Hundreds of unique varieties are created and tested at a Chester County orchard.
By Sari Harrar | Photographs by Rob Cardillo
Lisa and Ike Kerschner, owners of North Star Orchard, examine their crop of Gold Rush apples as Sophie looks on.
At harvest time you won’t find a single Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, or McIntosh dangling from the trees at North Star Orchard in Cochranville, Pennsylvania. But not to worry: Lovers of apples will never go hungry here. Orchard owners Lisa and Ike Kerschner raise a dizzying variety of America’s favorite fruit on their 20-acre farm—at last count 343 types, none of which you’ll ever see on the shelves of any supermarket.
Among the bounty are heritage types from long ago, like Esopus Spitzenberg, a speckled, maroon orb said to be Thomas Jefferson’s go-to favorite, and Golden Russet, a tangy 400-year-old apple that Ike says may be “the first truly American variety.” Other cultivars are so new they don’t even have official names. One sweet-tart selection is labeled “NY75413-30,” but Ike and Lisa call it Royalty. “It’s perfect for the cider applesauce we make in the fall,” Lisa says.
North Star’s apple-growing business has two sides: The main effort goes to bringing the fruit to perfection, for sale at farm markets and to shareholders of the orchard’s CSA (community-supported agriculture) initiative. Behind the scenes, the Kerschners are also deep into breeding, which most orchardists never get involved with. Ike and Lisa’s goal is to come up with delicious new apples that grow on trees hardy enough to thrive despite the onslaught of pests, diseases, and weather extremes that afflict orchards in southeastern Pennsylvania.
So far they’ve bred two winners, apples they named Ludicrisp and Monolith. The fruits were developed through a process that can take nearly two decades from seed to full-grown tree. “I’m working to restart apple evolution,” says Ike, a self-described “apple geek” whose wiry hair sometimes gives him the look of a mad scientist. “It sounds complicated, but it’s pretty simple. You plant a lot of seeds; you grow a lot of trees; you mercilessly toss the bad ones and nurture the best.”
Farmhand Hannah Frankman holds a box of assorted apples. North Star fruits are for sale at various farmers’ markets in the region, including at Philadelphia’s Headhouse (Second and Lombard streets) on certain Sundays.
A Tree Grows in an Apartment
Ike and Lisa met at Pennsylvania State University in the late 1980s, where both were studying agriculture. Lisa, who had planned on becoming a teacher, discovered that she had more fun working on the student farm than being in the classroom. Ike had spent most of his childhood on farms in fruit-growing areas of Wisconsin and Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. “I always wanted to be a farmer,” he says, “and by my teen years, I knew I wanted to raise and breed fruit trees.” The couple’s first project: breeding apples in buckets in their State College, Pennsylvania, apartment just for the fun of it.
“Our variety Monolith started there,” Ike says, “and when it finally fruited, the apples were the best—zingy, crunchy, intense. It’s not the easiest tree to grow, but it’s ours.” Unlike big commercial growers, North Star can focus on apple varieties that require more work or don’t produce quite as much fruit. “Because our scale is smaller and because we sell directly to our customers, we can offer a lot of really interesting apples you won’t find at other orchards or in stores,” Ike says.
After graduating from Penn State in 1988, the couple worked various jobs in agriculture and horticulture, such as stints for Ike at Longwood Gardens and as a breeder and manager for a Philadelphia-area vineyard. They leased their first orchard property in 1992 and began growing pears as well as apples. They purchased North Star, which totals 20 acres, in several parcels between 2006 and 2011. Today this property features 5 acres of vegetable plantings (among them a striped beet Ike developed called Rainbow) and 13 acres of fruit trees, including the many apples, nearly 40 varieties of Asian and English pears, and dozens of different peaches.
With the help of about 12 hired farmhands, the Kerschners grow for the orchard’s CSA vegetable- and fruit-share programs and also sell fruit at growers-only farmers’ markets in the area. Among these are Philadelphia’s Sunday morning Headhouse market, at Second and Lombard streets, and other Pennsylvania options in Emmaus, Havertown (Oakmont), Phoenixville, and West Chester. Fruit is also available at the farm on CSA pickup days. (Check northstarorchard.com for details.)
While the farm isn’t certified organic, Ike follows what he calls “sensible” orchard maintenance practices, including integrated pest management and the judicious use of sprays to protect his trees. (See “Secrets for Backyard Apple Tree Success,” page 35, for Ike’s advice for home growers.)
Durable cow ear tags are put to a new use: identifying hundreds of small apple trees in the North Star breeding program.
From Fridge to Field
On a tour of the orchard with Ike and Lisa in early April, I see a lone pear tree that has burst into bloom; for the rest of the trees, the cold spring will delay their flowering for at least another week. In the greenhouse, 750 recently planted apple seeds are beginning to put down roots. “Apple seeds need a cold period before they germinate, so we keep them in our refrigerator over the winter in plastic bags,” Lisa explains.
