Through the Seasons with Park Hill Orchard

Nestled under the majestic peak of our iconic Mt. Tom and across a vast expanse of beautiful grassy hills, fields and forests, local orchardists Russell Braen and Alane Hartley spend their days trekking across the land, caring for their many rows of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs that feed thousands of Valley residents each year. Park Hill Orchard is a natural paradise where bliss is served daily through the sights and sounds of its environment, such as during the spring bloom or as the leaves turn in the fall. Health and happiness are also provided through its many wonderful tastes, thanks to an abundance of freshly grown apples, peaches, cherries and more being harvested throughout the seasons.


 
To a visitor, the peaceful, calm serenity of a day out at this orchard can be comforting and even restorative, but for Russ and Alane, it is about much more than leading a charmed life. The reality of caring for such a diverse orchard—one growing far beyond just a few common varieties of apples or peaches—is no doubt filled with unexpected challenges and varying complexities each and every day. Different types of fruits require different types of care, and so too do different varieties within the same species. But for each stroke of inspiration and new idea that crosses their minds, Russ and Alane pursue only what is in their hearts: the wellness and nourishment of local communities, the sustainability of the land, and the enjoyment and enrichment of those who visit their orchard each year. So as the seasons change, and each new harvest comes and goes, you can be sure Park Hill Orchard will continue to share their bounties of fresh, nutritious fruits with River Valley Co-op shoppers for many, many years to come.
 

Rows of trees bearing Dandy Red apples are nearly ready to be harvested.
 

We met with Russ and Alane on several occasions this year to witness the orchard in all of its glory; we saw the careful planting of young new trees, heard the buzzing of bees at the spring bloom, tasted the delicious fruits that emerged soon after… and so on. While it is impossible to recreate such profound and personal experiences entirely, we wanted to share a bit of what we learned so that you too can feel the same appreciation we do for those who grow our food—and all the care and dedication they put into our nourishment through the seasons.
 

Owners Alane Hartley and Russell Braen at the entrance of Park Hill Orchard

 
Q: Tell us a little about the history of Park Hill Orchard and where you hope to take it in the future?

RUSS: We’ve been running this orchard for 14 years, and we feel like we’re starting to take our baby steps and get it together! We grow 90 different kinds of fruit, including 45 kinds of apples, pears, cherries, plums and a variety of different berries like raspberries and blueberries. We try to make super healthy fruit and not harm the land in any way. One of the rules that we’ve stated in writing is that we want to leave this land in much better condition than it was when we came here 14 years ago. This will probably be an orchard forever—it’s under strong agricultural protection from the state of Massachusetts, so we feel we have to set up the topsoil here for future farmers to be able to thrive, and for the children of the Pioneer Valley to always be able to get the best and healthiest top-quality fruit that can be grown.
 

Different apple varieties on the orchard are harvested all throughout late summer and fall.

 
Q: Can you tell us about some of the apples you have here at the orchard and how you grow them?

RUSS: We grow our fruit using really modern practices that are very forward-leaning. We pay a lot of attention to the quality of the fruit because our fruit is eaten directly by those we sell it to. Growing fruit is very chaotic; there are so many different variables and factors that are out of the control of the farmer, like the weather and other things. It’s almost like an art form; we call it the art of growing fruit. We work with all these trees year after year, so we start to develop a relationship with each and every one of them. This past spring we planted about 5% new trees. Some are fillers, some are varieties we didn’t have yet. We’re particularly excited about our new Pixie Crunch orchard, which is going to be made for children. The trees are small, and the apples are small too—about 2 ¾“ smaller! They’re also very sweet, and children in focus groups have chosen this apple above others regularly. It will take a few years for the orchard to grow up, but time goes by pretty quickly. We think it will be a pretty big deal!
 

Russ organizes each Gingergold apple individually based on shape and appearance.
 

ALANE: We’re also tending to the 500 Crimson Crisp trees we put in two years ago. This will be the first crop we’ll be picking off of them. We planted some test rows a number of years ago that came out really good. It’s just an amazing apple—it has a really long life, lasting long into the winter, and it tastes incredible. We’re really looking forward to having our first year of picking those!

RUSS: We’re going to be hopefully selling the Crimson Crisp a lot through River Valley Co-op, and we hope people will try them there! They’re an apple head-and-shoulders above almost anything else you can get. You’ll see them, they’re bright red over bright yellow and have just a wonderful taste. I will be going to the co-op and sampling them to people directly as we go forward.
 

Russ and Alane's dog, Lily, enjoys a beautiful spring day frolicking across the orchard.

 
Q: It’s clear how special this place is to the local community. What qualities contribute to this?

