at the passing of the old Jersey `sweet' apple. I have never met it outside the island, and have often wondered why it isn't grown in England. To my mind, there is nothing quite like it for eating raw. I'd give a pound of Cox's for an old-fashioned sweet apple any day. And for baked apple dumplings it is indispensable.

In the early days of my exile, when I innocently thought that sweet apples were as widely known as sour, I went into a green-grocer's shop in Leeds and asked for some.

`Aye,' said the shopkeeper. `There's some luvly Blenheims.
Or would you rather these Cox's Orange ?'

I raised an eyebrow. Was he deaf, or did he think I was an innocent who didn't know one kind of apple from another?
`But,' I protested, `I asked for sweet apples. Those are sour.'

I shall never forget the look on the poor man's face when I said that. In twenty years of greengrocering, as he told me later, he'd never heard anyone describe a Cox or a Blenheim as sour. He would probably have called the nearest policeman if I had not hurriedly explained that in Jersey all apples of the type normally eaten in England are known as sour apples, and that another quite distinct type is grown there which is called sweet. But he had never heard of them. Neither has anyone else in England, apparently. And now they are difficult to get even in Jersey. In fact all the old local varieties are dying out. People nowadays will plant James Grieve, Charles Ross, and Newton Wonder. Never Gros Freschien, Romeril, Douce Dame, Nier Binet, Gros Tetard, Manger, Pepin Billot . What a lovely symphony of names !

In 1933, Harold Shepard, when he was writing his history of the RJ&HS, noted that:

In recent years the possibilities of fruit growing have been much in evidence, therefore the remarks and the quotations from older authorities on the one-time general culture of fruit trees are particularly apposite.

I think this is even more apposite now, and we should seriously consider some kind of collective enterprise to make best use of the land, alongside the allotment movement. Land used for cultivation of applies is always available for future use, in a way that land built upon is not, and by using voluntary collectives to come together -as in the Wolvercote Tree Group and others, the land is kept in good condition for future generations.

One Hundred Years of the Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society: 1833-1933, H.G. Shepard, 1934
Jersey Our Island, Sydney Bisson, 1950

1 comment:

Nick Palmer said...

Biofuels got a bum rap because of the Yanks pork barrel plugging ethanol from corn (maize).

Anaerobic digestion of apples to form methane should be much more viable.

AD is usually associated with digesting manure (to generate a version of natural gas) but this source material has already had a fair chunk of the chemical energy removed by the digestive process of the creatures that created it.

Apples are high carbohydrate, high sugar materials so the output of AD plant using them would be a lot higher than from manure fed plant and, as a bonus, the EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) would be far higher than from corn because an established orchard keeps on giving and giving with minimum input and cultivation.

Orchards dedicated to growing "fuel" could be fertilised with human manure, which is normally regarded as unsuitable for crops.