The latter half of the 1800s was a time of exploration, turmoil, risk, and considerable hardship in the Ruby Valley. Vigilantes hunted down criminals, exacting justice; easterners came seeking fortune while displacing native Americans; and agricultural producers struggled to draw enough water during warm months in a time when reservoirs, as we know them today, were a fantasy. All of these hardy folks shared at least one thing in common: they were forward-thinking.
The diet of these folks was also likely considerably different from our own. While protein sources were likely available in the form of game and livestock meat, fruit was scarce. The idea of going to the grocery store to pick out a Sunkist orange or a Honeycrisp apple was as fantastical an idea as the concept of a 38,000-acre-foot reservoir of water. So, what did these forward-thinking folks do? The answer: they brought apple trees with them to plant. Or, it’s possible they sent for root-stock plants and had them delivered via Pony Express or perhaps via paddlewheel boats that disembarked at Fort Benton.
Records exist revealing that one such “pomme-pioneer”, John Redfern, planted some 800 apple trees in the Ruby Valley, not too far from Ruby Habitat Foundation’s Woodson Ranch of today, way back in 1869. It’s likely that some of those trees, remarkably, are still alive and producing apples. In a time when a piece of fruit would have been a genuine treat, Redfern, and growers around the valley, found that apples could survive in our soils and climate.
Fast forward to today and the valley is still full of forward-looking folks, taking risks and enduring in a high-desert environment, and growing food for themselves and the world. What seems to be less prevalent is a focus on apples. Numerous ranches and homestead sites around the valley, though, still have some of those century-plus-year-old apples. The trees are gnarled, often untended, and look like a tree-version of Mel Brooks 2000-year-old man.
What a shame it would be to lose these trees to the ravages of time. A windstorm, a localized fire, an accident with a piece of heavy equipment…any of these could destroy the legacy of thoughtfulness these trees represent.
Enter Ruby Habitat Foundation’s Heritage Apple Orchard Project.
In an effort to preserve these old trees, as well as their unusual—by today’s standards—varieties, Ruby Habitat Foundation, using funds earmarked from a bequest to the Foundation, and with considerable help from the Agricultural Research Center in Corvalis, MT, set aside a piece of the ranch to grow an orchard using DNA from these links to the past.
In April of this year, we planted some 200 trees from modern root-stock in a fenced and irrigated plot of land roughly one acre in size. This root-stock comes with some built-in resistance to some of the pests and extreme weather events trees in the Ruby experience. Then, in August, after visiting some 17 old-orchard locations around the valley and harvesting DNA in the form of bud-grafts from 13 different varieties of apples, we grafted to these trees. Just for fun, we also planted 5 plum trees toward the north end of the orchard, also using locally sourced DNA from prized plum plants.
The varieties we planted included Wealthy, Transcendent, Transparent, Dolgo, McIntosh, Hibernal, Duchess, and a few others including one called Martha. We think this last varietal is pretty special since Martha Woodson is our founder and inspires us always to look forward.
This orchard fulfills a portion of our mission which includes supporting the diversification of agricultural operations to ensure the long-term viability of working ranches. With several standard-sized trees and about 180 semi-dwarf varieties, we hope this orchard will provide yet another beautiful spot in the valley and, eventually, perhaps in a few years, begins to yield fruit which we intend to share with the community. If you’d like a tour of the orchard, just contact us.