Farming to Get Sauced: Leaving L.A. to Grow Cider Apples in Iowa

Breaking with contemporary convention, Jesse Narducci is planting heirloom orchards amid the cornfields of the Midwest.

Cider apples at Jefferson County Cider Works. (Photo: Jesse Narducci)

Jan 13, 2015· 7 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

With the backseat folded down, you can just barely fit 45 gallons of fresh apple cider under the hatchback arch of a Prius. At least that’s what my friend Jesse Narducci and I were able to cram into his car back in late 2012. We were in the San Bernardino Mountains, a few hours east of Los Angeles, up where the trees turn color in the fall and the cold, snowy winters and hot summers provide the temperature swings that make fruit trees thrive. It was our second year in a row visiting Law’s Cider Mill, run by a family who have grown apples in the mountains for generations, to buy James Law’s raw, unpasteurized juice and make it into booze.

Just 10 gallons were mine, twice the amount I had bought the fall before, and the rest was Jesse’s to tinker with. We drove the carboys, jugs, and plastic beer fermenters down from the mountains and back to Silver Lake, where, at the time, we lived across the street from each other. Those 35 gallons of Jesse’s were hauled up the steps of his bungalow, where they were fermented in any number of ways—for beer, or pitched with English cider yeast, or left to bubble away on their own, subject to the whims of whatever microorganisms were on the apples' skins when they were pressed. Some of the cider went into kegs, some into bottles, and all of it was drunk—and quickly—even if this batch or that turned out a little bit wonky or flat.

Raw cider in the car. (Photo: Willy Blackmore)

Today, Jesse has gone home—and gone pro—trying to turn what was a drunken hobby into a viable business.

Once the cider was gone, Jesse started reading about apples instead, checking out virtually every book on the subject at the Los Angeles Public Library—on apples, on tree grafting, on cider making—and buying the less readily available ones online. I’d walk across the street to have a beer, and Jesse might have a pile of new orchard catalogs to flip through, slowly building a list of budwood resources for obscure cider apple varieties—the bitter or tart apples that no one wants to eat but that are the backbone of the best farmhouse-style ciders.

I still have most of the 10 gallons of liquid I bought that day at Law’s Cider Mill. As it charted a course from juice to booze and beyond, I got a new job, bought a house, moved, had a baby, got engaged, started planning a wedding…. Two years later, I am the proud owner of 10 gallons of rather weak homemade apple-cider vinegar. Jesse, on the other hand, owns a cider-apple orchard in Fairfield, Iowa—the town where we both grew up.

(Photo: Jesse Narducci)

Broad-shouldered, bearded, and dirty blond—his hair has gone unruly and long since he moved back home—Jesse, 31, would be called a dilettante if he weren’t so good at the things he does. And he happens to be good at an unfair number of things, some of which have briefly counted as careers. First came cooking in San Francisco restaurants after culinary school in Chicago, followed by bartending. Then, after moving south and enrolling at Art Center in Pasadena, photography. While he was finishing up school and shooting cover photos for food magazines, he was brewing beer on the side and growing a garden in the small space between the bungalow he and his girlfriend, Katie Greenfield, lived in, and the one next door.

There always seemed to be more tomatoes and cucumbers in summer than Katie and Jesse knew what to do with, and usually some homebrew or cider too. But the bungalow was by no means a farm—just a few highly productive planters and a small house packed with bubbling batches of booze much of the time.

But back in Iowa, on his parents’ land, it was another story.

Driving out to Jefferson County Cider Works, just northwest of Fairfield, you’re met with what is a strange sight in southeastern Iowa: a hill. Crossing the highway, where Gear Avenue turns into 200th Street and the gravel begins, you can see the property stretching across the low slope: Jesse’s parents' modern, rust-red house; a new metal-sided barn, also red; and during a relatively warm, snowless week in late December, the tan hillside of dead, dormant grasses running down to the creek below. The topography, which places both the highest and the lowest point in the county on the Narduccis’ land, is unsuitable for the kind of agriculture that dominates the landscape, the endless acres of corn and soy; much of it had never been farmed until Jesse started putting in the orchards.

“We planted the first tree six years ago,” just before his cider obsession started, said Jesse, wearing layers of flannel under a black canvas coat. We were standing in the slightly warmed air of the cider barn, a red-sided metal building being leased from a neighbor. “My parents just started buying trees,” and they hired him to come home from California for a summer and plant the saplings, which included seven or so varieties of eating apples.

Jesse Narducci outside the Jefferson County Cider Works barn. (Photo: Willy Blackmore)

“We did that one orchard, and then we started others” in the following years, he said. But the subsequent plots Jesse planned himself, and after five years of planting he has 110 cider-apple varieties growing on the land. Only the tiny crabapples have started to bear fruit; the 600 gallons of cider he’ll press this winter will come from apples bought off a Michigan farm.

