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“My name’s Kyle Nagy.

My title up here is Superintendent and Orchard Operations Manager.

This is the Sandpoint Organic Agriculture Center.”

Early in the year the trees are still pretty bare here at the University of Idaho Sandpoint Organic Agriculture Center in North Idaho, but it’s a different story later on when harvest season begins.

“Our center is focused on sustainable and organic agriculture in Idaho. Our focus is kind of on our orchard up here, we have a certified organic orchard that specializes in heritage and heirloom varieties of apples,” said Nagy. “So, we have about 70 different varieties of apples that we’re growing out there right now, along with a handful of pears, plums, cherries. And then we also have about a thousand feet of raspberry rows.

Everybody thinks there’s the 10 varieties that you see at the grocery store but since colonial times there’s been over 16,000 named varieties of apples in the United States and Canada alone.

The orchard was established back in around 2008 by Dennis Pence who was the founder and CEO of Coldwater Creek which was based here in Sandpoint. He was hoping to recreate an orchard that he kind of remembered growing up living in Ohio.

So, he kind of developed the plan for the orchard and everything and built out the beautiful facility we have up here for his use for non-profits and charities that he had in the area. And then the university acquired the property in 2018. I’ve been on site here since 2011 managing the orchard so, I tell everyone I’m like the old mule, they just sold me with the farm, so I came with the property.

Mostly what we’re learning is about which of these old varieties have some disease resistance, which are more susceptible to pests and that kind of thing. And a lot of it is which grow well in our climate. In north Idaho we have these long, late winters.

We got hit by a frost last year so that really set us back but even that presents some learning opportunities for us. We find out which varieties are a little hardier through those late frosts, which ones are flowering early enough and which ones are flowering a little later so that they’re missing most of those frosts, so we’re figuring out some new stuff even in the years that aren’t going well.

Along with all these old, unusual varieties we have some of these red flesh varieties. The skin is like a deep maroon and the flesh is crimson the whole way through and so it’s really a striking apple for sure.

We do have a lot of good fresh eating apples out here but a lot of these older heirloom varieties are either cider specific or they’re culinary apples so we have some cider apples that you wouldn’t want to take a bite out of. They’re so astringent, they’ll suck all the moisture out of your mouth, but they really add some complexity to a good cider.

Nowadays there’s definitely been a resurgence in hard ciders in the U.S. and you can’t make a really good hard cider out of Fujis and Honey Crisps, so a lot of these heritage varieties are specific for cider production,: said Nagy.

They sell their apples and cider locally, and also donate produce to the Bonner County Foodbank.

“And the we also work with different apple groups in the Pacific northwest such as the Lost Apple Project where they’re trying to find some of these heritage varieties that we thought were extinct but are still in existence on some of these old homesteads in the region,” said Nagy.

“One of the things we want to be able to do research out of here is season extension techniques since our growing season is so short.

Having 70 different varieties our harvest starts in the middle of August and goes through are first frosts. So, we’ve had some years that we’ve harvest apples all the way to Halloween.

A couple of years ago we started the Heritage Orchard Conference. We started out as an in-person conference here in Sandpoint, and then with covid we ended up moving to a webinar series. And what I was happy to find out is that we’re having international reach, so last year we had attendees from 16 different countries.

We host a lot of classes and courses through the University of Idaho extension. Here in Bonner County the office is nearby but we have this big, beautiful facility here, so we hold of lot of our classes out here now. And then we also have tours in the fall. We’ve done, before covid we had a large apple tasting out here. That was one of my favorite events that we’ve held out here.

We’ve been featured in the Good Fruit Grower magazine a couple of times here. You might recognize those hands… -laughs-

We have a native plant garden out here; we also have an educational market garden that’s used by our interns. We usually have two or three undergraduate interns coming from campus each summer. So, we get them living on site here working in the orchard,” said Nagy.

They’ve also started integrating livestock like chickens for manure use and pest control, and sheep to study rotational grazing to control plants that are toxic to horses and cattle.

While this is very different than a large scale commercial orchard, some of the thing they’re learning are applicable to commercial growers.

“There’s definitely differences between our climates between north Idaho and southern Idaho but there’s definitely a lot of principles and practices that could be utilized that we’re researching up here that could be utilized across the state.”

For the Voice of Idaho Agriculture, I’m Paul Boehlke.