New Name, Same Farm

New Name, Same Farm

January 2024 – We’re excited to announce that we are now Blue Roof Orchard.

We needed a new name!  For twenty years now we have been Two Onion Farm, but we have not grown onions since 2018.  We’ve become an orchard, specializing in unique varieties of delicious, organic apples, and we need an orchard name.  

We’re still the same farmers, farming on the same land.

Why Blue Roof? Our house and many of our farm buildings have blue roofs, including the new packing shed and walk-in cooler that we built in 2021 with our longtime friends and neighbors.  The blue-roofed packing shed is a focal point of our farm work, where we wash, sort, package, and refrigerate all of our apples.

New Packing Shed Under Construction, Fall 2021

We’ve farmed for twenty years under the name Two Onion Farm, so it was a wrenching decision to change the name.  That’s partly why we delayed making the change for several years! 

We became Two Onion Farm in early 2004, when we began growing onions for sale along with a few other vegetables and cut flowers.  In the following years we quickly expanded to raising over twenty different vegetables, which we delivered to CSA members in the Madison area, Dubuque, Platteville, and Galena for five to six months every year.

Tomato Planting at Two Onion Farm, 2006

We have a lot of memories tied up in the Two Onion name, in this place, and the work we did here.  Our kids grew up here.  Our oldest, Panka, was one and a half when we chose the name Two Onion Farm, while taking a walk and pushing her in a stroller.  Andrew and Katie have lived their entire lives here.  

We  began by feeding our kids snacks and trying to keep them happy while we worked; later we listened from afar to their laughter and chatter while they climbed trees at the edge of the field; soon after we were teaching them to work alongside us; and most recently we’ve been proud and amazed as they out-thought and outworked us.

Panka & Andrew in Lettuce, 2010

Wonderful neighbors and dear friends worked here with us as employees.  They worked hard, grew good food, caught our mistakes, contributed new ideas, and shared good cheer. 

Brussels Sprouts Harvest, 2014

We began planting apple trees alongside our vegetables in 2012, and we’ve gradually expanded the orchard since then.  Planting continues – we will be adding several hundred more trees this spring.  

At the end of 2018, we stopped growing vegetables, for a variety of reasons.  The apple orchard, with its permanent sod lanes and well-mulched tree rows, protects the soil of our sloped hillside from erosion in heavy rains – whereas the vegetables required frequent tillage which left the soil exposed and vulnerable.  As we age, we enjoy standing up straight while we work in the orchard, instead of the crouching, kneeling, and stooping that the vegetables required.  We’re challenged by the myriad horticultural difficulties of growing organic apples in our climate.

We’re looking forward to twenty more years of farming.  Our goals remain the same as when we started our farm: to feed our community, to protect the land, and to provide meaningful work.
 

We look forward to new challenges and opportunities in the years ahead: new apple varieties, new co-workers, and new CSA members.  Stay tuned!

Apple Cinnamon Rolls

Makes 9 rolls. Active time 40 minutes; total time 1 hour 15 minutes
For the filling:
1 1/4 cups light brown sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks, plus more for greasing the pan
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 large apple ( about 8 ounces), cored, and chopped into 1/4 inch pieces
For the buns:
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter cut into small cubes

1. Preheat the oven to 350*F.

2. Grease a 8 by 8 inch baking pan with a bit of butter, set aside. Make the filling: In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar, butter and cinnamon. Using a fork, cut the butter into sugar, working it in until the mixture looks like wet sand. Put in the refrigerator to chill while you prepare the dough.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together the buttermilk and egg; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Sprinkle the butter over flower mixture and use your fingers to work the butter in. Stop when the mixture looks like sand studded with little chunks. Add the egg mixture and stir with a fork just until the dough begins to hold together. It will look quite ragged and not fully blended, but stop there.

4. Dump out the dough onto parchment paper and knead it just enough to bring it all together, then use a rolling pin and spatula to roll it into a 15″ by 9″ rectangle with straight sides.

5. Sprinkle the dough all over with the filling, leaving a 1-inch border on one of the long sides. Top with the apples and gently press down. Working from the edge opposite the 1-inch border, roll the dough up tightly, like a jelly roll. When you reach the border, give the roll a squeeze and turn the seam upside down.

6. Cut the roll crosswise into 9 equal buns and arrange them in the pan. Bake until golden brown and bubbling, 30 to 35 minutes. Serve warm, right from the pan.

