As I meander along the back country roads that connect Ellington and East Windsor, I notice signs that tell me I’m heading in the right direction, to Applebrook Farm in Broad Brook. When I arrive, proprietors Tom and Sharon Muska are hard at work, preparing for the season’s opening day, set for a day and a half after my visit. Nevertheless, they halt their labor and greet me, introduce themselves and usher me into their car for a quick tour of the farm.
On the bumpy ride to the uppermost point of their land, the Muskas banter like the long-married couple they are, finishing each other’s sentences, voices brimming with pride as they give words to everything I’m seeing. That is, row upon row of neat, hand-pruned apple trees, their limbs bearing thirty-seven different apple varieties in various shades from blush pink to scarlet red to golden yellow to almost purple. “Here are the Honeycrisps,” Tom says, “the new star on the block. We can’t grow enough of ‘em.” A minute later, Sharon adds, “Here are the Macouns, and oh, the Galas, look, they’re beautiful!” There are approximately 1,430 trees on this hilly parcel, and from the top we can see all of them, with a view of the neighboring towns and hills in the far background. It’s a beautiful vista, and Sharon reminisces, “We used to have Sunday picnics up here.”
As we return down the hill, Tom points out the kestrel boxes, wooden nesting houses for American kestrels, otherwise known as sparrow hawks, the smallest falcons in North America. The Muskas participate in the Northeast Connecticut Kestrel Project to help rebuild local populations of these birds. In return for places to nest and trees to perch on, the kestrels prey on the small rodents and insects that can be pests to the apple farmer. Seconds later, Sharon directs my attention toward an area filled with beehives, telling me they hire a beekeeper to keep bees on their property, ensuring the pollination of the apple blossoms that appear in spring. All of these things seem like gentle reminders of the challenges of growing food, and before we head back down the hill, Tom offers up perfect words for what is going through my mind: “It’s a miraculous thing that takes place here. In the winter the trees are dormant – there appears to be no life in them at all, and then, in spring, the process of blossoms and developing fruit all unfolds before me.”
The tour ends and the Muskas invite me into their farmhouse where we sit at a table and continue our talk, starting with a brief history of the farm. In the early 20th century, like so much Connecticut farmland, the land was used to grow tobacco, then became a dairy farm. By the 1970s, the land was overgrown and, claiming a mid-life crisis of sorts, Tom and his father, Grampa Tony, cleared the land and decided to order a few apple trees. They ordered fifty of your standard varieties like Macintosh and Red Delicious, and when the order came, they received three hundred trees. After contacting the nursery about what to do with the excess order, they were told to keep them. They ended up planting them. When the apples came in a few years later, Sharon says, “We started selling apples in front of the house on a picnic table.”
In the early 80s, some friends introduced them to another family of apple growers in Manchester who took whatever apples the Muskas couldn’t sell and made cider out of them. By 1985, Tom had quit his career in the oil business and became a full-time apple farmer, naming the farm “Applebrook” since a brook runs through the orchard. They built their own cider mill in the basement of Grampa Tony’s barn. Sharon designed a label using a favorite family photo of the avid fox hunter, and they named the cider after him. Grampa Tony’s Apple Cider is distinct in that it is unpasteurized, 100% apple cider made from hand-picked, washed apples and contains no preservatives. The family’s formula is an optimal tasting blend of various apples with excellent ratios of sugar to acid to aromatics. To ensure safety, their cider is lab-tested before it is sold. From the beginning, people took notice of the exceptional cider, and in 1996, an article in the Hartford Courant praising the product made their cider sales soar.
The family learned a lot of lessons in those early years. Fast forward to Applebrook Farm today. They still make Grampa Tony’s cider, which doesn’t come out until enough of the apple varieties in it have ripened, usually the first full weekend in October. Tom credits Sharon with having the “brilliant idea” of adding cider donuts to their inventory, a customer favorite made by Donut Dip in West Springfield. Then, of course, there are the apples. Although the cider was immediately popular and still is, the Muskas learned that their best return is from growing and selling a large selection of high quality apples. Tom notes, “People realized, ‘Hey, they don’t just make cider, they grow apples, and they grow good apples!’” In fact, they grow 37 varieties of apples that ripen throughout autumn, meaning the apple harvest season at Applebrook Farm can last up to 85 days. Everything they grow, they pick themselves and sell at their farmstand. Says Sharon, “We sell everything we grow and grow everything we sell. And it’s nice, at the end of the day, to sell everything we’ve put out.” An ideal cold-storage system allows them to keep the apples long enough to extend their selling season, which in a good year can last from opening weekend in September into early- to mid-February.
By all accounts, this looks to be a great year. However, that hasn’t always been the case. This year’s crop is particularly bountiful because, due to the drought, last year’s wasn’t. Such is the life of a farmer. As Tom says, “You have to deal with scarcity and bounty, and both are challenges. But our customers have become our friends, and they support us.” Sharon adds, “Yes, one thing that’s really helped us is the whole ‘Go Local’ movement.” As I bask in the early evening light, with a view of the orchard through the window, I realize our conversation is coming to an end where it began – the ever-growing desire people have to buy high-quality produce from local sources, especially good friends and neighbors. And if they are anything, the Muskas of Applebrook Farm are exactly that – good people growing and selling an exceptional product.
Applebrook Farm is located at 216 East Road in Broad Brook and is open Thursday and Friday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Their website www.applebrookfarm.com and Facebook page are updated often to include what apple varieties are currently available and when one can expect Grampa Tony’s cider.