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Appetizing apples of fall

DAVE KENNEDY/West Branch Life Larry Eck, co-owner of Eck's Orchard, a family business in western Lycoming County, looks for the next apples to pick one day last fall. A group of 4 pickers, including Eck, picked juicy apples for hours on a cold, foggy morning at the orchard along Route 654 in the Nippenose Valley.

In early fall, it’s a lovely experience riding through the region to view the apple orchards that grace the West Branch Valley. Pink and white apple blossoms, budding small fruits and the bright reds and greens of ripe apples fill trees and dangle from branches. Taste buds turn thoughts to delicious creations made possible by an abounding variety of apples and the recipes they inspire.

Apples can be enjoyed in so many ways. Eat them straight up, bake pies and cakes, cook up applesauce and apple butter, dry them, throw them in a Waldorf salad, make fritters and caramel apples or whip up a boozy apple granita.

Thankfully, our region is filled with apple orchards. Marshalek’s, J.P. Lorson’s, Eck’s, plus many other bountiful fruit farms dot our valleys.

All are brimming with shiny, crisp, sweet or tart apples – and more.

There are some 45 acres at Marshalek’s Fruit Farm, with thousands of trees in various stages of growth. Located north of Montoursville amid the rolling hills, the farm also grows and sells stone fruits, “like peaches, plums and nectarines, and when they cooperate, cherries,” said Ray Marshalek, who, along with his wife, Kathy, own and operate the family farm.

Ray graciously explained the process of growing apples. “Understand, this is orcharding 101; oversimplified,” he said. “You prepare the soil and get the PH nutrients at the appropriate level. You’ve got to soil test for that before you plant, as well as do rotations using a series of different crops, such as green manure crops like oats and rye, etc.”

Ray noted that trees must be ordered two to three years ahead.

“Next you plant them,” he said, “and as they grow, you need to revisit them, checking for proper depth and height and if they’re not growing straight, you adjust them. All growers have a training or support system, such as stakes or trellises for proper structure.”

Planting is done in early spring, usually April. “Occasionally earlier. All depends on the weather,” Ray added.

“Most trees take three to four years to yield and you need to do insect, weed and disease control along the way and the deer and weather take close watching,” Ray pointed out. He explained that trees need to be cropped at times, which includes harvesting some to get the trees to fill up with apples by yield time. Yield time isn’t determined just by looks and touch, although color is one standard. But the fruit must also pass the pressure and starch tests. If they pass all, it’s hand-picking harvest time. Next, it’s buying and eating time for the lucky public.

Located in the Nippenose Valley near Bastress, A.P. Lorson Fruit Farm is a family-run business owned by Randy and Esther Lorson. “We have no hired help,” Randy said. “We work the farm with our four kids, Amanda, Gabrielle, Levi and Wyatt, who each have a special part in the operation.”

Grandchildren and friends help when needed.

Randy said his grandfather, Anthony Peter Lorson, moved to the farm in the late 1920s. “My dad and mom, John and Marcella, took over in 1968 when I was 1-year-old. My brother, Tony, and his wife, Barb, became owners in 2005 and Esther and I took over in 2019.”

John and Marcella still live at the farmhouse.

Besides apples, Lorson’s grows cherries, blueberries, peaches, plums and pears and recently began growing sweet corn. “At times, we have pumpkins and tomatoes as well,” Randy said. With 55 acres, the farm has approximately 750 fruit trees and 200 grape vines (Concord, Niagara, Catawba), they planted this year.

Lorson’s orchards have the same growing challenges as others: Insects, bacteria, animals and weather. “We are at the mercy of the Good Lord and Mother Nature,” Randy said. “Weather can be your best friend or your worst enemy.”

There is a regular spray schedule for pests, irrigation when necessary and use of gas-powered bird guns to help deter birds and deer. “But that can only do so much,” Randy said. “We do a lot of praying and hoping for the best.”

Apples are harvested by hand at the orchard and put into bags. Randy explained the rest of the process, “The apples are transferred from each bag into stackable (hand-made) bushel crates. Next is placement in coolers if it’s necessary, then grading, polishing and packing for selling.”

Apples are usually harvested from August through late October.

Not too far away in the valley, Eck’s Orchard shares similar planting and harvesting methods on their 24 acres.

“It’s a family business,” reports Beth Eck, who, along with her husband, Larry, own and operate the orchard.

“My grandparents, Joseph and Dora Steinbacher, owned the property for over 100 years. My parents, James and Irene had it for 45 years, and Beth and I have been running the farm for the last 35 years,” Larry explained.

The Ecks report the same kind of demands in bringing their plantings to fruition: “Weather, insects, varmints and fungi. We spray for most of those but concerning frost, we pray that we don’t have any!” Beth said. “We also grow cherries, peaches, nectarines and plums that need to be protected from those troubles.”

All three farms turn imperfect apples into cider while some are processed on- site into apple products or sent away for that purpose. Some small ones are sold as seconds.

Major fruits, cider, applesauce and other fruit products are for sale at the orchards.

According to a Select Health Blog, there are 7,500 apple varieties throughout the world.

The United States grows 2,500 of those varieties.

For example, Randy listed the types grown at Lorson’s: Macintosh, Gala, Honeycrisp, McCoun, Red and Yellow Delicious, Northern Spy, Staiman Winesap, Empire and Granny Smith.

New varieties they’ve recently planted include Evercrisp, Crimsoncrisp and Ludacrisp.

Marshalek’s and Eck’s grow similar varieties.

Food sources report that Gala apples have recently taken over the number one spot in popularity in the states, edging out Red Delicious, which reigned for the past 50 years.

Many bakers harbor varied opinions as to which apple makes the best pie. The Ecks said that they prefer Macintosh and Cortland for their pies.

Ray Marshalek shared that his mother preferred Spies but they also use Ginger Gold and Golden Delicious.

“Spies for pies is what we go by,” reported Randy Lorson.

“Sometimes I’ll use Cortland or Granny Smith, too. Just remember all apples are good for eating! There are so many varieties that make great pies,” Lorson added. “I think it’s the kind you get used to.”

Most people love eating pie and apples in some form. What a wonderful freedom and treat to have so many orchards in our region.

Visit these local orchards and the hard-working families that operate them and enjoy the beauty and fresh aroma of apples.

At Lorson’s, Randy summed up the business of running an orchard: “It can be hard work, but very gratifying. Seeing things grow from seed, or blossom, to maturity and seeing the satisfaction of the customer is unlike any other. Knowing we are a part of the process is what keeps us going. The generosity of family and friends’ help is what drives us! The well-wishes from the community and customers visiting us from all over is humbling and welcomed!”

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