ALANE: One of the reasons that we’re here at the orchard is because we wanted to live a life that was engaging with and supportive of others in the local area. What we’ve found since moving to Easthampton is that it’s really the community of people around us who have brought so much to the orchard—starting with the fact that this farm was put into agricultural protection, which enabled us to be able to buy the orchard and start farming it. It was a community effort by the city, the state and the people of Easthampton to establish a beautiful orchard here that we now can all share in. On top of that, we have a lot of events happening here each year, including performances from Royal Frog Ballet, Bread and Puppets and many, many other groups.
 

With so many apples to choose from, how do you pick a favorite? That's part of the fun!

 
Q: What kind of atmosphere do you create here at the orchard to benefit families living in our area?

RUSS: It’s really important for children to see the source of their nourishment. Families like coming here for that reason. It’s a safe place where you can visit the countryside in a way that you wouldn’t normally and actually see where your food comes from. It’s meaningful in ways we can’t describe, but for children to have had the experiences we’ve seen them have here, it can only be positive for them, their families and the community. One of the models inspiring our orchard comes from experiences we had as children of going to pick apples—where you are in this big area, but you can’t see much. You are in the trees and can see the fruit, and while you may hear people around you, you can’t see them (but maybe if you look under the trees you’ll see a pair of feet running by). It is such a poetic and marvelous experience that we have tried to set that up here for future generations of families. A lot of people can be here in the orchard but it still doesn’t feel crowded. It’s just so fulfilling to see families interacting with the land, the fruit and each other.
 

These enchanting rows of peach trees are nearly ready to be pruned.

 
Q: What attracted you to becoming orchardists and in what ways did you connect with the land that you hope to bring to others?

ALANE: The seasons are so magical here—and it’s really the people and their interactions that make that magic. When I was growing up in Wisconsin, we would always visit our local orchards to pick cherries. That was a big deal in our family, and we still talk about it all the time. I was brought up on Robert McCloskey books, and “Blueberries for Sale” made a huge impression on me. When I got the opportunity to go rake blueberries up in Maine, that book was forefront in my mind—and then that’s where me and Russell met, raking blueberries up in Maine! Our hope is that some young future orchardists showing up here on a yearly basis having similar experiences and being inspired.
 

The team prepares to plant their all-new Pixie Crunch apple trees.
 

RUSS: We know people going to college now that we met when they were four years old. We watched them every year as they came and slowly grew up. We know their parents, their siblings… it’s just amazing. Some of them even work for us now—big, strong men and women who were just children when we met them! This takes time but as you can probably imagine, it’s one of the better parts of this life.
 

A close-up look at the grafting process, which changes an older tree so that it can grow a new variety of apples.

 
Q: What are some new or interesting techniques are you using to grow your trees that the public might not be aware of?

RUSS: “Grafting over” is something new for us—this is the process of changing an old tree so that it grows a new variety. This year, we grafted over some of our 12-year-old trees into the famous “Rhode Island Greening,” one of the oldest apples cultivated in North America. When grafting, you tuck in little sticks forming the new tree into the base of our old tree. Those will start to grow and grow into the new tree. On the base, we leave what we call “nurse branches,” which basically act like a nurse. They keep the trunk and roots healthy. You can either cut them off when the grafted tree is ready, or you can keep them and have two kinds of fruit on the same tree (maybe we’ll do that). Believe it or not, we’ll actually be picking fruit off of our new Rhode Island Greenings by next year!
 

Zestar! apple trees blossoming during the springtime "snowball bloom"

 
Q: Each season seems to bring something different to the orchard. Can you tell us what makes each of them a little different?

RUSS: Spring is bloom season here on the orchard. This time of year is very nice because you feel the promise of the bounty of the harvest. You see the fruit that doesn’t exist yet. During May, the bees are very busy in the trees. If you stand still at the bloom for a few minutes you will start to see everything moving. There are so many bees—so many wild pollinators. I usually count 10-20 species out there working the flowers. Bloom lasts about 10 days, and we rely on good weather for the bees to be able to do their work and pollinate the apples so we get what’s called a good “fruit set.” This year, we had what we call a “snowball bloom,” which is a very heavy bloom that looks like it just snowed on the trees. That gives us a lot of options when we start thinning off the extra fruit to put on a really nice crop.
 

These ripe, juicy peaches look outstanding... they're ready to be picked!
 

ALANE: Peach pruning season is magical! You prune your peaches in late spring, and when you prune you’re cutting off branches—those branches smell just like peach juice, and when you pile all the branches up the entire orchard smells like peaches. It’s around for maybe a day or two and is just amazing. It’s truly one of the highlights of the orchard. Another thing I really like about pruning is learning about the biology of the plant; the systems and the processes of how an apple grows versus a pear tree versus a peach tree. There are lots of differences and similarities. Each year we learn more and more, like how different trees will respond to a pruning cut. It’s the knowledge that grows by being involved with a plant year after year and watching how it reacts. It’s really about developing a relationship with the plants.
 

Apples are now in season in the Pioneer Valley!

Pick up your Park Hill Orchard apples today at River Valley Co-op and help support our local farms!
 

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