By Kate Harries -- There’s a popular orchard on Yonge Street south of Barrie called Carpe Diem -- “Seize the Day.”
That day is drawing to a close.
This area is part of 5,600 acres annexed by Barrie almost a decade ago. Now, ploughed fields proliferate with "For Sale" placards proclaiming them to be prime development land.
There’s no sign that the city is about to engulf the orchard lovingly planted 40 years ago by Henry Boer and his son-in-law John Juffermans. But news is getting out and long-time customers arrive to learn that this is the last season for stocking up on fresh-pressed cider and favourite varieties of apples.
“Yes, it’s sold,” Juffermans says. “You can’t farm in the middle of development. A lot of people are upset that we’re ending it - this is a very social business, and we’re part of many families’ traditions. But it’s time.”
He’s 66, Boer is 87, and the city is on the move, with the Barrie South GO station just up the road and the serried ranks of single-detached homes edging ever closer, already across Mapleview Drive to the north.
Boer says he feels he got a good price. He sold two years ago, through an agent, to a numbered company. He doesn’t know who the new owners are.
He notes that speculation had already started in 1972, when he purchased the double-brick farmhouse, its buildings and 12 acres of land from the Cummings family, who had sold the rest of their farm to a developer. He and his wife Gerry moved in with their three teenage daughters, including Edna, then 15. A few years later, Edna would marry Jufffermans, then a young horticultural consultant whose family had a greenhouse business in Lefroy.
Boer had inherited an interest in fruit trees from his father, back in the Netherlands. Juffermans – also a member of an immigrant Dutch family - was a willing partner. In 1979, they planted their first 2,000 whips, with careful selection made of varieties to withstand the cold, with another 3,500 planted in 1980. By 1983, apples were being produced, business took off and the partnership prospered and endured.
The orchard took eight acres of land, with another three acres given to vegetables and soft fruit. Carpe Diem became a fixture at the Barrie farmers’ market for decades, often the earliest supplier of local rhubarb and asparagus. The family built a greenhouse and operated a garden centre in the ‘80s and ‘90s. At this time of year, Christmas trees from a local supplier are for sale.
And now it’s coming to an end. “It’s hard,” says Boer, contemplating the imminent demise of his life’s work. “The trees will all disappear. One day a bulldozer will push them all in a pile.” It won’t take long, he explains, because apple trees are shallow-rooted. As we talk, two surveyors hired by the new owners move around the property, taking measurements.
The rows of trees stretch away from the farmhouse - gnarled, twisted, sculptural in the grey December light. The peeling bark is a jumble of textures and colours. Here and there, a persistent apple, frosted by a light covering of snow, hangs from a branch, its promise of sweetness lost to winter.
The trees aren’t tall – they’re all grafted onto dwarf rootstock, as is standard in the apple industry. When Boer and Juffermans planted their orchard, they were using the most modern techniques of the time, planting some 250 trees an acre. Now, with new rootstock and cultivation methods, growers plant up to 1,400 trees an acre.
“They’re just sticks, with little branches off each side, tied to wires,” Juffermans says.
Orchards look like vineyards these days, but production per acre is higher than ever. In 40 years, the varieties have changed, too. “Spys and Macs out, Ambrosia and Honeycrisp in!”
Honeycrisp – developed at the University of Minnesota and given a patent (now expired) in 1988 – is the new kid on the block at Carpe Diem. It can command a price as much as a third more than traditional varieties. “It’s an amazing apple,” Juffermans says.
Later, I do a taste test – the Honeycrisp versus my long-time favourite, the Golden Russet. The brightly coloured Honeycrisp is super-crunchy, super-juicy, super-sweet and the tongue can detect its more open, large-celled structure. It tastes like candy water. The brown-green Russet is quite different, with a firm, dense flesh and a more complex range of flavours. A matter of taste.
Jufferman’s favourite? “I still like the Empire.” And the more old-fashioned apples continue to find favour with his customers, with the Cortland being one of the most popular.
His daughter Cassie, a teacher, has 60 apple trees growing on the farm in Essa Township where she lives with her firefighter husband and three children. “She’ll carry the line on,” he says.
The Carpe Diem cider may be what has hooked customers into returning year after year. The cider press is in a room at the back of the barn, and it too was modern when the business was started. Now, it’s a dinosaur, but it gets the job done.
Juffermans puts a lot of thought into blending varieties of apples to give the cider just the right balance: Cortland for creaminess, Spartans for fragrance, Empires and McIntoshes for flavour. He won’t say more. “I don’t want to give any secrets away because someone might copy me,” he says. He laughs when I tell him it’s time to pass on the knowledge.
The cider is unpasteurized, which makes for a more fresh, full-bodied taste. Risks associated with not “cooking” the product are reduced by not using “grounders,” the apples that have fallen, and not having animals in the orchard.
This is not an organic operation. Juffermans stays ahead of threats by putting traps out to evaluate the extent of an infestation before deciding whether or not to spray, and spraying early, before the fruit have formed. He doesn’t use any systemic pesticides that would remain within the plant. Keeping the trees well-fed and well-pruned is more than half the battle in combatting pests, he says.
Pollination is taken care of by honeybees, the hives trucked in by local producer Dickey Bee Honey Inc. They stay for a few weeks every spring, depending on the weather. “I think the honeybees are unionized because they never work in bad weather,” Juffermans laughs.
Most recently, the old homestead, built in 1896, has been home to Jufferman’s son Logan. He’s an environmental and planning consultant, away in Yellowknife for a year with his wife Laura, a public health nurse (and member of the Mallory family, of Everest fame). It will be bulldozed too, the family expects. As will the sprawling barn, built in 1902, bearing the business name Carpe Diem, a name chosen by Boer’s wife Gerry, who died 20 years ago.
Edna arrives with Elly, 3. “Opa!” the girl cries, running into the barn where Boer is enjoying a coffee break. His face lights up as he tells his great-granddaughter about a present he has for her. Edna makes a face when asked about the end of the orchard. “I’m not happy about it,” she says.
Saturday, December 22 will be the last day. I ask Juffermans if he’s planning anything special. “Yes,” he says. “Sleeping.”
Article and cover photo by Kate Harries, who is a Simcoe County writer and gardener. She is the owner of Return of the Native, a Springwater native plant nursery.