November 2014
Farm & Field

Apple Lover’s Heaven

The trees at Steele Orchard are really loaded this year.  

At Steele Orchard of Cullman County, like many small orchards, visitors can find unusual and rare varieties of apples not found in grocery stores.

Not far off of Highway 157 in Cullman County and near an ancient battlefield from the War Between the States, where residents still sometimes find a cannon ball or other artifact, grows an orchard of apple trees. Fruit aficionados have been flocking to this little slice of apple lovers’ heaven for over 20 years.

Linda and Douglas Steele have been carefully tending these beautiful trees and slowly building a business that continues to delight customers starting in June when the early apples ripen until January when the last of the fall production is sold.

Linda said, when Douglas became disabled from his job at the post office, they realized they had to do something to continue to make a living. Douglas began to closely study orchard guidebooks. In 1985, they began planting their first trees. Each year they added more and more trees until the first trees started to produce. At first they sold to grocery stores in the area, but, as the chains began to centralize their distribution and purchasing, buyers were under pressure to purchase from giant suppliers that could handle the entire chain. Smaller producers like the Steele family were squeezed out.

  The shop is full of apples this time of year.

So the Steeles began to consider selling directly to the customer and bypassing the chains. As it turned out, this was a great idea. People were thrilled to be able to buy directly from the farmer. They appreciated meeting the folks who produced their food and allowed them to teach their children and grandchildren where their apples come from and how they are grown.

Linda sees the same families year after year coming back and many times they are from out of state returning from a vacation so the stop at Steele Orchard is a tradition for them. She has watched a whole generation grow up over the years from her vantage point.

While Steele Orchard is in a pretty historic area that includes the Battle of Day’s Gap, the history of the Southern apple is fascinating in itself. Most people believe there are only about 10 or so varieties of apples because that is all they ever see in their grocery stores, but there are at least 800 varieties today. This is an astonishing number until you find out that pomologists say as little as 100 years ago there were thousands of varieties with about 1,800 in the South alone.

People are also surprised to find out that the South was a major producer of apples and how important they were to the economy. If we look in the stores in our own region today, we will find apples from Michigan, Washington, Chile and New Zealand, but virtually none from the South.

Once commercial orchards, both large and small, covered the South. Even today you can hike in the Smokies through areas that are the remains of large orchards often covering hundreds of acres. One such orchard boasted 500 varieties of apple trees.

How did such an apple cornucopia turn into an apple desert in such a short time? In his classic and fascinating book, "Old Southern Apples," Creighton Lee Calhoun tells the story of the rise of the apple and the golden age of the apple in the South which lasted from 1840 to 1900.

Calhoun tells how he went in search of the existing apple varieties that were on the verge of extinction hoping to preserve these apples for the future because 75 percent of Southern varieties were already gone forever.

Along the way he learned a great deal about Southern history and culture, for the history of a people’s food is their history as well. We may not all be interested in art, music or literature, but for some reason we all seem to be interested in eating.

In order to eat we must produce, and how we produce and prepare our food tells a great deal about us. Anthropologists always spend a great deal of time studying the food of any group of people they are studying.

If you are interested in the history of the apple in the South or which heirloom apples are now available, you cannot find a better book than Calhoun’s.

Calhoun discusses extinct varieties such as Alabama Beauty, Pine Stump, South Carolina Summer and Frazier’s Hard Skin, but he also encourages others to plant such rare trees still in existence as Winter’s Cheese, Smokehouse, Rebel and Morgan’s Christmas.

One thing is certain. You will never find these apples in your chain grocery store, but by visiting the small orchards like Steele Orchard you can find unusual and rare varieties as well as plenty of the more common ones. And you will be helping small farms and businesses thrive.

Linda and Douglas would be most happy to see you, so visit them and try their apples, homemade cider and apple pies. You can find their place by visiting their website or just call them at 256-734-5249.

Keith Johnson is a freelance writer from Morgan County.