Tim Burton’s Apple Orchard

This past weekend I went apple-picking in Marine, Illinois, with my husband, 1-year-old daughter, and best friend Nicole. Marine is a lovely little village of 960 souls first settled by a sea captain and his sailor friends in the late 19th century. The good Captain and his buddies thought the waves of Illinois prairie grass looked like their beloved sea. The inherent humor of old maritimers settling in a land-locked state and naming their town Marine is one of those classic Midwestern realities (or myths) most of us born and raised here take for granted. Outsiders often scratch their heads and pause, trying to figure out if we are kidding and are aware of the irony.

Despite the humorous history of Marine, I had a terrible time apple picking. This bad luck was not because of the company or the family-run farm, which grows apples, peaches, sweet cherries, and bakes the 2018 Madison County Grand Champion blueberry peach crumb pie, but rather the sweltering 95-degree heat, which felt like 116 degrees. Not to mention the pitiful state of the beautiful apple orchard, which appeared as a vast, sweltering line of Golden Delicious and Granny Smith trees bearing only shriveled, rotten fruit, if anything at all.

The smell of decaying apples is not pleasant—the odor is reminiscent of a fruity kind of death, in fact. Supposedly, German poet Friedrich Schiller kept a drawer full of rotting apples for writerly inspiration, but like Schiller’s friend Goethe, a comparison I have never made before and am delighted to make now if only for my own amusement, I am put off by Schiller’s rotting-apple strategy. If I had to concoct a drawer of inspiring smells, mine would include fresh apple butter simmering in a crock, resplendent with fresh-baked apples, cloves, and cinnamon, or a homemade lemon cake baking, the smell of freshly grated lemon still lingering on the microplane.

Despite my dislike of Schiller’s methods, I grew concerned my beloved apple-picking tradition, the one I was attempting to pass on to my young daughter, was yet another casualty of climate change. In early August, National Public Radio reported the punny headline, “A Few More Bad Apples: As the Climate Changes, Fruit Growing Does, Too.” The cutthroat aesthetics of apple growing became readily apparent after reading the report: “Turns out apple growing is a ruthless business obsessed with good looks. If an apple has any sort of blemish, it won’t make it to the shiny pyramid in your grocery store. Instead it’s fated to be juice or applesauce—for which growers get just a fraction of what they would be paid for a fresh apple.”

Operations such as Imperfect Produce are trying to fix the food-waste problem that stems from consumers’ obsession with symmetrical, beauty pageant fruits and vegetables. Anyone who does any gardening on their own knows the tomatoes that come off the vine are diverse in shape and sometimes have an innocuous crack here or there. The best tangerines I have ever eaten, tangerines I filled a gym bag full of, were from my friend’s backyard in Sarasota, Florida. Those tangerines were definitely ugly and spotted, and also the best-damned citrus I have ever tasted. Imperfect Produce runs with this knowledge by selling the 20 percent of “ugly produce” that would never make it to looks-obsessed grocery stores. The startup has made real traction in major metropolitan cities such as Chicago, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, and is expanding nationally at a rapid pace.  

Ultimately, I feared climate change was affecting the quaint farm in Marine, where Nicole and I have been going to pick apples for over a decade. The proprietors politely dismissed my politically charged question as a concern that has too many confounding variables to know for certain. On the farm website, they write, “Mother Nature hasn’t been kind to us this year: too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, and all at the wrong time. Our light crop has been pretty much picked by our customers. We’re saving the rest for our school kids coming for educational tours.” It is hard to argue with the farm’s priorities when they put schoolchildren first in this year’s business plan.

And, at the end of our hot wagon ride through the orchard, the brother and sister running Mills Apple Farm encouraged us to try back in October, when the Fuji apples are ripe. And because of loyalty, tradition, and the win-some-lose-some nature of farming, of course, we will be back.  This time as we cross the river and make the pretty drive across the Missouri-Illinois state line, we will hope not just for apples good enough for homemade pies, apple butter, and applesauce, but we will also hope American apple growers find the right conditions in which to raise their future crops.