Taking stock of Ezekiel Goodband's heirloom-apple empire
His own name sounds like one of the old-fashioned apple varieties he cultivates. Ezekiel Goodband, Vermont's foremost heirloom apple expert, is the main mover and shaker behind the bushels of Belle de Boskoop, Pitmason Pine Apple, D'Arcy Spice and Newtown Pippin now on display at your local co-op.
Although more and more local apple farmers are discovering the economic and gastronomic benefits of varietal diversification, 53-year-old Goodband was the area's pomological pioneer, with decades of orchard experience in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. A recent Burlington Free Press story described him as New England's "heirloom apple guru."
Wiry, agile and sporting a beard worthy of an ancient patriarch, Goodband finishes loading boxes on a Black River Produce truck to shepherd a visitor through his extensive orchards - on the 571-acre Scott Farm in Dummerston. What the grape is to California's Napa Valley, the apple is here. All 70 varieties are classified as "heirlooms," meaning they have been in existence for at least a century.
"One of my favorites," Goodband says, pointing out some Baldwin apples that will ripen to a deep red by mid-October. "The Baldwin makes a pie for breakfast that gets you through till lunch. It's a workingman's apple. Very, very firm, dense, hard, it stands up to cooking and is noticeably tart. Doesn't turn to mush."
He's partial to the Roxbury Russet, too. "Once you have tasted cider from the Roxbury Russet, almost like nectar, you will never be content with Mac cider again. It would take a wine expert to describe the cider flavors of the late apples."
But there's more to heirlooms than good taste. Each variety represents a slice of cultural history. "One of the things that attracted me to Roxbury Russets," he says, "is the direct link to Roxbury, Massachusetts, in the early 1600s; the unbroken chain of people who kept the variety going. It's genetically the same tree that began its journey almost 400 years ago."
An apple might be named for the town where it originated, or if a genetic quirk produced a choice variety on your farm, "you might name it after your daughter," Goodband says.
The Pitmaston Pineapple, for example, is an English variety from the village of Pitmaston, hinting at the pineapple flavor it will have when ripe. Or take the Esopus Spitzenburg, from the Esopus region of New York when the area was Dutch. The "russet" of Knobbed Russet describes primarily the rough skin and only incidentally the reddish-brown color.
Goodband likens his discovery of heirloom apples to "all those wonderful cheeses" he never tasted as a child. His family grew up eating Red Delicious apples from the small orchard his veterinarian father kept. Then-young Goodband found his way to agriculture via Chinese history at Bowdoin and a degree in ecology from Goddard College. Post-grad, he found himself in Maine, growing vegetables for a seed company and working at a market garden. There he started noticing old, neglected orchards and made arrangements with landowners to improve their trees. With the cuttings from these trees, Goodband started his own nursery, which he relocated to New Hampshire and finally to the Scott Farm six years ago.
Apples aren't native to North America; the early settlers brought them in the form of seeds. Because of the vagaries of pollination and recessive genes, the seeds produced unpredictable results, some of which were considered desirable. Thousands of happy accidents - some high in sugar and acid, others distinctively flavored, others with good cooking or keeping qualities - were replicated by grafting. The product was a genetic clone that could be perpetuated indefinitely.
Early apples were usually low-sugar varieties, which were pressed for cider. Low sugar meant low alcohol, "enough to preserve the cider," Goodband explains, "but you wouldn't get schnockered." The "proof" was important because everyone drank cider - men, women and children. To make dried apples, the settlers preferred an "evaporation" variety such as Maiden's Blush, "a handsome apple that stayed white when it dried."
The Baldwin was the most widely planted variety in New England until a "wicked freeze" in the 1930s killed most of the trees. That, plus "better living through chemistry," Goodband notes ironically, gave Macintosh the edge. Agricultural researchers and chemical companies promoted Macs until they came to dominate New England's apple industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had already hurt apple diversity in the 1920s when, to reduce confusion in the marketplace, it recommended just seven varieties to replace the hundreds still grown commercially. The Mac is a "nice apple," Goodband says, but, like sweet corn, doesn't keep well.
It's not a good deal for growers, either. The Mac is itself defined as an heirloom but like milk, it has become a "commodity" and commands the same price today as it did 20 years ago. Meanwhile, the cost of running an orchard has steadily increased. If Goodband calls a buyer to say he has some Macs packed up, the buyer knows that every other orchard in New England has them packed up, too. To make matters worse, Americans don't eat as many apples as they used to. Consumption in the United States is 15 pounds per capita; in France, it's 50-plus.
Heirloom growers appeal to niche markets, and in specialty realms, price is negotiable. If, for example, Goodband were offering the "fabulous" Reine des Reinettes, with its fine-grained flesh and high sugar and acid content, he would be in a good bargaining position.
Along those lines, Goodband learned from an Austrian baker friend that "real strudel" calls for Belle de Boskoop apples. Goodband found cuttings and discovered, "It's a wonderful pie apple and one of the most handsome apples on Earth," firm enough to stand up under cooking and appropriately tart. His goal now, Goodband says with a smile, is to corner the strudel market.
"If we could just reach the left-handed Buddhists," he quips.
As Goodband plucks and hefts apples, noting their various characteristics, it's clear that they appeal to all the senses. You taste them, of course, and the taste buds react to sweet and tart; the nose detects a fragrance; the eye takes in a range of colors, patterns and shapes; the lips and teeth feel skin quality and degrees of grain and density; the hand responds to surface texture, weight and form. If the apples have reached a certain apotheosis as hard cider, the whole nervous system dances in delight - at least until the morning after.
Timing is everything in the apple business, and Goodband knows when the fruit is ready to pick. For instance, he samples an Ananas Reinette and decides that it needs just a little more time to build sugar and acid. The vocabulary here is comparable to the world of wine, with descriptors such as fine grain, dense, conical, subacid and sprightly carefully applied. The Mac, for example, is a green apple with a red blush or cheek.
It's peak season at the orchard right now, and Goodband is aided by workers who pick apples, set up boxes and pack them. Four Jamaicans perched on tall ladders are plucking fruit from the trees; they arrived on a government guest-worker program. One of Goodband's pickers has worked with him for 16 years. But in the winter, Goodband works alone, pruning each tree himself, accompanied only by his Newfoundland. Only rain will keep him home. No day is too cold.
The farm, a for-profit corporation, has its own unique history; it belongs to the Landmark Trust USA, a not-for-profit American counterpart of Britain's Landmark Trust, which has preserved more than 180 unique buildings in Western Europe. Fred Holbrook gave the land over to the American trust; the farm had been in his family for several generations. Three years earlier Holbrook sold Naulakha, the house Rudyard Kipling built in Vermont, to the same organization.
David Tansey, executive director of the Landmark Trust USA, has big plans for the Scott Farm. Already it grows peaches, plums, grapes, pears, quince, medlars and various berries. Tansey would like to convert more of the farm buildings and land to other agricultural and ecologically sustainable activities. Alternative fuels could be developed, he suggests; farm-raised meat and vegetables could be supplied to local schools.
And, of course, greater efforts could be made to educate the public about how a really good apple tastes. Here at the Scott Farm, as in wine country, human ingenuity works with the gifts of nature to please people whose palates crave more than ordinary fare. Of his apples Goodband says, "They are the fruit of my labor, an expression that really means something."