Palouse Apples: History, Heritage, and Heirloom
by Peg Kingery
Rubinette. Ribston Pippin. Fameuse. Taliaferro. Belle de Boskoop — these romantic-sounding names, and others that come from Tim Steury’s and Diane Noel’s mouths as they shared samples of an appetizing array of some of the many old American, English, and French apple and pear varieties that the two Palouse farmers grow on their property near Potlatch, Idaho.
Twenty-seven years ago, Tim and Diane looked at their farm and decided that growing heritage apple varieties and pears was something they’d like to pursue. They talked with a friend at Washington State University who suggested they grow apples that were best suited for cider. Upon further research, the two discovered the history of apple-growing on the Palouse and added dessert varieties to their orchard. “There is a huge demand for cider and dessert fruit,” Tim shared. Apples for cider is “kind of like concord grapes for wine.” Presently they grow over 140 different varieties (500 trees) on ten acres. These heirloom trees were purchased mostly from nurseries in Canada and New York. Tim also grafted cuttings from local apple trees onto rootstock – true Palouse varieties.
Tim explained that in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s apple orchards were prevalent on the Palouse. Besides being sold locally, trainloads of many different varieties were shipped back East and sold there. The industry slowly fell out of favor due to several factors. Apple growers in central Washington began following the advice of business consultants to focus their energy on growing and marketing a limited number of apple varieties, whereas Palouse farmers continued growing many. Unfavorable weather (frost), transportation costs, and lack of marketing led to the end of the industry. But remnants of these old orchards can still be found on the Palouse.
Tim and Diane sell most of their cider apples to Liberty Cider Works in Spokane, Washington. They sell their dessert apples at Moscow’s Farmer’s Market when it is open and their apples can still be purchased at the Moscow Food Co-op. Apples grown for cider tend to be smaller than those grown for dessert. Tim explained that cider apples need to have a greater skin:pulp ratio. He and Diane thought about making their own cider, but chose to stay as growers only. In order to sell cider they would have to pasteurize it, and the cost of a pasteurization unit is prohibitive for a single grower.
One of Diane’s greatest joys about their orchard is “giving and selling and seeing someone taste an heirloom apple for the first time.” Heirloom apple varieties have many layers of complex flavor. She shared the story of a customer buying some Holstein apples at the Farmer’s Market – not to eat, but to paint, because they were so beautiful to look at. Orange Pippin, an old English variety, is a favorite among customers from the British Isles. “It’s fun to have apples no one else has,” Diane shared. “Moms [tell us they] want smaller apples for their kids’ lunchboxes.”
Caring for their orchard is a full-time job beginning in February. The trees must be protected from frost damage once they begin to bloom. Tim and Diane installed a wind machine in the orchard that they turn on if the outdoor temperature dips below 28°, the lowest temperature apples blossoms can tolerate. They bring in bees from local apiaries to help with pollination. Since apples need a co-pollinator, they also use the crab apple trees in the orchard. Pest control, especially from coddling moths, is achieved using an organic-acceptable horticultural oil that disrupts the moths' mating behavior. Fire blight, a bacterial infection, and scab, a fungal infection, cause some concern, as well as damage from gophers and birds. An organic-acceptable herbicide called Suppress is used to control weeds in the tree’s understory.
The orchard also relies on the “protection” from Wilbur, their “wise elder” donkey, and Fred, their stately goat. The two oversee the whole farm and bring smiles to those who visit. Diane often brings farm-fresh eggs from the free-ranging hens who roam about the farm to the Moscow Food Co-op.
Tim and Diane agreed that harvest is the best time in the orchard. Tim explained, “As a rule of thumb, when one third of the apples drop from the trees, they’re ready to pick.” When slicing an apple in half, the seeds should be dark brown in color with the core ring close to the skin. They also use a starch test to measure the amount of sugar in the fruit as a determinant of ripeness.
Food safety is forefront in the Steury Orchard’s operation. They only sell dessert apples that have been picked directly off the trees. They power-wash all the boxes they store their apples in and dip them in a bleach solution. The boxes and bags are always kept off the ground.
Steury Orchards brought fruit for an apple-tasting event at Moscow Food Co-op in the fall of 2017. Tim “loves working with Co-op” and shared that the tasting was a “mob-scene for a while.” He hopes to do more to educate the local community about the history of apple growing in the area, perhaps working with the Latah County Historical Society.
The different flavors, textures, and colors of the apples grown on Tim and Diane’s farm would take another article to write about. From sweet and juicy, to tart and crisp, there is a variety that would appeal to any palate.
Whether for tucking in a lunchbox, stewing for applesauce or pie, snacking on a brisk day, or baking that classic French Tart Tatin, Steury Orchards most definitely has the apple for the occasion. And not to be forgotten . . . their Seckel pears are nirvana.