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Thursday, Aug. 27, 2009 11:00 am

Harvest the fruits of the Apple Barn

And don’t miss prime time at farmers’ markets

The Apple Barn is busy 10 months a year, but the busiest time is now to Halloween.
Every vendor at every farmers’ market says the same thing: business drops off after Labor Day. Maybe it’s because parents are preoccupied with getting their kids back in school. Maybe it’s because even those without school-aged children participate in organizations or activities that are starting up for the year. Most likely, though, is a feeling that, “Hey, summer’s over and so is local food.”

That’s a shame, because late summer and early fall are when the local bounty of fruits and vegetables is at its peak, and vendors’ displays are overflowing. Some things such as sweet corn and summer squashes do begin to taper off as the season progresses. But many summer fruits and vegetables are at their best when heat and humidity give way to cool, crisp nights and still-warm sunny days. Prominent are members of the Brassica family: cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kohlrabi, turnips, mustard greens and more. Spinach, lettuces and other greens are tastiest in cooler weather, too.

Peaches begin giving way to apples, pears and plums, and red raspberries have a second coming. An abundance of winter squashes appear: pumpkins, of course, which seem to sprout a new decorative variety each year; but also butternut, acorn, hubbard, delicata and spaghetti squashes, to name just a few.

So don’t give up on farmers’ markets after Labor Day. Other than growing produce yourself, there’s no better way to get a feeling for the rhythms of the changing seasons. And if you’ve never been to the farmers’ markets, harvest season is a good time for a first visit.

Things may be slowing down at farmers’ markets, but at Chatham’s Apple Barn, the pace is beginning a crescendo that will reach its most fevered pitch around Halloween.

I’ve been going to the Apple Barn since before it was the Apple Barn. Originally it was Morrison’s Orchard. Dwight Morrison was a teacher who spent summers cultivating apple trees and raising a few other produce items. His wife, Barb, sold the apples and fresh cider out of their garage. If she wasn’t in the garage, customers honked their car horn or knocked on the Morrisons’ back door.

That changed about 15 years ago when Gayle Johnson entered the picture. “I’m just crazy,” she laughs. “I’d gone there to buy some annuals for my church. And it was just love at first sight. I came back to pick raspberries, and then came again for apples. Before long I was saying [to the Morrisons] ‘I want to buy your business.’” The Morrisons hadn’t planned on selling. But Johnson’s persuasive powers proved overwhelming. The Morrisons sold her the orchard and built a new house across the road, where they still live.

Johnson kept the orchard’s operation much the same for a couple of years. But she had bigger things in mind. Her husband, Dean, continued in his construction job for a year, then was drafted to work full time in the family business. A new barn (hence the name) was erected in front of the old garage, which was remodeled and expanded eventually into a certified kitchen and bakery. Greenhouses were built. Different varieties of apples were planted, as well as other fruit trees and vegetables.

Today the Apple Barn is busy 10 months of the year. Seedlings are cultivated for spring plant sales. Summertime brings raspberries, early apples, peaches and other produce. After Halloween, there are Christmas trees and other decorations to sell, as well as the last apples and cider. The bakery makes everything from scratch, employing three to four full-time workers. Jars line the walls and aisles, their contents made specially with the Apple Barn label: pickles, jams, jellies, sauces and salsas, as well as other edibles, such as Amish noodles. Almost all are produced close-by. “I was doing the local thing way before it was trendy,” says Johnson, who also makes the fudge and caramels. “I can’t boil water, but I’m good at them,” she says.

Even with the expansion, fall remains the Apple Barn’s busiest season, and apples are still king. The orchard grows 19 different varieties, also plums, and pears. Families make pilgrimages to buy fresh cider, mums and select just the right carving pumpkin from a carpet of orange spheres. Busloads of schoolchildren come every morning and afternoon to take tours.

Johnson is a bundle of energy; seemingly here, there and everywhere at once, still as much in love with this place as she was at first sight. The Apple Barn, 2290 E. Walnut, Chatham. Tel. 483-6236.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com
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