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Apples are not just apples, as Blair Smith and Marcey Kelley have learned. Rather, by adding value to the thousands of pounds of apples they harvest each autumn, the married couple have found a way to make a living off their land.

A dozen years ago, the 30-something couple moved to their new home in southern Oregon from the San Francisco Bay Area, where Blair worked as a software engineer and Marcey as a computer scientist.

“We really wanted to move to a rural place,” Blair said. “We were always trying to escape [an urban life] but didn’t know exactly what it was going to be. We looked all over Oregon and didn’t know what we were going to do.”

Orchard Rebirth

When they came upon the 15-acre property, “we fell in love with the area and it happened to have an apple orchard,” Blair said. Despite having zero experience with agriculture, they decided to see what they could do to bring the orchard back to life.

“The trees were here and we thought ‘How hard could it be?’” he added. They quickly realized that caring for a 900-tree orchard—everything from pruning to weed and insect control—is a lot of work, especially if you use organic methods.

“We learned a lot from the [Oregon State University Agricultural] Extension and there was lots of trial and error.”

Most of the trees were the same, the now out-of-favor Red Delicious variety, so they began grafting scion wood to the established trees.

“We focused on good-tasting and cider varieties. True cider varieties are astringent and puckering,” Blair explained.

The 8-acre orchard now includes varieties such as the East Coast favorite MacIntosh, Gravenstein, Arkansas Black, Ginger Gold, Gold Rush, Blenheim Red and other lesser-known cider apples such as Belle de Boskoop and Wickson.

From Juice To Cider

While the orchard was evolving, they added the cooler, the freezer and the juicing operation. Operating under the name of Thompson Creek Organics, they began selling fresh apples and juice at local farmers markets.

What’s the difference between apple juice and hard apple cider? Blair said the latter is fermented like wine and has an alcohol content of around six percent. “We had been doing juice for 11 years or so and were calling it ‘cider’ to differentiate it from the clarified apple juice that you buy in stores. But now that hard cider has become so big, the word ‘cider’ has become synonymous with hard cider.”

Their first commercial cider was made in 2013 by a cidery located near Salem, Oregon. Blair said he was able to spend several days there to watch the process unfold. “They were very gracious to let me hang out with them.” He also took a cider-making class through the Washington State University and Northwest Cider Association to hone his techniques. His stepson, Justin Skinnell, recently completed a course through WSU  and the Northwest Agriculture Business Center and helps at the cidery, which Blair believes is the only one operating in southern Oregon.

RELATED: Brew Your Own Cider And Cyser

The Hard Stuff

Hard cider joined the Thompson Creek Organics product line in 2013. For more than a decade, though, Marcey and Blair had been selling fresh apples and juice, some of which went to other cideries in the state.

“They asked why we weren’t making our own cider,” he recalled. Since they had almost all the equipment needed to make hard cider, from the 600 square-foot walk-in cooler to the bottling equipment, they realized that they could jump into the growing cider market. But they needed some financial help, which they found in a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant. Awarded in 2012, the grant helped pay for adding value to their apples by fermenting and marketing hard cider.

“It didn’t do everything for us, but it helped with the initial processing, packaging and branding of the product,” Blair said. It’s also a 50 percent matching grant, which means the couple had to match the $48,500 grant with their own cash or contributions to the project.

“You have to do your own due diligence to make sure the taxpayers are getting their money’s worth,” he added.

Applying for the grant was a job in itself, so they hired a grant writer to fill out the mountain of paperwork. With grant money in hand, they were then able to hire a graphic designer and marketing pros to help design labels and other marketing materials.

“If (customers) don’t see something that grabs them, then they won’t take your product off the shelf,” Blair said. “And then they won’t know how great your product really is.”

Their first releases were marketed under the Apple Bandit label but a conflict with the name convinced them to modify the name to Apple Outlaw. Advertising features a masked “outlaw” raccoon as their brand mascot. “He represents the raccoons of the forest and gives us a sense of place,” Blair explained.

The marketing help has paid off with six Apple Outlaw cider varieties now distributed in bottles and kegs throughout Oregon.

Cider Making

Making hard cider is a straightforward process. Fresh apples are washed and scrubbed, then dumped into a grinder where they are crushed. The pulp is then pressed to squeeze out the juice, which is sent directly to the stainless steel fermenter or into plastic totes for freezing or fermenting.

“We almost always blend apples,” Blair explained. “It’s really about balancing the acidity and the sugars to create a pleasantly acidic cider that is not too sweet or tart.”

Depending upon the type of ciderbeing made, other additions, such as ginger or citrus peel, go into the cider before it is filtered, cooled, carbonated and bottled or transferred to kegs.

“We started just with bottles and almost instantly had to begin doing draft,” Blair said about the aluminum kegs that are filled with carbonated cider. “The draft helps sell the bottles.”

The entire process from apple to bottle takes about four weeks and they typically make about 1,400 gallons of cider a month.

Since kicking off their cider business, he has seen the hard cider market explode. “It seems like every other week another [cidery] is popping up.”

Marcey and Blair are members of the Northwest Cider Association, which he describes as a group that is “extremely collaborative and welcoming with the sharing of information.”

The couple’s goal is to grow their business and eventually quit their “day jobs.” Marcey continues to work full-time and Blair part-time in the computer industry.

“It’s definitely been rewarding,” he said of their enterprise. “There have been puzzles and challenges, and also rewards for solving them.” For more information, visit appleoutlaw.com.

RELATED: Using Beneficial Fungi to Enrich Your Apple Orchard 

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Spring 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.

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