The Rothwell family returned to Arthur Township in Wellington County, Ontario in 1972. They purchased their 200-acre farm located on Concession 10 from the Craig family. Thirty-eight years previous to that, their great-grandparents farmed one concession west of the “new” farm.
The apple orchard at the Wagram crossroad farm was established in two stages during 1975 and 1976. The predominant varieties grown are Cortland, Paulared and McIntosh, with smaller plantings of Spartan, Empire, Northern Spy and Golden Russett. The Dundalk Uplands can be a difficult location for apple growing, primarily due to the extremely cold and fluctuating winter conditions, but they afford some distinct advantages associated with excellent fruit color and flavor because of the frequent cool — even frosty — September nights. The learning curve for apple production in Ontario is vertical, and there were many lessons learned as the orchard grew to maturity.
The success of the orchard in large measure was due to the helpful and knowledgeable advice and technical guidance originating from the University of Guelph, and in particular to Professors Ben Teskey and Wm. Evans, as well as Mr. Ken Wilson, who was a classmate of one of the Rothwell family members and was a Horticulture Advisor extraordinaire in the Clarksburg-Meaford-Collingwood apple district. Qualified Agriculture Extension Services and education are critical to Ontario farmers.
The orchard today is fully mature. It has been operated using integrated pest management principles, where insect and disease threats are watched closely, as are beneficial predator populations. Sprays are applied only when necessary. However, in Ontario, because of the abundance of rain (which is the trigger for apple scab fungus) during spring, fungicides are essential at that time. Fortunately, fungicide application rates and frequencies are both reduced as the season progresses, and generally there are no sprays applied within at least one month of the beginning of harvest. The exception is calcium – which is a cell building block needed to prevent a growth disorder that would otherwise cause the cell walls in varieties such as Cortland and Spy to break down, resulting in fruit with characteristic brown, freckle-like spots just below the skin. If you see the sprayer in the orchard after about August 20th, it’s almost certainly applying only a micronutrient. Organic apples are a great goal. But it’s a goal that is much more easily achieved in areas such as British Columbia and Washington, where much of the water for production is irrigated (glacial) and hence doesn’t come in contact with the above-ground tree tissue – with correspondingly reduced scab pressure.
Apple harvest typically begins around Labor Day, with Paulareds starting things off, followed by McIntosh and Cortlands about mid-September and Empire, Spy, Russett and a few Idareds finishing things off. Each variety has a “picking window” of a couple weeks or more. The first-picked apples are more tart at harvest, but they store better. The last-picked ones have incredible flavor at picking, and while they can be stored, they do not stay as crisp as the first-picked ones. That’s why the harvest for each variety is done on a multi-pick basis. Apples left on the tree for another week will size and color up appreciably, especially if the larger, more mature apples are picked first.
Early in the life of the orchard, the Rothwell family decided to add value to their crop by processing part of it into apple butter and cider. This is done at high-quality, local mills, under carefully controlled conditions. No preservatives or artificial additives are used. Our apple cider is uv-pasteurized to safely preserve flavor. It’s 100% pure fruit juice, made using only the latest-picked (sweetest and most flavorful) apples. We use our own blend of varieties and our fresh cider has an excellent local reputation. Some of our customers have been coming to the farm for their cider for more than 25 seasons.
The Rothwell apple orchard is dedicated to our late grandmother Shirley Rothwell. Shirley was the backbone of the apple orchard, assisting with picking, packing and selling the apple crop. She was unfazed by challenges such as how to sell apples to the produce manager at the local supermarket. She simply approached him in the store and asked, “Why aren’t you buying your apples from a farm right in your own town?” He replied that if the apples were as good as she said they were, he would be glad to buy them, to which Shirley replied, “I’ll be back in the orchard this afternoon; you’re welcome to come and try our apples today if you like.” That was the beginning of a long working relationship between the Rothwell family and the locally owned supermarket, and a long friendship that continues to this day with the produce manager, who today operates his own (very fine) butcher shop right here in Mt. Forest.
Shirley was our champion apple ambassador, and family and customers alike miss her.