by George Fullerton
Blair Stirling grew up in his family’s orchard and farming businesses in Wolfville, N.S. In 1976, shortly after graduating from the Nova Scotia Agricultural College’s agriculture business program, the family business deemed that he should go to Gagetown, N.B., and undertake management of the Stirling orchard operation there.
“I arrived at the orchard after I had just turned 20 years old,” said Stirling. “And when I met the manager, he immediately told me he was turning 65 in the autumn, and after that he would no longer be working. I had to deal with lots of challenges.”
His grandfather A.R. Stirling had purchased the Cossar Farm orchard and property in Gagetown in 1954 after Hurricane Edna left a good deal of their Nova Scotia apple crop on the ground. The Stirlings had many contracts for apples, including a substantial amount for Great Britain, and the New Brunswick orchard with a crop on the trees allowed them to honour their commitments.
The Gagetown orchard supplied the Stirling business’s roadside markets across New Brunswick as well as domestic markets throughout Eastern Canada.
Blair Stirling continued to manage the Gagetown property within the Stirling corporation until he purchased the farm in 2000 and launched his own business as AppleManFarms Ltd.
The orchard had been built up to 100 acres in the past and currently has about 80 acres in production. The operation has a storage capacity of around 1,000 bins, a beverage production room, and grading and packaging facilities.
Situated on the Saint John River, just downstream from the Village of Gagetown, the orchard continues to prosper with fertile soils, frost mitigation provided by the proximity of the river, and a great temperature regime for apple and other tree fruit production.
Stirling brought skills learned while growing up in the Annapolis Valley. He has worked with the established orchards and proceeded to build the operation by establishing new trees. One of the first renovation projects early on was to plant a 20-acre hayfield to Paula Red, McIntosh, and Cortland. In the 1980s, two more fields were planted into orchards.
“We have also removed lots of old trees which were past their prime and filled in with newer varieties,” said Stirling.
He has also grafted new varieties on existing rootstock. Recent plantings have been with semi-dwarf varieties.
“When I looked at replacing conventional large trees with semi-dwarf stock, I wanted to have the planted stock to take advantage of the years of composted and other nutrient inputs in the band of soil where the old trees were,” said Stirling. “I also thought it pertinent that we should continue to travel in the well-packed alleys that had been travelled in and packed down for decades.”
His solution was to plant four semi-dwarf trees at four-foot spacings across the space occupied by the old trees. “The new trees are oriented at an angle to the travel lane, with the theory that pesticides and other sprayed inputs would reach to all the trees in the angled rows,” said Stirling. “To date, my plan seems to be working well.”
Stirling and a number of other growers in the Saint John River Valley were intrigued with a new variety – Honeycrisp – developed in Minnesota. Honeycrisp was promoted as a cold-hardy fruit with good storage characteristics and high consumer acceptance. In 1998, Stirling and other growers bought stock and began producing the variety.
“We found that Honeycrisp responds very well to our Maritime climate,” said Stirling. “I believe we produce an exceptionally high-quality Honeycrisp compared to growers in warmer climates.” He added that the quality of the apples should provide Maritime growers a marketing edge.
Securing adequate labour to bring in the crop is a perpetual challenge. The labour issue led Stirling and other producers to lobby governments to allow temporary foreign workers to be hired for agriculture work.
Stirling said his experience with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program has not been good. He subscribed to the program for one year, but said he found civil servants somewhat uncooperative and seemingly putting up roadblocks rather than embracing the program and assisting the farmer applicants.
When his foreign worker crew eventually arrived, he faced communication issues and a crew with virtually no agriculture production experience. Stirling contends that the program would be a lot more effective if politicians and bureaucrats did a better job of supporting it.
Stirling sells apples to regional markets and retailers, as well as through brokers who ship product to distribution centres in the Maritimes, Quebec, and Ontario. AppleManFarms has also taken over the Stirling market stand on Rothesay Avenue in Saint John. The market stand sells apples and other tree fruits, along with a suite of AppleManFarms drinks. The stand also consigns produce for other farmers.
AppleManFarms also operates an “apples for schools” program, which ships boxes of apples to a number of schools throughout southern New Brunswick.
Stirling has developed both plastic and cardboard baskets for marketing his fruit, in an effort to avoid plastic bags. “In bags, the fruit gets banged around, which quickly degrades the fruit,” he said.
Stirling said he “fooled around” with ciders and juice production since he was 15, but got into drink production in a serious way in 1998. “I have always been looking for opportunities to utilize low-grade fruit which is high quality but does not grade for consumer marketing,” he said. Stirling became involved with other fruit producers and estate wineries to draft policy to allow on-farm production and marketing of hard ciders and wines.
The Stirlings built a production facility, and currently market both sweet and hard cider, and other drink products through a combination of produce markets, food stores, liquor stores, and other on-farm stores. The AppleManFarms website promotes 44 distinct drink products.
“We make lot of apple products – coolers, hard cider, wines, sparkling apple juice, and a number of drinks which combine apple with other fruit juices,” said Stirling. “I will buy up fruit from other farmers and freeze it, so I only have to thaw it and then can combine it with our apple juices.”
AppleManFarms is certainly not a one-man show. Blair’s wife Brenda and their two daughters Katherine and Jenny continue to take leadership roles in the operation. Stirling said he would like to see his children eventually take over the operation. “At this stage of my life, I would like to see myself working for them in the not too distant future,” he said.
He said challenges that the next generation of apple producers will deal with include food safety, labour recruitment, and high production input costs.