Waterpenny’s apples, as it turns out, are essentially wild. Co-owner Eric Plaksin explains that he and his wife, Rachel Bynum, lease their farm in Sperryville, Va., and that their acreage includes about 40 apple trees, remnants of an orchard that used to occupy the land. Because Plaksin and Bynum are primarily vegetable growers, they pay little attention to the trees. They don’t irrigate them, fertilize them, prune them or spray them, which explains the dwarfish fruit with the bad skin.
“Mostly, we just go and show up and see what apples are there,” Plaksin says. “We like showing people what apples look like when apples are not sprayed all the time.”
Waterpenny’s freakish fruit underscores the difficulties of growing organic apples in wet, humid regions like the East Coast, which offer ideal breeding conditions for pests and diseases that can attack the fruit.
“At this stage, it’s just really, really difficult to do a good job” with organic apples on the East Coast, says Eddie Rankin, co-founder of Twin Springs Fruit Farm in Orrtanna, Pa., where he oversees all fruit production. “We just don’t have enough disease-resistant varieties that are good quality.”
As I describe the condition of the Waterpenny “no-spray” Stayman and Golden Delicious varieties, Rankin figures they are likely infected with flyspeck (the pinpoint blemishes) and sooty blotches (the large bruises), which often appear on apples in the late summer and early fall. “They’re not bad for you,” Rankin says. “They’re just, quite literally, a surface blemish.”
Once you cut the skin off, the fruit is fine to eat, as we learned in the Food section. The skin was as tough as leather, but the unusually dense flesh underneath remained juicy and sweet (although once cut, it turned brown faster than mac ’n’ cheese under a broiler).
The main problem for organic apples on the East Coast is something called apple scab. It’s a fungal disease common in areas with high rainfall and humidity. Commercial orchards typically control the disease with fungicide sprays, but local growers, both conventional and organic, are starting to turn to varieties that are resistant to apple scab, such as Crimson Crisp, Enterprise and Gold Rush.
“In organic production, you’re not relying on sprays so much,” says Jim Travis, a retired professor of plant pathology at Penn State University who now grows USDA-certified organic apples and peaches at Apple Tree Vineyard & Farm in Fairfield, Pa., just outside Gettysburg. “You’re relying on the varieties you pick and how you train them.”