CUMBERLAND – Dressed in waterproof rain bibs, plastic gloves and rubber boots, Kerri A. Stenovitch looks more like a commercial fisherman than a fruit farmer.
Indeed, Stenovitch’s three-member apple pressing team at Cumberland’s Phantom Farms, including Chris Combs, Chameal Rogers and Stenovich’s husband, David Joseph, all look like they just walked off a fishing boat at the docks in Galilee.
But there’s a reason why they look like they’re dressed for heavy weather. Pressing apples and making fresh apple cider is a wet and sticky business, especially when you’re churning out about 200 gallons of the stuff in just four hours.
Walk a quarter-mile down a grassy path in back of the 2920 Diamond Hill Road farm stand and you’ll find the cider house, a nondescript building near the farm’s picturesque apple orchard where 80-year-old trees are heavy with big juicy fruits.
As the apple harvest begins, the cider house comes alive once a week with the loud drone of the washer and hydraulic press as Stenovitch, owner of the 12-acre Phantom Farms, and her team of cider makers get to work making Phantom’s famous cider.
Fresh cider is raw apple juice that has not undergone a filtration process to remove coarse particles of pulp or sediment. It takes about one-third of a bushel to make a gallon of cider.
Traditional cider making at Phantom Farms starts with the picking of a variety of apples, which are put into crates that hold upwards of 600 pounds of fruit. Each 600-pound crate of apples can produce 50 gallons of cider, and on the farm’s weekly apple pressing day, Stenovitch and her crew can rip through four crates during a typical four-hour work shift.
The crates are hoisted up mechanically, allowing the apples to tumble into a washer to remove dirt and debris before they are crushed. The apples are then pulled onto a vertical conveyor belt into a grater- type mill that crushes the fruit and reduces it to a pulp, known as the pomace or pommy.
Next, the pulp is crushed to extract the juice. This is done in a cider press. The traditional type of press, and the type used at Phantom Farms, is a rack and cloth press (sometimes known as a pack press). In this type of press, a sheet of sisal or hessian is placed across the bottom of a square frame above a trough. A layer of pomace, 4 to 5 inches deep, is poured onto the hessian. The hessian is folded over the pomace, completely enclosing it. Another sheet of hessian is placed on top of the first and the process repeated until the layers fill the frame. The hydraulically operated plate squeezes the layers – applying about 1,500 pounds of pressure - allowing the juice to run into the trough. The pomace is pressed until it is solid and no more juice runs out. From there, the juice flows through a tube into a cooling tank that has spigots for bottling.
The smell of fresh-pressed apples permeates the cider house as Stenovitch and her crew – all wearing protective headphones – work in unison.
In four hours, the crew will have made more than 200 gallons of cider, which will then be poured into plastic jugs and placed in a huge cooler in the basement of the cider house. From there, the jugs of cider will go as needed up to the farm’s store, where the shelves are stocked and ready for Phantom Farms’ eager customers.
“It’s a pretty involved process, although the cleanup afterwards can take just as long,” says Stenovitch.
At Phantom Farms, you can get both pasteurized and unpasteurized apple cider.
Stenovitch says pasteurization results in some change to the sweetness and flavor of the cider.
“The main difference between pasteurized and nonpasteurized cider is that unpasteurized cider is more intense and sweet,” she says.
Stenovitch, who is also president of the Rhode Island Fruit Growers Association, says every bit of the apple is used when making cider, adding the leftover dried pomace is usually given to a local pig farm.
“There’s zero waste of the apples,” she says.
Apple harvest typically starts at the beginning of September and lasts until November. Phantom Farms will start offering pick-your-own apples beginning Sunday, Sept. 15.
The farm has 12 acres and grows on eight, including an apple orchard with more than 15 varieties of apples, including MacIntosh, Honey Crisp, Macoun, Cortland, Empire and Red Delicious, to name a few.
And this year’s apple crop, Stenovitch says, is one of the best in recent memory. Last year, New England had a dismal apple crop, after apple blossoms sprouted during a warm April then were killed off by a frost. By contrast, growing conditions were favorable this year, with minimal late frosts, a wet early summer and recent dry conditions.
“We have a phenomenal crop this year,” she says.
The New England Apple Association says apple lovers can expect a good crop this fall with an estimated 3.5 million 42-pound boxes, just under the region’s five-year, 3.6 million-box average. The crop will be significantly larger than in 2012, when the region harvested just 75 percent of a normal crop due to widespread frost and hail damage.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee proclaimed Sept. 6 as Rhode Island Apple Harvest Day to bring attention to the history and value of Rhode Island’s apple industry.
Apples have been an integral part of the state’s agriculture since the 1600s. The first North American variety, Yellow Sweeting, was developed by William Blackstone in Cumberland. The Rhode Island Greening apple, which was developed in 1796 and originally from the Green End area of Newport, is the state fruit and continues to be an important apple variety for both commercial and home use.
The R.I. Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Agriculture publishes a free guide to Rhode Island apple orchards, including orchards where you can pick your own apples.
Neighboring Massachusetts boasts more than 100 varieties of apples, including local favorites like MacIntosh, Cortland, Macoun, Gala and Honeycrisp.
There are approximately 369 apple farms in Massachusetts.
The value of the Massachusetts apple crop in 2011 was more than $19.4 million.
More than 40 percent of apple growers market their apples directly to consumers through roadside farm stands, farmers’ markets and pick-your-own operations.
“Apples are symbolic of fall in Massachusetts,” said Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner Greg Watson. “Crisp weekends are perfect for apple picking with the family and friends, as well as supporting local farmers.”
The 60-year-old Phantom Farms is more than just apples. Over the last decade, the farm has expanded its operation to include strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers, and giant pumpkins. In addition, Phantom Farms offers a country bake and gift shop, garden center and flower shop.
The farm also ships a variety of products throughout the United States, including in-season apples and tomatoes, jams, jellies and dips, gift baskets, and the farm’s award-winning Eccles cakes and select pastries.
Stenovitch, 39, a Cumberland native and Rhode Island College business school graduate, worked on the farm in various capacities for more than 25 years. Last year, she and her husband, David, became the farm’s new owners.
“We just fell into it,” says Stenovitch, whose 8-year-old son, Michael, also helps out on the farm. “We had been leasing it for a number of years, and things just worked out.”
Life on a working farm, she says, has been both fulfilling and a dream come true. “I tell people, I’m not working, I’m playing. This is my meditation,” she says.