Pressing ahead: Young couple carry on organic founders' vision
AYR, N.D. — Stacy Nelson-Heising and her husband, Dan Heising, are moving forward at Cottonwood Farm where they focus on an unusual crop for this area — apples. All of their apples will go through their newly-functional Cottonwood Cider House.
They started an orchard in 2012 and planned the cider house in 2014. Construction started in 2016. "We're putting the finishing touches on it," Stacy said, noting it was a vision of her father, Charles "Chuck" Nelson, who died June 20 and had been one of the region's pioneering organic farmers.
This year the family will harvest roughly 2,500 pounds of apples from their own trees, cared for under their beloved organic principles. They hope to sell some cider kegs by year's end and perhaps make it available through one or two establishments in the Fargo area. Some of the product will be in 22-ounce glass bottles, with a logo they developed in 2015.
"It's all about the apple," Stacy said. "I love taking people out to the orchard and showing them what we're doing out there."
Labor of love
The Nelsons planted their first trees in 2012 without a definite idea of what they were going to do with them, Stacy said. A feasibility study assisted by the University of Mary in Fargo showed that hard cider — cider with an alcoholic content — was what they should do for a business plan.
All of this is a far cry from what agriculture was when her great-grandfather, Nels Nelson, founded the Nelson farm more than a century ago. The grain farm was operated by her grandparents, Norman and Louise Nelson. In 1986 it was certified organic by Stacy's father, Charles "Chuck" Nelson and his brother, Larry. Chuck quit farming in 2006.
In 2011, Stacy and her mother, Roberta, thought about planting an apple orchard next to the farmstead. Chuck helped plant all but about 400 of the 1,800 trees that would be planted across four years. It was a labor of love, an investment in the family and the future.
The family suffered shock and sadness when he died in June 20 from a brain cancer that was diagnosed in March.
"Up until the end his focus was making this orchard happen," she said.
Rare, not lost
The orchard is managed using the organic principles (among other principles, no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides) and biodynamic processes (homeopathic according to philosophies of Rudolf Steiner), but they aren't promoting that at this point.
North Dakota is known for its cold weather and wind. The orchard covers 11 acres and includes about 40 winter-hardy "varietals," or varieties. The first apples ripen at the end of July and the last in October.
Varietals have evocative names such as Sweet Sixteen, Honeygold, Wealthy and Frostbite.
"We like apples that are used for a hard cider," Stacy said, listing a collection of varietals including Cox's Orange Pippin, Tolman Sweet, Michelin and Jefferies.
Most come from Wisconsin or California.
"These are varieties you're not going to find in your neighbor's backyard," she said. "They were very popular when our founding fathers first came to this country but with Prohibition, these wonderful orchards were cut down to the ground and many grafted (eating) apples like Red Delicious onto the stumps."
Different varieties impart different characteristics to cider, Dan said. Much like grapes for wine, some apples have more tannins, sugars, acid or tartness. Multiple varieties in a cider can add complexity to the flavor.
Now, with the renewed interest in hard cider, people are putting in these lost varieties.
Stacy and Dan had been making home brew and craft beers for several years as hobbyists and shifted into a passion for hard cider.
"The possibilities are endless on what you can create with hard cider," Dan said.
Two years ago they attended CiderCon, at Portland, Ore., a national gathering for hard cider amateur enthusiasts and professional makers. The event is sponsored by the United States Association of Cider Makers, based in Portland. Members are in categories from hobbyists to commercial operations of more than 500,000 gallons per year.This year the event will be Jan. 31 to Feb. 1 in Baltimore, Md.
After CiderCon, the couple did a tour of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan orchards and cider houses. They read a lot. There are a lot of tax rules and paperwork — both state and federal.
"Last year the crop was small," Dan said. This year they're hoping to be able to use 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of apples, supplementing their own 2,500-pound crop with apples from friends' trees and some other juice.
