apple tree, umd heritage orchard
University of Minnesota Duluth – Heritage Orchard Apple Tree, March 5, 2011

Throughout the first decade and a half of the 1900s, the University of Minnesota established six experimental agriculture research stations throughout the state of Minnesota. One such station was established in Duluth, in 1912. The Northeast Experiment Station, as it was called, had the mission to develop cold-climate crops and animals; things like cherries, plums, apples, rutabagas, hogs and chickens – all suited to be well adapted to our long winter and short summer growing seasons. Prior to the development of productivist agriculture, which started in the 1950s in the United States, the emphasis for agriculture was grow it locally. By the late 1960s, having an agricultural research station in the "red drift" zone (heavy, red clay) where Duluth is located was deemed "superfluous" and the station was shuttered. Recently, efforts have been made by Cindy Hale of the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute to revive the remaining five acre orchard.

apple tree, umd heritage orchard
University of Minnesota Duluth – Heritage Orchard Apple Tree, September 16, 2010

From an UofM Institute of Agriculture publication from June 1954, it is noted that the Northeast Experiment Station’s orchards included at least fourteen different varieties of apples; Patten Green, Hibernal, Anisim, Erickson, Duchess, Yellow Transparent, Virginia, Dolgo, Charlamoff, Haralson, Red Wing, Wedge, Beacon, and Okabena.

From the mid-1970s until the mid 2000s, the surviving five acre orchard sat unmaintained and unattended. Through the work of Cindy, and the student organization, Students for Sustainable Agriculture, major strides have been taken to rejuvenate the orchard. Some of the work includes harvesting apples in the fall as well as holding events at the station/farm site to bring greater awareness to the university community of what is being done on the property; in early spring, efforts have been made to clear out dead applewood from the area, too. Clearing out the dead wood helps minimize expose to healthy trees and fruit of harmful fungi.

To that end, the Sustainable Agriculture Project (SAP), as it is called, has the stated goal of: " The revitalized UMD orchard aims to serve northern tree fruit growers in the cold-temperate regions of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan (zones 2-4) through re-creation of a northern demonstration and trial orchard at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), with an emphasis on the preservation of cold-hardy, heritage fruit varieties and demonstration of the economic value specialty crops offer small and diversified farming operations in the region."

To what capacity the orchard serves northern fruit growers is unknown. Bayfield, WI, which is only 75 miles from Duluth, has a very vibrant and thriving apple industry. To what extent this "Apple Belt" of the Lake Superior region might be convinced to grow more heritage varieties in addition to their dominant varieties of Honeycrisp, McIntosh, and Sweet 16, is, again, unknown. It is my understanding, that, at this time, SAP is mostly concerned with getting the orchard grounds in better shape, continuing identification of the apple varieties in the orchard, as well as raising awareness on campus of the orchard.