To have a successful business, you need a good business plan – well, apparently not always!! In the case of Ravenskill Orchards it was serendipity and the plan if ever there was one came afterwards.
Ian Mackenzie and Marti Wright are the owners of Ravenskill Orchards on Gabriola Island, Canada. One day, “pre-orchard”, Marti wanted to make an apple pie using an apple called Northern Spy, a variety she knew from Upstate New York that is particularly good for apple pies. Her search turned up no Northern Spy apples because the growers had removed the “old fashioned” Northern Spy trees and replanted their orchards with more commercially viable apples. This was the beginning of the business plan, planting Northern Spy apples so that Marti could use them to bake an apple pie!!
Finding Ravenskill Orchards
As Ruth and I explored Gabriola Island along the South Coastal Route, we saw a rustic sign that read “Apples” and “Apple Cider”. A wide hinged metal gate was open and we drove in and parked the car. Another sign suggested we could pick our own apples, “U-Pick” style. There was a stack of buckets and we each took one to fill with our freshly picked apple harvest.
Approaching the orchard, it became apparent there was something very different about the way these apples were being grown. It looked like a vineyard because the apple trees were pruned like vines and supported on a wire trellis. The orchard was well planned, organized into rows and each row had a sign indicating the apple variety. Apart from the unique method of growing the apples, we were impressed by the distinctive and diverse colors of the different varieties, colors and textures we had never seen on an apple, from burgundy, plum, puce, vibrant red stripes over yellow, oranges blending into yellow, yellows with russet spots and green flushed with pink accents. It looked as if someone had carefully hand painted the apples creating these unique color combinations. With gusto, we went from row to row with our buckets picking apples and throwing them into the bucket. Each time we thought we had enough, we would see another unique color and and could not resist adding it to our harvest.
More about the Orchard
Revenslkill Orchards was the dream and brainchild of Marti Wright and Keith Mackenzie. They were both Power Engineers in their “former life”, with no special training in agriculture or horticulture. As a young girl Marti had worked part time in an apple orchard in Upstate New York, an experience that made her dream “one day” of having her own apple orchard, where she could grow heritage and antique apple varieties. It helps to dream because dreams can come true: to date, Ravenskill Orchards has five acres under cultivation, twenty five plus apple varieties and over one thousand apple trees or “vines” as I prefer to call them.
In 2004 Marti and Keith bought a parcel of twenty seven acres of land on Gabriola Island. It was part of a larger parcel being sold for Estate Housing. Lacking a view, it was the least desirable segment and they were able to secure it at a bargain price. It was originally part of the indigenous forest, covered in trees. The trees had been cut down, but the stumps needed to be removed and the brush cleared. It had a good slope, loamy soil and a Medterranean micro climate. A lot of work was required before any apple trees could be planted. Clearing the land of weeds, brush and tree stumps, the waste material was ground up and put back into the land as compost plus poultry manure and fish emulsion to build up the nutrients.
The nursery was the starting point for accumulating a selection of heritage and antique apple varieties that were out of circulation. Sourcing and selecting heritage apple cuttings was the next step. These were grafted onto dwarf root stock using a technique called ”bench grafting”. Extra care is required while the young saplings take root, but the advantages of this specialized growing method are that the trees grow only 30 – 60% as big as a standard tree, they fruit earlier, have heavy fruit loads and are far easier to harvest as the fruit is within reach.
Once the saplings are established, they are taken from the nursery to the orchard. Holes are prepared, they are transplanted, pruned and trained like vines, supported by strong vertical supports and horizontal wires.
The “Tall Spindle System”
Growing apples this way, was a method developed by Cornell University in Ithaca, USA, called the Tall Spindle System. By pruning and training the branches to trail along wood and wire supports, it was possible to grow the branches similarly to the way grapes are grown on vines.. Cornell’s research team proved that this method maximized profitability through early fruiting, improved fruit quality, reduced spraying and pruning. This method also resulted in an approximate 40% increase in crop value compared to the traditional way of growing apples on a tree. The benefits far outweigh the extra work required.