Best varieties for drying

Our daughter Katie set herself a goal to dry each one of our apple varieties during the fall, to evaluate which varieties taste best when dried. 

In general, sweet apples remain sweet when dried, and tart apples remain tart.  Very ripe apples are ideal for drying – even if they have begun to soften or turn mushy, the soft texture will not apparent when they are dried, and ripe apples have the most intense flavor, which will remain after drying.

Many hundreds of apple slices later, here are the results of her trial:

Variety
Rating (1-5, 5=Best)
Notes
Akane
2
Bonkers
2
CrimsonCrisp
2
Crimson Gold
2
Crimson Topaz
1
Egremont Russet
2
Hudson’s Golden Gem
3
Initial
3
Jefferis
3
Liberty
3
NY 75414-1
5
Grape (“vinous”) flavor shines through when dried
Prairie Spy
3
Prima
3
Pristine
2
Flavor is good, but quite tart!
Redfree
3
Simple sweet flavor
Rosemary Russet
4
Quite tart but highly flavored and delicious
Sansa
1
Sir Prize
5
Somewhat tart, but rich in flavor!
Suncrisp
4
Moderately tart, impressive flavor
Sweet Sixteen
4
Sweet and yummy
Williams Pride
5+
Rich flavor, sweet or sweet-tart. The gold standard for dried apples.

Farm Graduate

This week we bid farewell to our senior farm employee, our daughter Panka. The first picture above shows her in the spring of 2004, when she was just beginning to consider work on our farm. The second picture shows her on the eve of going off to college, after much farmwork – sometimes enjoyed and sometimes endured. She’s witnessed many changes here in the past seventeen years: farmworkers, tractors, and buildings have come and gone, and we’ve transitioned from growing vegetables to growing fruit. At UW-Madison, she’s hoping to study computer science and pursue her non-farming talents and interests. As she leaves, we’d like to acknowledge her contributions to the farm.

Panka rarely shirked a task (although we have heard afterwards of several she disliked!). Responsible and reliable from an early age, she could be entrusted with independent and complex work, whether operating a vacuum seeder to plant vegetable seeds in the greenhouse, scouting our orchard for a myriad of insect pests, or shepherding her beloved younger siblings (who were sometimes perhaps less interested in farmwork and possibly frustrating to a perfectionist!) She enjoyed the company of those older than herself, and as an early adolescent she was proud and happy to work alongside the crew of farm workers. Handy manual work of all sorts interested her, and she was often found watching and helping her Dad during evening repairs to farm machinery. She is a full-fledged apple lover and is intimately familiar with the peculiarities and flavors of our many varieties.

The life of the farm we are blessed to inhabit has been a foundation of Panka’s childhood. She’s tended our household flock of laying hens from an early age and proudly showed her prize hen at the village and county fairs. A keen observer, she was intimately familiar with the coming and goings of birds, the ripening of the wild raspberries, and the dusty contents of our cobwebbed barns. When she was younger, we’d often hear her voice on summer afternoons from the wild mulberry tree in the fenceline, as she coached her younger brother on how to climb the tree (one must avoid the racoon poo trapped in the crotches of the branches) and they perched in the canopy eating ripe berries. And throughout high school she tramped along the fenceline on the perimeter of the farm in evenings after supper, in summer sunshine and winter darkness, thinking her thoughts, and always followed faithfully by the farm dog.

With love, gratitude, sadness and excitement, we watch her leave and look forward to her future adventures and accomplishments.

Apple Kuchen

Our daughter Katie has enjoyed making this simple apple cake recently. The rest of us have enjoyed eating it. She’s made it with both Pristine and Williams Pride apples.

Batter

1-1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup sugar
2 oz unsalted butter
1 egg
1/4 cup milk
1/3 cup raisins
3/4 cup walnuts, chopped

Topping
4 medium-large apples, sliced thinly
2 oz butter
1/4 cup sugar
1-1/2 tsp cinnamon

 
  1.     Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2.     Butter a 13″ x 9″ x 2″ baking pan
  3.     Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar. Cut the butter in small chips into the mix and stir it in to make a crumbly mixture.
  4.     Beat the egg, and stir in milk and vanilla.
  5.     Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir together only until the dry ingredients are thoroughly moistened.
  6.     Spread the batter evenly in a thin layer in the baking pan and sprinkle with raisins and nuts.
  7.     Lay the slices, overlapping, in rows on top of the cake, as in the picture. Use more or fewer apples as needed.
  8.     Melt the butter and brush it over the apples
  9.     Mix the sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over the apples.
  10.     Cover the entire pan with a cookie sheet or aluminum foil.
  11.     Bake for 35 minutes, removing the cookie sheet or foil for the last 5 minutes.