Cider house rules
The Heisings started building the cider house in January 2016 by converting a machinery shed that was built in 1979 to house farm equipment.
Initially, apples are sorted and trimmed to remove bird and other damage. It's an organic orchard so this is expected.
"The majority of our crop isn't these beautiful eating apples," Stacy said. "It makes sense."
They grind them and put the pulp into a press, which uses a water bladder to squeeze the juice. They add sulfites to kill existing yeast and bacteria. They then inoculate the juice with yeast and put it into fermenting tanks that can hold up to 500 gallons with adjustable lids that keep oxygen out. That produces carbon dioxide and hard cider, which is 5 to 7 percent alcohol by volume.
Finally, the hard cider is pumped into a "bright" tank, that is jacketed for cooling and insulated. They pump coolant into the jacket to cool the cider to 32 to 35 degrees.
Finally, they pump carbon dioxide into the tank, pressurizing it, adding bubbles of carbonation. "Cider has its foot in the beer and the wine world, we add bubbles to it like the beer guys do," Stacy said.
Finally, the cider goes into keg-filling equipment or a bottler that Dan built. Experimental batches are placed in a series of "carboy" glass jug vessels and provided with fermenting "locks" as Dan tests different yeasts and juice mixtures.
At this point the plan is that all of the fruit will go through the cider house. Eventually, they are considering opening the orchard for public picking. Currently, they are helped by family and friends.
Cottonwood Farm apple orchard put up its website in 2015, www.cottonwoodciderhouse.com. They've gone out on Facebook (@cottonwoodciderhouse) and have met with operators of craft beverage bars in Fargo.
Some have said they'd welcome Cottonwood Farm cider on tap.
"A lot of people in town are excited to have us — they like to have the local product," Dan said.
The idea is to match the market orchard and cider house capacities.
Stacy said she got her best advice for the project from her father and misses his counsel.
"He listened to what we told him. He stood behind us. He made it happen," she said. "The last years of my dad's life were focused on making Cottonwood Farm and Cottonwood Cider House a reality, so giving up was not an option. It almost made us more determined to make it happen."
Vietnam vet served nation, agriculture
Chuck Nelson's widow, Roberta, has been watching the "Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Kim Novick" with special interest on Public Broadcasting System.
"Chuck went to Vietnam to serve his country, and he was in organic agriculture because he thought it was good for the country, too — investing in the future," Roberta said, of her husband who died early this summer.
Chuck graduated from Fargo (N.D.) Central High School in 1963. Coach Bucky Maughan recruited him for the North Dakota State University wrestling team, and Chuck later cheered as a member of the Rahjah pep group.
Chuck went on for a master's degree in agricultural economics. But in 1969, at age 23, he was drafted out of graduate school to to serve in the Marines. He declined officer opportunities and opted for a two-year hitch as a medical corpsman and a radio officer. He served a year reconnaissance service, in heavy combat north of Da Nang, Vietnam.
When his time in Vietnam was down to "short" weeks, Chuck was no longer sent out on missions. Two weeks before being shipped home his entire squad was killed in a helicopter crash.
Back in North Dakota in late 1970, Chuck finished his master's degree and in 1973 became a farming partner with his parents, Norman and Louise Nelson. The same year he was married to Roberta "Bobbi" Holm, who was an undergraduate in family science. They had two children.
In 1986, Chuck moved the farm toward organics, feeling it was a "life-giving direction to agriculture, to relate to the earth in a different way," Roberta said. The farm had 2,000 acres of organic grains, and he was on the board of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society.
In Vietnam, Chuck had walked through fields that had been defoliated by Agent Orange. In March 2017, Chuck was diagnosed with glioblastoma — the same aggressive form of brain cancer that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was diagnosed with in July. McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
The family inquired with the Veteran's Administration about a link between Agent Orange and glioblastoma. The VA and the American Cancer Society "currently" don't recognize a connection, Roberta said.
Chuck died June 20, at age 71.
His father is 100 and his mother is 96.