As we embark on a new year with as much enthusiasm and positivity as we can muster it is a good time to count our blessings.
Our oldest and most lovely old apple trees have borne silent witness to the ups and downs human life for nearly a whole century. The world has changed and the farm has changed, while the trees have become broader and more craggy and welcoming to wildlife. I find something comforting in this. The continuity of their quiet annual rhythms is such a contrast to the turbulence in our lives at times like these that I like to look a them and remember that things will be alright in the end if we can just get through the here and now.
The impact of COVID has gone right back to the start of the supply chain, and for us in the cider industry that’s the apple growers around the country who specialise in cider apple fruit. With our vats and tanks still filled with the cider we should have sold in the Summer, we simply don’t have room for the usual annual harvest. We’ve done our best here at Sheppy’s to support our small local growers this year by taking their apples, but many cider makers have contracts for huge quantities of apples which they just haven’t been able to accept.
I know how much people love orchards and hate to waste their apples; we get calls most years from people who just don’t want to see the garden fruit they can’t possibly manage to use going to waste.
Unfortunately, like any other crop, apples need to have a market and cider fruit has no other market at all, as much of the fruit is tannic and unpleasant for eating, cooking or juicing. Managing these orchards to produce a good quality crop requires a lot of work. Your tree at home may fruit with surprising abundance once every other year and, standing on its own, be relatively disease free. Any kind of orchard is more intensive and requires a considerable amount of maintenance from the turn of the new year with pruning, some spraying, grass mowing and, finally at the first hint of Autumn, the harvest. Much of this work will have been invested in last year’s crop as growers hedged their bets against all the uncertainty, and ended with their precious fruit rotting.
Sadly, although it is still very early, there still remains much uncertainty about what 2021 will bring and how late in the season we will finally begin to enjoy the freedom to socialise and share meals and drinks together. Undoubtedly growers will be worrying all over again about how much to invest in their orchards this year, uncertain whether their customers will be able to take their apples again in the coming harvest, contract or no contract.
Apple trees are, of course, a crop, but with an expected life of at least 50 years. At the height of cider’s popularity many people decided to grow orchards, small and large, but since then the cider industry has been slowly shrinking for a few years now, so the growers already faced a shrinking opportunity to sell their products, together with a shrinking price. For many the impact of COVID may be just enough to make the decision that their orchards have no future, or, slightly better, must be untended for a while. We should not be at all surprised then to see some of the glorious orchards which have cheered our landscapes and scented our early Summers disappear.
The new year is a time to look forward with hope, and cider makers have their own very special way of doing this with the Wassail. What riotous fun we should be having in our dark frosty orchards with fires and hot cider, shouting, banging sticks, shooting guns and dancing (if you haven’t done this you really need to, as soon as you can). Going through the rituals of a wassail ceremony on my own last weekend was not quite such a cheerful occasion, but it did feel quite poignant. If the trusty old tree represented the continuity of things, then the wassail song felt like a prayer of hope for far more than a good harvest. I did it for social media, to share with you, but, rightly, it didn’t make the grade. I wouldn’t recommend a solitary wassail, but rest assured the occasion was marked and, if nothing else, I might have averted a harvest catastrophe, or better, brought good luck to us all this year. Wassail one and all!