It may take a couple of years before it comes to fruition, but Jefferson County Cider Works has a head start on solving a problem being faced by the newly resurgent sector of the beverage market: Jesse will soon have the apple varieties that every other upstart cider outfit wants. You may prefer the sweet, tart crunch of Honeycrisps or Pink Ladys to eat at home; cider makers want acidic, red-fleshed Geneva Crabs and bittersweet Bulmer's Normans to add depth and complexity to their products. But commercial growers don't make a habit of growing fruit that can't be eaten out of hand.

While domestic sales of hard cider have tripled since 2007—growing at an even faster clip than the craft-beer market—American orchards can’t meet the demand for apples. While there are more than 325,000 acres of apple orchards in the country, only a negligible amount are suitable for making booze. As Reuters reported last year, “the shortage of traditional cider apples means the industry might not reach its full potential.”

Experiments in the cider barn. (Photo: Willy Blackmore)

It’s a shortage that could kill a highly patriotic revival: Some of the very first crops planted in Massachusetts by British colonists were cider apples, making the drink as American as, well, apple pie. In W.J. Rorabaugh’s 1979 history of American drinking, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition, research shows annual cider consumption ranging between 15 and 18 gallons per capita throughout the 1700s and early 1800s. John Adams consumed a tankard of it for breakfast, and even in the waning days of cider dominance running up to the 1840 presidential election, William Harrison ran a successful campaign courting the working-class vote by aligning himself with imagery of log cabins and hard cider.

During Prohibition, some vineyards weren’t uprooted to keep churches flush with sacramental wine. But cider-apple orchards didn't have this sacred protection, and ax-wielding federal agents felled most of them following passage of the 18th Amendment in 1920. A 300-year history of growing “spitter” apples—the bittersweet, bittersharp, and sharp varieties favored for hard cider—was all but lost.

Around the same time, an apple once known as the Hawkeye—which had cropped up repeatedly between two orchard rows on Jesse Haitt’s farm in Peru, Iowa, in the late 1800s—was reaching notorious market dominance. Renamed Red Delicious by Stark Bro’s nursery, which bought the rights to the now-ubiquitous apple in 1834, it was bred to be increasingly, perfectly red—at the expense of its flavor. It was a sign of things to come for apples and agriculture in the highly fertile state. Iowa, which had long ranked among the top 10 apple-growing states in the country, lost many of its remaining orchards in a hard freeze that enveloped the state on in 1940 on Armistice Day, Nov. 11. With the advent of the chemical fertilizer industry in the wake of World War II, the hegemony of industrial corn and soy has only grown in the ensuing years.

What’s happening at Jefferson County Cider Works is, in many ways, a throwback to a time before commodity farming overtook the state. Along with the stands of antique apples, there’s a flock of 60-some hens that wander freely around the property (and yes, sometimes cross the road), a vegetable patch the birds have been pecking away at since last fall's greens were harvested, a small stand of Chinese chestnut trees, and much more to come. The hens and a giant of a livestock guard dog, Duke, a Great Pyrenees–Anatolian shepherd cross, will be there in the driveway to greet any visitors. Under the covered parking outside the Boogie Shack, the small, one-story house where Katie and Jesse live, is an open refrigerator decorated with a crude drawing of a cartoon bird. Visitors can slip $4 into the nearby jar and grab a dozen eggs from inside.

With the first apple harvest still a few years off, tending to the hens and the vegetables comprises the majority of the growing-season work on the farm. But it’s all in service of what will be a completely on-site cider operation—booze grown, picked, fermented, and, when the tasting room is finally permitted and built, drunk right there on the farm.

“The chickens go to each orchard,” he told me while we stood in the cider barn, Jesse towing the birds’ mobile red coop behind them as they move around the farm. “They’re debugging, fertilizing, and destroying. They eat peach bark, so they ringed a few peach trees, which sucks,” as the trees will most likely die. But it’s all part of the trial and error that goes into starting a farm—trying to keep up with a bumper crop in an exceptionally wet summer, learning to slaughter chickens, realizing the complexities of feed costs versus growing time versus retail price, figuring out the carrots and sticks of state regulations and subsidy programs.

Katie and Jesse eat a lot of eggs and chickens these days. My fiancée, Jennifer, and I brought our nearly two-year-old daughter over one afternoon, and as she beheld the wonder of a dog three times her size, we drank hot chocolate with Kahlua and ate Katie’s gigantic blueberry muffins. The batter, of course, was made with eggs from the hens that pecked at the back door as we talked. My Christmas gift from Jesse? A dozen eggs. Another night, I dropped by and found a crowd of friends gathering to eat fired chicken. In anticipation of the arrival of a close family friend from France, Jesse slaughtered three roosters the week before Christmas, with plans to make coq au vin.

We were back at the Boogie Shack on another evening, and the weather was warm enough to have a bonfire on the back patio—with another fire crackling in the wood-burning stove inside, for backup. Gone was the metal cone that was sitting there that afternoon, which Jesse turns his meat birds into before cutting their throats. We gathered around the fire pit that had replaced the low-tech abattoir—knees feeling singed, ears feeling numb, beers or homemade eggnog in hand.

Next time I’m back home, I expect to sit out there again—hens gently clucking under the porch, Duke slobbering on my leg—drinking Jefferson County Cider Works' signature product.