The breeding process reveals the vagaries of apple genetics. The Kerschners begin by using tiny brushes to cross-pollinate some apple trees by hand, and they let others pollinate freely with nearby varieties. They then gather the seeds from ripe apples in the fall. “It’s hard to predict what those seeds will produce,” Ike says. “Compared to other plants, apples have a large number of chromosomes that can rearrange themselves in lots and lots of ways. If you crossed a Red Delicious and a Golden Delicious and grew 1,000 seedlings, each one would produce a different apple.”
Patience is a definite requirement. Young trees in the orchard’s breeding program spend their early years in closely planted rows. “Apples don’t produce fruit until their fourth or fifth year, so we weed out plants based on health and disease resistance early on,” Ike says. “Last year, out of about 25 varieties that had fruited, I selected a dozen or so to continue growing. You’d never, ever want to taste the apples on the rest of those trees!”
Cuttings (also called scions) from the promising varieties are grafted onto hardy rootstocks for the second phase of growing and testing. “While grafting changes and improves the flavor of the apples, it’s really done to produce hardier trees,” Ike says. He shows me the slender new shoots ready for planting, with waxy grafting tape binding each scion and rootstock, which will eventually grow together. “Virtually all apples,” he adds, “are grown like this, on a few well-researched rootstocks.”
As his breeding program continues to grow, Ike’s dream is to someday devote all of North Star’s apple rows to his own varieties; for now, he plans to offer more Monolith and Ludicrisp apples this year. “We called it Ludicrisp,” Lisa says, “to make fun of all the apples with ‘crisp’ in their names.” This North Star original is “sweet and fruity, with a juicy crunch,” she notes. In one autumn apple-tasting, a tradition at the orchard, a visitor described the flavor as “poppin’ bright.”
Late-fall brassicas are ready for harvest by the restored barn.
Meet a New Apple
North Star holds several public apple-tastings each year; at one last fall, 48 varieties were available for sampling and purchase. (Check the website for details about this year’s dates and times.) Feedback from customers helps the Kerschners decide which of the varieties growing at the orchard are most popular. “Many of our apple varieties are grown in limited quantities—just a few trees,” Lisa says. “We have customers who take photos and even keep spreadsheets to track when their favorites will be available each year.”
Ike is always surprised not only by the diversity of apple textures and flavors but also by how people perceive these differences. “We had one apple that I thought tasted like floor cleaner, but some people loved it,” he says.
Before I leave, Ike reaches into a cooler and tosses me a pink-and-gold apple. “It’s Gold Rush, my favorite for eating and cooking,” he says. It is also a variety that will keep for months in a cold refrigerator; this is April, after all.
On the ride home through Chester County’s farm fields and small towns, the apple seems to glow in the afternoon light, but it doesn’t sit on the dashboard long. I have to eat it.
Apple lover Sari Harrar, who lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, has written for O, the Oprah Magazine; Dr. Oz the Good Life; Parade; Better Homes and Gardens; and many other national magazines.
Carmel Upside-Down Apple Tart. A GROW Recipe.
Secrets for Backyard Apple Tree Success
Dreaming of starting your own little apple orchard?
“It’s not easy,” Ike Kerschner says. “You need the right tree and the right location, and you need to get in there to prevent and fight pests and diseases.” Here are his top five grow-your-own tips.
Find a sunny spot. “Apple trees need full sun and well-drained soil,” he says. “Avoid frost pockets, which are typically in low-lying areas.”
Choose varieties for our region. Gold Rush (Ike’s favorite), Pristine, Liberty, and Sundance are resistant to apple scab, the most prevalent and destructive apple disease in the Northeast. Ike recommends Adams County Nursery (acnursery.com) as a source for reliable apple trees for the Philadelphia region.
Plan for spring. Fall is an opportune time to choose planting locations and take a soil sample to your county extension office for testing. Winter is great for learning about apple tree pruning and maintenance. Plant trees in early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked.
Prepare for pests and diseases. The list of threats is long: Aphids, maggots, moths, mildew, rots, rust, scab, and flyspeck are just a few that can attack a tree or the developing fruit. For information on preventing and solving these problems, check with groups such as Backyard Fruit Growers (www.sas.upenn.edu/~dailey/byfg.html) and North American Fruit Explorers (nafex.org). Penn State’s fruit production guide for home growers (extension.psu.edu/plants/gardening/fphg) is another excellent resource, Ike says.
Understand upkeep. “For the first year, keep the area under each tree weed-free, and water weekly (unless there’s been a lot of rain),” Ike says. Beforehand, learn when and how to prune. You may have to trim off damaged roots or poorly spaced branches when you plant. Throughout the life of your trees, smart pruning can discourage disease and improve fruit quality.