By Amanda Brodhagen
An apple is a favourite snack enjoyed by many this time of year. But did you know that the flavour of an apple can vary depending on where it’s grown? This is what makes Georgian Bay one of the top apple-producing areas in Ontario and it’s where Kyle Oakley and his family call home.
There are two valleys in Georgian Bay – Beaver Valley (where the Oakley family reside) and Meaford Valley. Kyle’s mom Teresa has roots in Beaver Valley dating back generations. She fell in love with her husband Brad and they started farming together, growing apples starting out on 15 acres of orchard land and had a true mixed farm with veal and pigs – farrow-to-finish in the 1980s. Their family farm has evolved over the years to where it is now a specialized fruit and vegetable farm. They are also proud owners of Goldsmith’s Orchard Market on Hwy. 26 in Thornbury which they acquired in 2013.
After graduating from the University of Guelph and learning retail butchery as a trade, Oakley returned home to be a part of the family business. “We decided as a family that apples weren't going to support an additional family so we started market gardening and selling out of a tent in town. We did that for three years and then had the opportunity to purchase the market,” he explained, noting that the market is something that he enjoys overseeing.
Since purchasing the market, Oakley married his wife Debbie and together, they have a four-year-old daughter and an eight-month-old son. As part of their succession planning, they renovated the orchard on their home farm into 45 acres of high density – which is one of five orchards that they manage. Two of those orchards are on rented ground. High density is a system of growing trees which is easier to manage and more profitable. A traditional high density orchard is about 40 trees to the acre, medium high density is 200-300 trees to an acre with the highest being 1,000-4,000 trees per acre.
“It looks like a tall vineyard rather than a traditional apple orchard”, explained Oakley. “Trees are supported by wire, bamboo and a variety of systems.” In fact, you can grow any variety on the right rootstock and with the right management of the trees.
The region where the Oakleys farms are located is ideal for growing apples because of the microclimate that exists. Early blossoms don’t get hurt by frost. The warm days and cool nights are what makes apples grown in Georgian Bay taste great, explains Oakley.
“Cool nights help apples form sugars and bring out the flavours that you expect,” he said. In fact, it’s what distinguishes an apple grown in Ontario and an apple grown in Washington State. Oakley’s favourite varieties include, Cortland and what he calls an “Ontario Spartan.”
“Spartan apples grown in Ontario have a ton of flavour and sweetness compared to other Spartan apples grown in North America,” he said. It’s thanks to those Georgian Bay warm days and cool nights.
Oakley recounts that after World War II, growers in Georgian Bay shipped apples to England as a goodwill gesture. The apples were highly sought after and therefore shipped around the world because of their intense flavour.
According to the Ontario Apple Growers, the top five varieties of apples grown in the province determined by acres planted include McIntosh, Gala, Honeycrisp, Red Delicious, and Empire. While the Oakleys grow some of those varieties, they’ve also branched out – literally – growing some newer varieties that have proven to be popular at their market: Zestar which happens to be a cousin of the popular Honey Crisp and Salish which is a late apple that will be harvested this month. Zestar was developed by the University of Minnesota, where the Honey Crisp was developed. It is an early apple that is best described by Oakley as a “good hard apple and is crunchy but more tart than the Honeycrisp but it bites off the same and has lots of juice.” One of the factors that the Oakleys considered when adding this variety to their portfolio was the ability to spread out their harvest window which allows them to better manage their resources.
The other apple variety that the Oakleys are growing is Salish – a Canadian-bred apple with limited commercial plantings so far. It was developed by Agri-Food Canada scientists and the Okanagan Plant Improvement Corporation – a 31-year process but not released to the market until 2012. Oakley says this is a good storing apple and ready for market late fall and early winter. The late harvest window on this apple variety was a selling factor for the Oakleys plus the fact that they can sell it exclusively at their market.
One of the challenges for growers is meeting the consumers’ preferences and what is trendy today. One of the questions that the Oakleys ask themselves is how long is the consumer going to like that variety? “What the consumer wants is what you’re planting,” said Oakley.
It takes an apple grower 12 years to get the return on investment from planting an orchard, so if you're pulling out apple varieties based on consumer trends after 15-20 years the return is minimal.
It often takes decades to develop a new variety of apple and then bring it to market and everyone is searching for the next “Honeycrisp”. Until then, the Oakleys will continue to monitor trends and use the market as an opportunity to sell directly to the consumer. Oakley says people are happy to buy new varieties that they’ve never heard of before and a little bit of education and sampling goes a long way too!
There are many complexities to growing apples and it’s very labour intensive. “I wish the consumer would know that every apple that they see is handpicked,” he said. “While there’s a growing movement to robots, we’re not there yet and it takes a lot of people working really well to bring an apple to market.”
What’s next for the Oakleys? “Apples are going to be part of our future and an increased focus on direct-to-consumer,” he said. Goldsmith’s Orchard Market launched an online store to keep up with the increased demand for local food due to COVID-19. “Generally, people are buying more fresh produce because they’re cooking at home and rediscovering the joy of cooking,” he said.
With so much diversity with their fruit and farming enterprise, it might come as a surprise that Kyle’s favourite thing to grow is pumpkins and gourds because there’s so many funky colours, shapes and sizes and they’re also a great conversation piece with family and friends this time of year. The one that struck me as the most unusual is a white gourd that looks like a UFO that can be purchased at their market! ◊