This apple is not your everyday supermarket fruit.
Its skin is a yellow wash with splashes of carmine down the sides and a streak of russet near the stem, and it hangs boldly juxtaposed against its leafy backdrop. This diminutive fruit is perfectly shaped and easily plucked from the bough.
If you take a bite, the satisfying crunch offers a crisp strong flavor with a good little kick of acid on the back. For an apple, it’s surprisingly complex on the tongue.
This apple is the Martha crabapple, a favorite fruit of Rod McIver.
“It’s a fairly early apple, but it ripens over a long period so you can snack off it for a good month,” McIver said with a lilting Southern accent. “It’s beautiful, it’s tough, and most people complain it’s too sour, but I think it just has a wonderful flavor.”
“That’s what got me started on all this,” McIver added, gesturing around his small orchard property.
On a scant three acres off Rose Crossing sits McIver’s small house and a large barn. In a fenced-off portion of the front yard is a garden and a dozen fruit trees, mostly apple with a few exceptions (one of McIver’s favorite pear trees, a cross between an Asian and European variety, towers over this part of the yard). The area immediately surrounding the house is dotted with more trees — pears, plums and a few more apples.
But further back on the lot, behind a classically red barn, sprawls the heart of McIver’s passion.
He calls it his Montana home orchard project — 13 rows of seven or eight trees apiece. Each tree has anywhere from one to 10 different varietals grafted onto them. By McIver’s estimate, he is propagating somewhere between 200 and 250 different fruit varieties, probably closer to 300 if you count the various berries growing on the property as well.
“I’ve got a lot. I think variety is the spice of life and I’m pretty spiced up around here,” he said. “I’m so spiced up I don’t even know what all the spices are.”
McIver has a long family history of being tied to the land. He was born in 1942 and grew up in the low country of South Carolina to a farming family— he says his ancestors were always big farmers, active in state agricultural organizations. His uncle was farmer of the year in the state numerous times.
Growing up, McIver’s father had a lumber business, and McIver went to forestry school to feed his own passion for the agricultural sector.
“My goal was always to own my own forest land and have a vertical organization that sustainably manages the forest the way it used to be,” he said.
He followed his first degree with a stint at Duke University pursuing a master’s degree in natural resource economics, but dropped out, disgruntled with the field of economics as a whole, and began work as a smokejumper.
After a short stint in Vietnam that ended after he stepped on a landmine, McIver was a smokejumper for more than two decades, which cemented his love of the U.S. West.
“I just enjoyed the outdoor life and natural history and when I was smokejumping it was just amazing,” he said. “I remember one particular week I was looking off a mountain outside Silver City, New Mexico looking into Mexico and the next week I was north of the Brooks Range in Alaska.
“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”
McIver retired from smokejumping when he turned 44 and his body could no longer handle the strain, and eventually settled in Montana, first in Missoula and then in the Flathead in 1998.
He tried to keep his hand on the pulse of the forestry industry with a portable sawmill, but made limited progress. Instead, he was making a lot of progress with his gardening.
“I first started planting trees that fall,” he said. “After I got home from the sawmill I’d be out here with my truck parked in the yard with the lights on so I could keep planting.”
In late September, Katrina Mendrey, an apple researcher from the Bitterroot, made a trip up to Kalispell to visit McIver’s orchard project for the first time.
“Apples have made it around the world; it’s what makes them interesting to people and romanticized in culture,” she said. “They first started in Kazakhstan, traveled the Silk Road and went around the world.”
“Montana is where apples have circumnavigated the globe and settled,” she added. “It’s kind of the last place for apples to get to.”
Mendrey is the orchard program manager for Montana State University’s Western Agricultural Research Center, and oversees the Montana Heritage Orchard Program, which works to document the history of Montana orchards and identify apples with unique qualities that allow them to thrive in the state.
Mendrey had corresponded with McIver for years, and when she compiled a guidebook to Montana’s heritage apple varieties, he sent her a number of samples she couldn’t find elsewhere.
“Rod has probably the largest single collection of apple varieties in the state,” she said en route to the orchard. “I’ve always wanted to see it in person.”
Seeing an apple enthusiast in their natural orchard habitat is one thing, but putting two together in that setting is something else entirely, a combination of mad scientist and sommelier.
As McIver led Mendrey on the grand tour of his orchard, the two quickly devolved into niche conversations about apple picking tools, which varieties had ripened well this summer and the nuances of apple identification.
