You can probably tell by the name of the orchard, that Harry Burton is crazy about apples. He thinks his obsession may have started back in northern Ontario where he grew up. He and his friends used to raid apple trees. In 1971, he hitchhiked to Vancouver with a buddy and fell in love with the west coast. He bought his current five-acre farm on Salt Spring Island in 1980, but he didn’t move here until 1998 when he retired from teaching environmental studies at a college back east.
Apple Luscious Organic Orchard was part of an old farm, but it was entirely forest when Harry decided to buy it. Now there’s about 2.5 acres of good bottomland in production, the rest is still wild, with cedar trimming the south and east edges and a seasonal creek wending its way through the property. Harry grows over 200 different varieties of apples, with the largest collection of red flesh apples in Canada, including Scarlet Surprise, Glowing Heart, Almata, Pink Pearl, Burgundy, Mott’s Pink, Webster’s Pink Meat, Winter Red Flesh, Red Flesh, Pink Pearmain and Aerlie Red Flesh. Plums, pears, cherries and Asian pears bring the tree count to around 350.
“If the apple doesn’t meet my taste test, then the tree gets removed and I plant a better variety,” says Harry.
Harry sells his fruit both at farm gate and at the Moss Street Farmers Market in Victoria. He values the personal connection with his customers and his customers trust him too. The climate on Salt Spring is a little damper and cooler than the Okanagan, so there’s more canker and scab to deal with. But, by encouraging his customers to taste test right at his stand, he is even able to sell “ugly” apples.
“People will buy an apple with a scab on it from me, but not from the store,” says Harry.
“And when they pick the apple from the tree themselves, they really connect with it, even more than buying it face to face from me at the community market.”
The climate isn’t the only issue. “The deer can be fenced out, but rabbits can be really tough,” says Harry. “They go after the younger trees, the nursery really got wiped out last year.” From January to March, Harry sells tree stock from his nursery, which is now surrounded with rabbit-proof fencing.
So, what keeps Harry going through all the ups and downs of farming life? “The orchard,” he replies. “It has a pulsing heart that keeps me going. I love being out there, connected with nature. There’s always a lot to do, without a specific time line. And I love that I’m helping to preserve apple varieties. This is the only place in Canada where you will find some of my varieties,” he says proudly.
Despite the challenges, it turns out Salt Spring Island has a long history of apple growing, longer than the Okanagan in fact. On his website, Harry has written a brief history, dating back to 1860. He claims that in 1894, there were more fruit trees than residents on the island. Some of those 4600 heritage trees remain today, but the larger orchards have disappeared. The 450 residents have ballooned to 10,500, but the old remaining trees manage to keep the locals in vintage cider.
Harry is one of many farmers reviving the apple growing tradition on the island. Since 1999, they have been celebrating that tradition at The Salt Spring Apple Festival, initiated by Captain Apple himself. Last year a dozen orchards were on the tour, plus a couple cheeseries and wineries. Fulford Hall is command central, with a vast array of apples, more than 300 varieties, spread out on the tasting tables. There’s an equally vast selection of pies. The “pie ladies” make over 400 pies for the Fall Fair a couple weeks before the apple festival, then another 150 for the apple celebration. Each pie is made from one apple variety and is labeled accordingly. People purchase the $10 map and then taste and tour at their leisure. “Last year, there was a grandmother looking after 4 kids, kids are free, so they could attend the whole festival for $10. We don’t want to exclude anyone,” says Harry.
The apple festival crew has created a beautiful poster of the many varieties of heritage apples, with proceeds going to a project that supports communities in Africa. This year the apple festival will take place on Sunday, September 29.
So what’s Harry’s favourite apple? “Whichever one is in my hand at the moment,” he says.
This article first appeared in BC Organic Grower magazine, Summer 2013, Volume 16, Issue 3.
Photo credit: Apple Luscious Organic Orchard.