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Happy birthday, Mac

April 12, 2011  By The Canadian Press

mcintoshApril 12, 2011,
Hamilton, Ont – Ross Drummond sets the grainy black-and-white photo in the
wobbly frame on the table. “This,” he says, “is the
original McIntosh tree.”

April 12, 2011,
Hamilton, Ont – Ross Drummond sets the grainy black-and-white photo in the
wobbly frame on the table.

“This,” he says, “is the
original McIntosh tree.”


The reason we’re talking
Macs – as in the edible apple, not the computer – is that this spring marks the
200th anniversary of the variety’s discovery.

It seems a Scottish
immigrant, one John McIntosh, was clearing land on his farm near Dundela, Ont.,
northwest of Morrisburg, one day in early 1811. He came upon a small grove of
apple tree saplings, moved them to a better location, and was astounded when
that harvest the one small tree offered up apples unlike anything anyone had
seen or tasted before.

That was the original
McIntosh tree, the Adam and Eve of its species. It bore fruit for more than 90
years, finally dying of old age in 1906.

And how’s this for a
legacy? Every McIntosh tree and apple everywhere on Earth today is a descendant
of that one sapling. Over the course of two centuries, the Mac has been bred
with other apple varieties to produce offspring such as Spartan, Empire,
Jonamac, Cortland, Lobo, Macoun, Melba and more.

Drummond got the
historic photo from his mother some 50 years ago, but isn’t sure where she
obtained it. He and his friend and neighbour Bob Bell have been commercial
apple growers for decades, the farms their families started generations ago
touching corners with each other just off Highway 6 in Flamborough.

“But I think we’re the
last of our farming generations,” says Bell, who adds he can’t blame his sons
for not wanting to carry on the demanding business. “A lot of people don’t
realize this is a full-time job, that prime apples don't just grow on their
own. You just don’t know what will happen with weather. You can lose your
entire crop in five minutes to something like hail.”

Rich Feenstra
understands the sentiment. He started his small apple farm in Beamsville just
nine years ago, although his family has been growing the fruit a little way
down the road for 30 years.

“Apple growing is not
easy. There’s pressure everywhere to get out of the business, and you certainly
can’t blame younger people for walking away from it.”

Like most Ontario apple
growers, Feenstra, Bell and Drummond plant a wide range of varieties – as many
as 24 – in order to stagger the harvest and meet diverse tastes. But they all
have an orchard of McIntosh.

“The Mac is one apple
you can eat straight off the tree,'' says Bell. “With others like Red Delicious
or Royal Gala, you have to let them sit for a bit to be at their best. And one
reason Ontario apple juice is so good is the Mac. It’s the best there is.”

Drummond says modern
cold storage methods for apples mean the fruit is in the bin and slumbering
until needed within an hour or so of being harvested. “There’s no doubt the
customer gets a better, fresher apple today than they did 50 years ago,” he

Feenstra adds that
growers in this part of southern Ontario stress the highest standards for
producing their fruit and insist it be top quality. Farmers have to keep
detailed records of every drop of pesticide or herbicide used in the orchard –
“we get lots of pests in spring” – and are constantly working out there,
regardless of time of year or weather.

They’ve been busy
pruning the trees to force growth where they want it when temperatures warm up.
Then there’s spraying, and the major task of thinning the blossoms to the right
number and spacing and managing the canopy of the tree’s branches and leaves.

Actually, two years’
crops are developing on the tree at the same time. The blossoms of spring that
will be crunchy apples in fall grow alongside buds that appear in June and will
be the following year’s crop.

While there is much in
common among all apple growers and the way they work, there are different
approaches to the job.

Feenstra says his is a
very small operation and prefers modern planting techniques that include more
dwarf trees closer together and trained to remain smaller in adulthood. The
greater biomass of this approach means you get more fruit.

Bell, who has a much
bigger operation, has an old-style farm that relies on what are called
semidwarf and standard trees planted in less density. The main reason, he says,
is the equipment he’s had for many years was built to work in orchards geared
that way and won’t fit in tighter spaces.

Drummond, with the
biggest farm of the three growers, uses both approaches on his land.

All three growers agree
the Mac, whose harvest marks the beginning of the fall season, remains very
popular because of its compact size, crisp and crunchy white flesh, and its
sweet/tart flavour thanks to a perfect balance of acidity and natural sugar.

There is pressure,
especially from younger consumers, to constantly offer new and more exotic

“Just because something
is new doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better,” says Bell.

The appeal of the
McIntosh from a grower’s point of view is it’s great to eat fresh, it stores
beautifully and the tree produces consistent fruit season after season. Still,
he has high hopes for the Crimson Crisp, a bright red apple that should make
its appearance in Ontario this year.

“The Mac is not static.
You get good trees and not-so-good trees, even though they originally came from
the same one. Each tree has a different potential,” says Drummond, “just like

There’s an irony about
Ontario’s agricultural scene, and certainly about the apples grown here.

At a time when everyone
is talking about “eat local” and thronging to seasonal farmers’ markets, there
is pressure from many quarters against those fruits and vegetables. Younger
people don’t want to pick up the mantle of growing them. In the case of apples,
while there is a marketing board, it does not set prices; the major processors
and wholesalers do, which means farmers get less money for their work.

On top of that, “the
cost of production of apples has greatly increased due to things like
electricity hikes, hydro rates and transportation prices,” says Brian Gilroy,
chair of the Ontario Apple Growers. “But labour costs are the big thing. In
2003, we paid seasonal orchard workers $6.85 an hour. Today it’s $10.25 an

At the same time,
competition from abroad is stiff. Washington State has economies of scale that
make the industry extremely cost efficient.

“There are some farms
there that produce as many apples as all of Ontario,” Gilroy says. “And China
is up and coming, but then they pay their workers just pennies a day.”

Gilroy says the ability
for Ontario to grow its own food, including apples, is declining. He cites the
amount of land under apple orchard – 11,300 hectares in 1994, just under 4,900
hectares today, and some 1,000 growers in 1994 but just 235 today (although he
emphasizes the association’s definition of a grower changed a few years back so
the raw numbers are not entirely representative of what’s happening).

There’s also pressure
from ever-expanding urban development on prime farmland, as municipalities eye
a greater tax base from housing.

Bell looks at the issue
from a consumer’s perspective. “We need to maintain local farms. One day when
another country doesn’t have excess produce to sell us, what will we do?”

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