Ravenskill Orchards, practices organic farming, using no insecticides relying on handpicking insects, interruption pheromones and predatory insects to control unwanted pests. Fish emulsion is used as a foliar feed and compost mixed with poultry manure is added to the soil instead of chemicals.
The orchard is a natural habitat for birds, bees and other beneficial insects. Ravenskill also works together with a bee keeper who brings in bees in the spring to pollinate the flowers. This is a fully organic sustainable method of growing apples.
One of the reasons for the brilliant colors of the apples is the terroir combined with sustainable farming methods. Terroir is as important in growing apples as it is in growing wine grapes. There are several micro climates on Gabriola Island and Ravenskill has a Mediterranean climate. The quality and flavor of the apples develops from the climate, the sea breeze that gently blows through the orchard, the composition of the loamy ground and the balance of nutrients.
With this wonderful apple orchard, Keith and Marti decided to experiment with cider making and Keith took a course both in production and the business side of cider making at Washington University. The original cider included Northern Spy, Cortland, Golden Delicious and Mackintosh apples. Inviting some friends to sample an early batch of cider, the response was so favorable that they were encouraged to go into making craft cider, where there had been a dearth in the market.
This required adding a cidery with machines for crushing the apples and 5,000 liter tanks for storing the maturing cider. A tasting room was built adjacent to this with a glass wall where one can see the cider storage tanks. It is also where visitors can taste Gabbie’s cider and learn how it is made.
Finally in 2010 the first crop of Northern Spy, Mackintosh, Cortland and Golden Delicious apples that were planted specifically to make cider (and apple pies !!) were harvested and the cider business became a reality.
The Cider being made by Ravenskill is marketed under the name of “Gabbie’s Cider” and has already won gold medals. Martie and Keith wanted an old fashioned traditional “dry” cider with no added sugar, similar to Strongbow, an English brand.
Jonas Greig a certified Sommelier who has spent ten years making wines in the Okanaga Valley in Canada is the main cider maker for Gabbie’s Cider.
To make the cider, apples are crushed and allowed to ferment for three weeks. During this time, further testing is carried out to be sure the fermentaion process is working to produce a high quality cider with a fresh apple taste. After the apple juice has been fully fermented, a layer of sediment called “lees” is removed by the cider maker. The fermented cider is transferred to a stainless steel tank where it continues to mature for a year before being bottled. The lees is used to make vinegar or scrumpy, which is a more rustic cider.
Cider of this standard requires the best quality apples. Ravenskill uses a blend of their own North American dessert and English/French bittersweet and bittersharp apples that were planted especially for cider production.
Ravenskill Orchards is an example of the resurgent interest in heritage and antique apples. Using modern methods and sustainable farming, Ravenskill has been super successful in getting large yields of high quality fruit from their diverse collection of heritage apple “vines”. The effort has truly been worthwhile. Along the way, a business plan was formulated !! As Marti and Keith are both engineers, it would seem very unlikely that anything was left to chance, or as earlier suggested, serendipity.. It may have been a hobby to begin, but is today a carefully planned business that has realized its full potential beyond its humble beginnings.
What are Heritage Apples?
Basically, they are the apples farmed by our ancestors that are mostly out of circulation and no longer farmed commercially. It is not easy sourcing them, but with the proliferation of farmers markets, one is seeing more Heritage or Heirloom apples and demand is growing. They have come back into “fashion”. Mostly, Heritage apples are very flavorful, can have odd shapes and unusual colors, textures and tastes.
Sadly, with urbanization, apple orchards have been cleared and many original heritage apple varieties were lost. But the community of apple growers shares its information and Marti Wright acknowledges that she has benefited much from information from other growers and vice versa. Everything old is new again as we develop an appreciation for these resurrected varieties.
1120 Coats Drive
Gabriola BC VOR 1X4