Dried Apples

We have a small secondhand food dehydrator in our house, and our youngest daughter loves making (and eating) dried apples.  It’s a great use for the endless stream of fruit which finds its way onto our kitchen counter in late summer and autumn.  Drying intensifies and highlights the apple flavor. 

Almost all apples taste yummy when dried, but the best varieties are those with an intense rich flavor.  Williams Pride is our favorite.  Liberty is another good one. 

Drying is a simple process: slice up the apples, lay them out on the racks of the dehydrator without any overlap, turn it on, and wait a few hours for them to dry.  We run our dehydrator at 135 degrees.  It takes about 3 hours to dry a batch, depending on how thin the apple slices are.

Apple Crisp

This recipe is a staple in our house which never lasts long.  It’s a simple, sugar-free dessert or a snack.  With yogurt, it makes a hearty breakfast. Check out the video below of Juli making this in our kitchen!

Apple crisp and pie are great uses for our #2 grade apples.  Williams Pride, Liberty, Enterprise, Sundance, Goldrush and Winecrisp apples are excellent in baked dishes like this. 

The recipe can be made gluten free with oat flour or other gluten free flour. 

  • 5 lbs apple, cored and sliced thinly
  • 2 Tbsp canola oil
  • 2 Tbsp cinnamon, divided
  • 2.5 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour (or substitute oat, hazelnut, or almond flour)
  • 1/2 cup flaxseed meal
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 3/4 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
  • 3/4 cup canola oil or coconut oil
  • 1/4 cup water

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.  Oil a 9×13 deep baking dish.
2. Add all but a cup of the sliced apples into the baking dish. Sprinkle 1 Tbsp cinnamon on top, and mix with hand. Top it with remaining sliced apples, distributing them evenly. The baking dish will be quite full.
3. In large mixing bowl, combine rolled oats, flour, flaxseed meal, nutmeg, optional walnuts, and remaining 1 Tbsp cinnamon.  Add oil and water, and mix well.  Spread this on top of apples.
4. Bake, covered, for 1.5 hrs, or until apples are soft (test with a fork).  Uncover, and bake for another 10 minutes for a crisp top.

ax

Training Trees

As leaves fall in our orchard, the structure of tree branches starts to emerge from under its leafy coat. Soon the orchard will look like the picture above. We spend a lot of time in the winter, spring, and summer coaxing trees into their optimal form.

Every tree is tied to a metal stake to keep the trunk upright and to prevent the tree from blowing over in storms.

This picture from spring shows a newly planted tree with a plastic bag fastened over part of the trunk. This creates a greenhouse-like condition and encourages branches in that section of trunk to grow, which avoids undesirable bare, branchless sections. We remove the bag after several weeks, when branches have started to grow.

Here’s another trick we use to encourage branches to develop on the tree trunk. The picture shows the trunk of a very young tree. The bud in the picture might develop into a branch, or it might stay dormant. We’ve cut a notch in the bark above the bud. The notch will heal over in time, but meanwhile the cut disrupts the flow of plant hormones in the stem and encourage the bud to develop into a new branch. (The bud “perceives” that the entire trunk above it has been cut off and “thinks” it needs to grow to save the tree.)

Once branches have started to grow, we use twine, wire, and metal limb spreaders like the one shown here to force the branches into a more horizontal position.  Relatively horizontal branches grow less, but produce more fruit.

All of which helps to produce more of these:

Spreading mulch

In the past two months I have been spreading bark mulch underneath the trees in our orchard as time permits.  The mulch suppresses weeds that would compete with our trees, it protects the soil from erosion, and it adds nutrients and organic matter to the soil as it decomposes. 

We buy mulch every year from local sawmills; the bark is a by-product produced as the mills saw lumber for furniture, cabinetry, and flooring.

In March of 2014, at the end of the polar vortex winter, when it was still cold outside but tolerably warm in the shop, our neighbor Lynn, our longtime employee Emily, and I built a wagon to haul mulch to the orchard. 

I purchased white oak lumber from a local sawyer for the wagon.  Our generous neighbor Lynn, a retired farmer and jack of all trades who has lived on this road all his life, thought everything about the wagon was bigger and stronger than it needed to be.  “It’ll be heavy,” he warned.  “It’ll be solid,” I said.

