Published in the Philadelphia Daily News, September 22, 2004

IKE KERSCHNER admits he is a member of a cult.

The cult’s adherents may be irrational. Their god is demanding and finicky and exacts many sacrifices – in time and money. But Kerschner’s belief is unshakable.

Kerschner, who runs Coatesville’s North Star Orchard with his wife, Lisa, is a member of what he calls “the apple cult.”

“There is a cult of fruit-growing that preserves the old varieties,” he explained. Though “antique,” or heirloom, varieties of apples may be hard to find, there are ways and channels “if you get connected with those people,” as Kerschner put it.

Though most of us know only the three or four apple varieties commonly available in supermarkets – Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, McIntosh, Granny Smith – there are perhaps 3,000 varieties in the United States. Kerschner estimates that there may be 8,000 varieties worldwide.

Plant It and They Will Come

Ever heard of Gold Rush, Golden Russet or Roxbury Russet? Those are only a few of the Kerschners’ favorites among the 67 varieties that the 11-acre North Star Orchard grows.

But these antique apples are not as hardy as modern varieties. Kerschner said he lost about $10,000 this season because of three days of hot weather right after one of his varieties bloomed. The trees therefore did not produce any marketable fruit.

Then there are hailstorms, insects and disease that can damage crops. Too much rain can wash out the flavor of apples. (Kerschner compares apples to wine grapes, which are affected by growing circumstances, and can have good years and bad years.) And Kerschner makes it even harder on himself by choosing to thin his trees by hand, instead of using chemical thinners — apple trees develop optimum fruit only if you cull some of the fruit early on.

“We’d like to be making more money for how hard we’re working,” he said.

So why do it? “Because so many [antique varieties] are so superior to supermarket apples,” said Lisa Kerschner. Ike added, “Who wants to eat a McIntosh for every day of your life? It’s a lot easier to eat an apple a day if you have different varieties.”

Lisa Kerschner is more often than not the face of North Star Orchard at the farmer’s markets where the couple sells their fruit (they also sell peaches, the applelike Asian pears as well as fruit products). She is therefore the one who reaps the “great reward,” as she put it, of feedback from her customers.

But when the couple started their business in 1992, it was before there was really a market for their unusual produce.

“We planted and hoped the market would develop,” she said. Sure enough, farmer’s markets started springing up, and consumers became more sophisticated in their buying habits.

She now has an e-mail list of some 500 devoted customers for a newsletter she started only last year.

Selling the Farm Experience

Norm Schultz, the farm manager for Media’s Linvilla Orchards, agrees that consumers are becoming more educated.

Generally, though, “most people buy with their eyes,” Schultz said. This, he said, is what has ruined Red Delicious apples, which have been bred for looks instead of taste. Commercial growers also want durability from their apples so they can ship them without damage.

Commercial orchards have developed Red Delicious apples with redder and redder – Red Delicious used to be striped apples – and tougher and tougher skins.

In addition, Shultz pointed out, commercial growers may store apples for six months in so-called controlled atmosphere storage – industrial refrigerators where air quality is monitored – and then ship them three months or more later. That supermarket apple you buy might be up to a year old. And more than likely the apple was picked green, which makes it easier to ship. So what you have is a year-old green apple.

“They may be the prettiest, nicest apples, but they have no flavor,” Schultz said of supermarket apples.

Unlike North Star Orchard, which has developed its niche in antique varieties of apples, the 300-acre Linvilla Orchards (with 16 acres of apples) grows modern varieties, which tend to bear more fruit and are more resistant to disease. Still, besides Red Delicious and Granny Smith, you will find less-known apples such as Honey Crisp, Jonagold and Stayman Winesap (Schultz’s faves) – 35 varieties in all. And you can pick them yourself, so you know they’re fresh.

Besides selling its produce in its on-site market and to retailers, Linvilla makes much of its money from selling the farm experience. Agritourism is how the farm, which has been in the Linvill family since 1914, gets by. Schultz said that some 40,000 school children pass through Linvilla each year. And the farm attracts visitors with special festivals.

This weekend, for example, in celebration of the birthday of John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman (born Sept. 26, 1774), Linvilla is hosting an apple festival, with pony rides, food, face painting and hayrides to the orchards to pick your own. In October, the farm does a huge business in pumpkins. The farm has recently added fishing ponds too.

Schultz notes regretfully some local orchards that have sold out to condo developers. The owners can make more money by selling instead of working the land. It’s hard to compete with what is called progress.

Farming on a Human Scale

Luckily, some folks, like North Star Orchard’s Ike Kerschner, remain stubbornly committed to the life of the small family farm.

“I think the world would be a better place if all apples were grown on 10-acre orchards rather than 1,000-acre orchards,” Kerschner said. “There’s a scale to all things that’s an appropriate human scale. Instead we have…encouraged a nonhuman scale of agriculture – a business model.”

Kerschner realizes that not everyone will agree with his views and passions. Not everyone worships the same god he does.

After all, he said, “The apple cult isn’t something you join, it’s just something you belong to.”

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