OrchardThe Orchard
by Adele Crockett Robertson

From 1932 to 1934, the author struggled to make a living from an apple orchard on her family’s property just outside of Ipswitch, Massachusetts. Her father had been a doctor in general practice, and the family had owned this piece of property as a rural retreat from the city life of Boston. When Dr. Crockett died at the beginning of the Great Depression, his family was left in serious financial trouble, as the good doctor had generously treated many patients who were unable to pay their bills.  The widow and her two sons and her daughter met to decide what was to be done. Despite her brothers’ insistence that selling the rural property was the way to go, Adele was confident that she could turn it into their best investment.  The apple orchards on the property, neglected for years as mere pretty appendages, had the potential to become successful commercial orchards.

For two years, Adele lived alone on the farm with only a dog for company.  She pruned and sprayed.  She hauled water and chopped wood.  She read everything she could lay hands on about commercial fruit farming.  She battled the large factory farms for the best prices and harvest laborers.  She marketed her best apples as specialties to ivy-league colleges, and haggled for pennies for the cider-quality windfalls.  She endured windstorms and rain, heavy snow that isolated her on the farm, and a severe deep freeze that turned her entire crop into frozen mush.  Ultimately, she had to surrender to her brothers’ advice and sell the orchard.

But despite the hardships and failures, a deeply-felt goodness filled the experiences of those two years.  After Adele’s death, her daughter discovered this book which her mother had written, reminiscing about that brief memorable time in her life. The impression that rises most strongly from this book as I read it, and stays with me the longest afterwards, is an impression of human friendship.  The people who shared the struggle of those years became fast friends in a way that transcended all differences of age, gender, class, or ethnicity.  When the time came to write about the orchard experiment, Adele wrote less about pain and failure, and more about other good people whose lives enriched her own.

There were two cousins, Polish immigrants named Stan and Kasimir, and their uncle Louis, who made up her harvest-time crew. As Kasimir explained, there were 15 people living in their house,  all sharing whatever they earned in the common pot to ensure that everyone was supported. When they pointed out that the big orchards were paying $2 a day and offered to work for the same, Adele replied, “I don’t see how anyone with a family can get by on less than $4,” and insisted on paying what she thought was right. This is the crew whose grit and diligence saved Adele’s apple harvest by working before dawn and in the rain, picking the bulk of it in time to beat the great storm which destroyed the apples in the penny-pinching big orchard down the road.

There was Mr. Moss at the college, who set aside his surprise at seeing an educated woman peddling farm produce long enough to give helpful attention to her nervous sales pitch and offer her assistance.  He not only agreed to buy her apples, but he had several good suggestions to help her improve her marketing and offered them not condescendingly but in a genuinely friendly wish to see her succeed. His letters of introduction to other buyers gave Adele the open door she had been looking for, but as she mused, it wasn’t about the money, but about “the kindness, the totally unexpected sympathy and understanding from a total stranger — ah, that was it!”

There was 86-year-old Augustus Burnham Patch, who drove out to her farm one day looking for an old-fashioned apple variety, the Northern Spy, and stayed to give her a glimpse of the farm as it had been more than a century earlier.  Letters in his wavery old handwriting came to her as promised, telling her the stories of the families who had lived on the land long before her own family, giving her a greater sense of the roots of this land, a gift she was never able to thank him for before he died.

There was old Mr. Greenberg, who first came to the farm as a buyer of rejected windfalls for resale to cider pressers. At first, mutual mistrust kept them at a distance; he saw Adele as a rich woman playing at farming, while she saw him as a sharp haggler.  When the ice was broken, though, they realized how much they had to learn from each other.  “I said you wouldn’t understand what I’ve lost,” says Mr. Greenberg, “But now I think you would,” going on to add, “You’ve lost money, but never hope.” Mr. Greenberg’s hope has been tried by his American-born children who rejected his old-country ways, embarrassed by them. Mr. Greenberg invites Adele to dine with his family, to talk to his children, and she is touched by his trust.  When the deep-freeze destroys the magnificent apple crop, it is Adele’s  turn to admit weakness and to trust a friend, as Mr. Greenberg assures her that he can pick through the ruined apples to find the ones that will still be salvageable, if she will trust him to quote no firm price but simply to negotiate whatever price he can for them.  “I wouldn’t trust any other dealer in my cellar except you,” she tells him, giving him permission to do as he sees fit.

There was Joe LaPlante, who becomes her right-hand man, the partner in epic and comical well-digging and tree-spraying adventures, the confidante who listened with understanding over a glass of beer when the game was lost in the end.  Some of the best stories in the book involve Joe.  One of my favorites is the account of the night they frightened off thieves who came to steal the apples, armed with nothing more than an old unloaded shotgun and a confident manner.  Another good one is the story of their attempt to repair the clogged spraying tank, a process which ended up with Adele trapped inside the slippery fume-infested tank while Joe sawed through the tank to let her out. And then there’s Christmas dinner at the LaPlantes’ house with all the hospitable French-Canadian LaPlante family, including the cheerful tiny Mrs. LaPlante with a face like a russet apple, and the little sister Adele with the wonderful story of how she won the Christmas turkey for a ten-cent raffle ticket.

Near the end, Mr. Greenberg stuns Adele by offering to lend her a thousand dollars, “not for business, but for friendship”, if that will save the farm.  Of course it’s too late for the farm, but that’s beside the point. Friendship, not business, is the point.  In the end, it’s not the orchards or the bank accounts that bore fruit a hundredfold, but the friendships . When the time had come to let go of the farm, Adele reflected on the true gift of these two years:  “The lightning thought went through my head: this is the finest thing that has happened in all my life.  What I have learned this minute I shall never forget. People are essentially good and kind — I might have spent a lifetime and never found it out.  I felt a surge of exaltation, as though I could spring up and jump over the sofa and chairs. If I had been a little more French and a little less New England I should have sung and shouted. But I only sat quietly and said “Thanks.”