As the duo meandered among the trees, Mendrey would pluck an apple, cut it open to examine seeds and flesh, give a spray of iodine solution to determine the starch content and therefore ripeness, and occasionally scribble notes. McIver meanwhile, spouted a near-constant commentary, sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of his crop, pointing to each tree and giving the history of the grafts, how each year’s crop had been and the flavor profile of each fruit.
Pulling one red apple from a branch, he held it out in the sunlight.
“This is a Scarlet Surprise,” he said cutting it in half to reveal a bright red flesh. “This has a little bit of a cooked apple flavor, usually with some tannins. It’s a tart apple, decent but not great.”
“But it’s a great novelty apple,” he continued. “When classes of kids come here to learn about apples, I will get tons of letters about the red-fleshed apple.”
For the longest time, McIver thought he grew the only Scarlet Surprise in Montana, but recently someone approached him at the Whitefish Farmers Market and handed him one of the novelty fruits found on a tree near the bike path.
“I’d like to know where that tree is,” McIver said. “Mine is so young I don’t want to whack away at it, but I would love to collect some limbs from a wild one.”
McIver’s website lists 123 varieties of apples he grows, but he acknowledges he doesn’t have much time for the Internet, and the list is woefully lacking. With the addition of 10-15 varieties each year, he estimates he could have close to 400 when all is said and done.
For all his stored knowledge, McIver says he forgets half of it every year, but constantly replenishes by staying interested and continuing to educate himself.
“I just read about fruit and talk to people about fruit, and keep trying things that might work here,” he said. “Every fruit tree performs differently in everyday life.”
McIver considers his orchard part experiment, part business. In a similar ethos to the Montana Heritage Program, he wants to discover apples that thrive in Montana’s climate and might make good cider apples, which drives his prolific operation.
“When I’m grafting in the summer I’ll have 100 different scions that I’m grafting with and trying to remember where I put what,” he said. “I get addled sometimes.”
For all the ways Mendrey and McIver can identify apples — color, size, ripening timeline, stem length, divot depth, flavor — only a lab test can confirm the unknowns, a pricey process.
“This is why we don’t have great records for all these orchards,” said Mendrey as she clipped a few leaves from a branch in McIver’s orchard. The branch is one of the few grafts McIver is unsure of the origin, and he’s paying for Mendrey to run a genetic test on the sample.
“When trees are dying and you’re trying to harvest apples and save the tree, the label is the last thing you’re thinking of,” McIver said as he pointed out the few grafted branches on his “unknown” list. “I’d love to run tests on every one to be sure, but it would cost me thousands of dollars to figure out everything I’ve got here.”
Twice a week, McIver loads up his truck and sells his apples at the farmers markets in Kalispell and Whitefish. He offloads an estimated 130 pounds a week, but moving produce is not what he’s really interested in.
“I know if people want to get boring apples for cheap, they can go to the store,” he said. “I want people to try my apples, figure out what they like and then come back and talk to me about buying trees — I’m trying to get people interested in growing trees. It’s more fun and fresh fruit tastes better right off the tree.”
Maintaining the orchard monopolizes McIver’s entire day. He gets up mid morning “when the dew is gone or the frost has melted” and begins work, which depending on the season will involved planting, grafting, mulching, harvesting or cider pressing.
Many aspects of his orchard are unconventional, such as the irrigation system, where he refrains from using a pipe system so that he can wander among the trees and keep tabs on each one while watering them.
When the sun sets, he chooses from the “flock of headlamps” he keeps scattered around his property and continues working until he finds a suitable stopping point. Then it’s dinner and to bed around midnight before he starts the process over. It seems like a lot, but McIver wishes he could do even more.
“If I were a younger person I’d be interested in breeding, too, but I don’t have the time to see the results of any breeding program,” he said. “So, I’m strictly looking for what’s already out there but just has not had the chance to express itself here in Montana.”
Moving toward the outskirts of his orchard, McIver states for the umpteenth time to Mendrey that the tour is over before he points to another fruit, offers a taste and rattles of his tasting notes.
Asked whether he has a favorite among his hundreds of apples, McIver appears a little anxious, as though worried he might offend the nearest tree.
“There was a guy who had the most varieties of fruit in the U.S. and he told me once when people asked him what his favorite apple was, he would respond, ‘It’s the one in my hand,’” McIver said. “I’m not quite that catholic about it — I have a couple of really favorite pears that I love and a couple of plums that I really love.”
“But that Martha, that is my favorite apple tree.”
Learn more about McIver’s home orchard at montanahomeorchard.blogspot.com.
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