Shelburne Farm: An orchard on a hill

STOW — It is a hot day in late September, but Paul Hesterberg carries his daughter Evelyn on his shoulders. He walks quickly, one tree row after another with Evelyn helping to extend their reach for picking the best apples atop the trees at Shelburne Farm. She picks one, two, three apples at a time, as many as fit in her small hands. Her mother follows them closely, carrying a bright plastic yellow bag and taking photos of them. They pick the shiniest red apples, Galas, and the crunchiest and sweetest, Honeycrisp, their favorites. Then they stop in front of a Cortland tree.

“That one over there,” Evelyn says to her dad. 

She extends her short arm towards a big green and red Cortland apple, right on the top of the tree, and picks it. Pleased with her conquest, she turns to her mother so she can add it to her growing apple collection.

Shelburne Farm rises on a hill in Stow. It is the oldest pick-your-own apple farm in Eastern Massachusetts and one of the few that has preserved the region’s fall tradition: apples. 

Spanning 50 acres, it dominates the region once called “Apple Valley” for the number of orchards in the area, many of which no longer exist. It started as a small orchard with 20 varieties of apples back in 1960. Jean and David Lynch owned the farm until the 1990s when the family was forced to sell it. That’s when Ted Painter and his wife became Shelburne’s new owners.

Painter grew up in the valley two miles from the farm. As a seven-year-old, he used to ride his bicycle through an orchard on the other side of Stow. It was a huge, wide-open 300 acres on big hills. He was devastated when the owner decided to sell it because he hated the apple business. Forty years later, what once was a wide orchard is now a subdivision of houses. 

“When I got older and I was looking at my orchard, I thought what I really want to do is to keep it as an orchard and not just a farm,” said Painter. And that’s just what he and his wife did.

The orchard is like a member of his family. He respects it, observing every single phase it goes through during the seasons.

On the coldest day of the year, when there’s deep snow, Painter usually goes out in the orchard. He stares and contemplates it.  Everything is in silence and sleepiness. The trees are just small and tiny sticks, they seem so fragile. Time has stopped. 

“I’ve often thought, how it would be so kind as to have a time-lapse photo of one tree, from that deep winter all the way through,” he says. 

Then the circle of life starts over. In spring, Painter and his farmers prune the trees and cheer in seeing how they made it another year. 

Planting is Painter’s favorite part. It’s like nursing a baby. The trees are so tiny that they need all the care to grow big and strong. 

“I feel this very protective instinct when they’re here. I spend extra time in the orchard just going around,” he says. 

They have to move quickly to put the seedlings in the ground and water them. They remove all the weeds they have around the trunk and on the grass. It’s a nurturing process.

They watch the trees go from just completely barren to the buds that start to swell up when the weather warms. Then, like a miracle, they crack open and flower, their scents gathering around all the bees ready to pollinate them. 

“Nature just wants to reproduce and thrive. And the trees just want to put on the pause, drop seeds and grow new trees. Every time I see it, I still find it to be a really magical experience.” 

Then the fruits arrive, colorful and shiny. Red, orange, pink, yellow, green. Eighty varieties of apples, as well as peaches and Asian pears, fill row after row of the orchard’s trees. The leaves of the branches almost hide them, waiting for the thousands of visitors that will visit the farm from mid-August till November.  

Apple picking is still an important tradition for the Painters and for many Massachusetts families. Shelburne is one of 85 farms all over the state offering the fall activity. Every year, yellow bright plastic bags are carried all over the orchard, overflowing in fruit. 

“It’s nice to have things that you do as a family, that everyone looks forward to,” Paul Hesterberg says. “Apple picking is one of those things.”

And for another year, Evelyn, atop her dad’s shoulders, conquers one apple after the other.

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