Around peak apple harvesting season Cornell Orchards manager Eric Schatt typically starts his morning with a cup of black tea with honey and a bowl of oatmeal to keep up with the “chaos.”
And during the day, “[his staff and he] consume plenty of donuts, apples, coffee and cider to help us stay happy and focused,” Schatt said.
Schatt has worked at Cornell Orchards since 2010, but apple season is packed with constant action and is just as busy and exciting every year. The best part, he said, is interacting with the horticulture researchers, students, other growers and the general public everyday.
Today, the orchards are used for commercial apple growth and for horticultural research through the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station. According to Cornell Orchard’s Facebook page, some of this research includes “identifying pest and disease resistant fruit varieties, the development of IPM (integrated pest management) programs to enable more sustainable agricultural practices, studying how fruit crops take up soil nutrients, and extending harvest periods for crops.”
The Sun spoke with Schatt for an interview during one of his peak apple season days.
Cornell Orchards sits on 37 acres owned by Cornell University for 108 years. Eleven of the original trees still stand and bear fruit to this day. The orchards grow more than 50 varieties of apples — from popular sellers like Honeycrisp and Gala, to specialty cider apples, to experimental varieties that are yet to be named.
CUAES works with the USDA-funded Apple Rootstock Breeding program in Geneva, New York to cultivate new apple breeds.
“Apple breeding is a very progressive, dynamic industry right now,” Schatt said. “Really ever since Honeycrisp came out of the Geneva breeding program, everyone has been trying to make a better Honeycrisp.”
The way apple breeders ensure homogeneity within a variety is by grafting — the process by which the branch of the variety you wish to grow is inserted into the original apple tree root and secured with tape. Schatt admits that it sounds like a pretty basic process for something seemingly so complicated, “It’s magical. It’s amazing,” he said.
The apples are picked by temp workers and student volunteers from August to November.
Once the apples are hand picked, they are piled and chilled in a controlled atmosphere cooler room with 20 feet high ceilings located a few yards from the store. During peak season, the room can house 500 bins of apples, 20 bushels per bin, about 125 apples per bushel — a total of one million apples at maximum capacity.
“Apples have this incredible ability to be stored, so although it makes sense to eat apples in the fall, one of the unique benefits of apples is that they can be eaten year-round,” Schatt said.
An apple picked at Cornell Orchards has one of four fates. The “best” apples—in terms of “color, size, [presence of] blemishes, bruises”— are bagged and boxed for sale either at the Orchards store or on campus. Others are separated out to be studied by scientists in the Agricultural Experiment Station. A large volume of apples are chilled and stored for sale at a later date, and the rest go into the cider press.
To make cider, the apples must first be hand-graded again to root out any rotten or unfit ones. Then, the fruits are washed and transported up a mini “elevator” to the grinder where they are crushed into a juicy pulp. Finally, the smashed apples get hydraulically pressed between layers upon layers of metal and canvas cloth in what is called a “rack and cloth press,” and out streams fresh apple cider.
Schatt asserts that is it a very sustainable process. “Everything gets used. It’s the best outlet for the apples that aren’t fit for sale,” he said.
Before the apples reach your table, they are boxed, the cider is bottled and everything is loaded into a pickup truck and delivered to various campus dining halls and eateries twice per week. The apple varieties most commonly sold to the university are Empire, Gala, RubyFrost, and Mutsu.
“I love having fresh apples from the orchard for sale on campus! Buying locally grown produce is better for the environment, and it’s always nice to support farmers in the area,” said Rachel Qiao ’21.
Juana Munoz Ucros grad, one of several horticulture graduate students that loads the apple vending machine in Mann library, said that each time she loads the dispenser someone will let her know “how much they love having the apples there,” she said. “The apples definitely sell over weekends before exams. It’s definitely nice to have it as an alternative to conventional junk food vending machines”
Lyana Geng, student manager at Amit Bhatia Libe Cafe in Olin Library values being able to provide fresh apples to customers, “Having local apples and cider for sale is not only good, but also responsible in many aspects ranging from supporting local businesses to serving trusted and good products. It’s cool to be able to point to the university I attend and say the apples were grown here at Cornell Orchard.”