This is the wagon when it was new and shiney.  And heavy.  And solid.

I load the wagon with mulch.  One wagonload holds enough mulch for fifteen trees.

Two of our best employees (both named Emily) and I are spreading mulch around newly planted trees.  Early spring is one of my favorite times of year, when the grass is green but there are no leaves on the trees.  Clear, clean, crisp, and bright.  Everything’s possible.  Nothing has gone wrong yet.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I am spreading mulch with our son Andrew in November, when harvest is done and most of the leaves have fallen.  This is also one of my favorite times of year.  The growing season is complete, for better or worse, short days put a limit on labor, and I can wear my favorite warm work clothes.

Actually, every time of year is one of my favorite times of year.

I love that mulch, I love those people, I love that wagon.

Our Unusual Apple Varieties

Our list of apple varieties may contain names which are unfamiliar to you – Winecrisp, Goldrush, Liberty, Pristine, Williams Pride, and so on.  We don’t grow Honeycrisp, Gala, Golden Delicious, or other common supermarket apples.  Why did we choose these unusual varieties?

Virtually all of the organic apples in the supermarket were grown in the Pacific Northwest.  Not near wet Seattle, where it rains 37.5 inches per year in average, but in inland, near-desert areas such as the Yakima Valley, which receives barely 8 inches of precipitation per year.  Organic apple production is concentrated there because dry conditions drastically reduce the amount of disease which infects the apple trees and fruit.  Plant diseases thrive in humid, wet conditions.  In the apple growing regions of Washington, growers supply water to the tree roots using drip irrigation, but the above-ground parts of the trees stay dry and disease free.

In Wisconsin (and most of the eastern United States) we have frequent rains and high humidity during the growing season.  Consequently, diseases thrive.  Conventional, non-organic apple growers use chemical pesticides to keep the diseases in check.  But organic apple growing here is challenging. 

Many diseases can attack apple trees, but the most consistently destructive disease in our region is apple scab. In wet years it will defoliate trees, reduce yield, and cause cracked and spotty fruits.  Our orchard consists entirely of varieties which were specifically selected to be naturally resistant to apple scab without needing any sprays or special treatment.  Most of these varieties were bred in the past sixty years at universities and experiment stations in the midwest and eastern United States.  The most prolific of these apple breeding programs was based in Illinois, Indiana, and New Jersey.  Other varieties that we grow were bred in Europe, Japan, and Canada (apple scab is a problem throughout the world’s humid apple-growing regions). 

A wonderful part of the burgeoning local and organic food movement is that many new organic orchards have started in our region, and local organic apples are becoming increasingly available at farmers’ markets and grocery stores.  Some local organic orchards do grow mainstream apple varieties which are susceptible to scab, and these growers typically rely on sprays of sulfur and liquid lime sulfur to keep scab in check.  (Yes, organic apple growers can use certain sprays, as specified by the National Organic Standard – non-toxic and primarily natural products.)  We don’t have any reason to think that sulfur and liquid lime sulfur are dangerous to consumers, but they do have effects on wildlife in the orchard, and liquid lime sulfur is particularly caustic and dangerous to the grower who handles and sprays it.  We prefer to avoid these materials as much as possible. 

Fortunately, many of the scab-resistant apple varieties are outstanding, and some are becoming common even in non-organic orchards.  We sell a large portion of our apples through grocery stores, especially the Willy Street Co-op in Madison, and our varieties sell well even though household names like Honeycrisp are on the shelf nearby.  Online reviews have given high ratings to many of of our varieties – see these for instance: Winecrisp, Williams Pride, Pristine, and Goldrush.  We love our apples, and many of our CSA members agree that they’re outstanding.  But tastes differ and not everyone likes them.  Most mainstream apple varieties taste very similar – sweet, juicy, and crisp.  There’s a much wider assortment of apple flavors, tastes, and textures out there in the world, and our varieties represent a broader spectrum of the possibilities.  If you find mainstream apples bland and boring, give us a try!  But if you’re devoted to Honeycrisp and eat nothing else, we’d encourage you to be cautious and just try out our varieties by signing up for one of smaller sized CSA shares

It’s also important to remember that every apple variety benefits from being eaten at its peak.  Most supermarket apples are picked fairly immature and stored for long periods; flavor suffers.  We pick our apples near the peak of ripeness and get them to you quickly.  Enjoy!

-Chris