The breeze in the air on Friday, the last day of August, brought with it a hint of fall. The afternoon was clear and warm, but the wind felt cool. So it was a comfort to walk into the kitchen of the Magnuson home in West Tisbury, just shy of the Chilmark border, where the sweet autumn smells of cinnamon and cooking apples filled the air. Behind their house, Debbie and Eric Magnuson run one of the Island’s only commercial orchards, growing apples and pears that they sell from their home and at Morning Glory Farm.
On Friday, Mrs. Magnuson had just finished a batch of homemade applesauce with some of the season’s first harvest. She held out a heaping spoonful from the pot on the stove and with one bite, beach days and berries seemed like a thing of the past. The days ahead hold promise for crunching leaves, blazing fires and bushels of apples.
Mr. Magnuson planted his first apple tree nearly 30 years ago. A carpenter by trade, he was working on the Edgartown house of Paul Jackson, who had a few apple trees out back. Although Mr. Magnuson had never farmed, it was in his blood. He grew up in a small house across from Up Island Automotive where, before he was born, his father grew vegetables and sold them from a truck stop farm stand. By the time he was young, Mr. Magnuson’s father stopped farming, but continued to have an active garden. His great uncle, who lived in Edgartown, had apple trees. When he and his wife married and settled into their own home three dirt roads away, they planted a backyard garden. A few apple trees would make a nice addition, he remembers thinking. West Tisbury farmer Donny Mills gave him a copy of Modern Fruit Science by Norman F. Childers and he got to work.
Mr. Magnuson’s orchard over time grew from his initial five trees to nearly 100, a gardening experiment turned into a full fledged farming endeavor. The trees near the house are planted haphazardly. Their branches grow at wild angles and their bark is weathered. As Mr. Magnuson walks among these early trees, he points to McIntoshes, the ones he began harvesting August 15, a Bosc pear tree and Arkansas Blacks, the apples that turn a deep red color, almost black. A Red Delicious tree is bare; it stopped producing fruit a few years back. Then there are the mystery trees, the ones he bought whose labels read one thing and whose fruit clearly is another.
As he walks to the back of the orchard, past the garden, smaller now, where he and Mrs. Magnuson still grow vegetables and berries, the trees are more methodically planted, lined up neatly in rows. Some of their trunks are skirted with rubber mesh to ward off pesky rabbits in winter. The trees back here are more diverse — Bartlett pears, Macoun apples, Liberties, Baldwins. The growth of the orchard was slow, Mr. Magnuson said, and it was only after getting a few trees in the ground that he had the idea of selling the fruit and turning the hobby into an orchard.
The first order of business was a name. The house sits on the Tiasquam River and, after some research, Mr. Magnuson discovered the river is commonly spelled in two ways. His sister and brother in law operate Tiasquam Farm, so he and his wife opted for the second spelling for their orchard, Tiasquin. The second order of business was just that — a business plan. In the early 1990s, Mr. Magnuson began selling his fruit to Morning Glory Farm and also out of the back of his house. “Morning Glory is so happy to get the fruit because there is so little Island grown fruit out there,” said Mrs. Magnuson. As the orchard grew — it now covers nearly an acre — so did its popularity.
For the past several years, Mr. Magnuson has shifted his work from carpentry to caretaking, which gives him more time with the trees. Winter is his favorite time to spend in the orchard. He prunes the trees, relishing the solitary time. At the end of April, the trees come to life and when he looks out at the orchard from his backyard, it is like a sea of white and pink. With the blossoms in May come the pests. He uses dormant oil sprays and regular orchard sprays to ward off apple scab, apple cedar rust, mites and maggots. He watches for rabbits, rats, raccoons and of course, deer. Sometimes a bold one will prop its front legs in the branches and munch on the fruit. “So far, we’ve been able to share with them,” he said.
In late August, the early fruit, mainly McIntosh apples and pears, are ready to be picked. An apple ready for picking has begun to turn from green to yellow, he said, and comes off the tree easily. In the fall, the Magnusons bring out the cider press. In their first year, the couple tried making cider in a blender. They ended up with mush and bought the hand-cranked press they now use to press cider all fall. The apples continue to grow until late November and will wind up in pies (any kind but Red Delicious will make a good pie, Mrs. Magnuson said), on top of pork and baked in the oven with butternut squash. Then it’s back to pruning.
This year has yielded Mr. Magnuson’s best crop. He won first prize and best in show for his pears at the agricultural fair, first prize for apples and Mrs. Magnuson won a blue ribbon for her fruit display. He expects to pick 50 bushels this season and predicts that in addition to selling them at Morning Glory and out back, he will wind up giving a fair share away. He has no theories on why this season has been the best, but suspects that the dry weather had something to do with it. “A rainy season breeds more fungus and disease,” he said.
With the start of school, the Magnusons will have many guests in the orchard. Mrs. Magnuson runs a home day care center and she takes the kids out among the trees to learn about the growing process. The Chilmark School first grade class always makes a visit. “It’s important that people see where their food comes from,” Mrs. Magnuson said. She recently received a request from a young father to show his son around the farm. “He thought apples came from the store,” she exclaimed.
As September begins, Mr. Magnuson is settling in for apple season. His hobby (he still calls it that), allows Islanders to take their pick between a West Tisbury apple and one from Vermont. As to which one is better, Mr. Magnuson will not say. “A freshly picked apple is always a tasty apple,” he said.