Kilchermans heirloom apples in Leelanau County, Northern Michigan are a fall-time tradition. Sample their apple variety at Christmas Cove Farm in Northport. With 200-plus varieties of antique apples, the Kilchermans find themselves on the leading edge of a food movement fascinated by Northern Michigan heirloom varieties. Bonus: You can stop by to buy.
When John and Phyllis Kilcherman began farming in northern Leelanau County nearly six decades ago, they had no idea they would become well known as Northern Michigan historians. But today, apple lovers from around the planet view them as precisely that, as farmers who keep apples of antiquity alive and part of our world. The Kilchermans are not so interested in Red Delicious, Granny Smiths or Honeycrisps. At Christmas Cove Farm in Northport, the Kilchermans grow apples that harken back to the past, in some cases, the very distant past: Macouns, Snow Apples, Wolf Rivers. Winter Bananas, Golden Russets, Tolman Sweets, Orange Pippins, Kandil Sinaps, and Thomas Jefferson’s favorite, the Spitzenberg, among many, many others.
While some of the apples grown by the Kilchermans are such well-known types as Gala and Golden Delicious, the bulk of the 200-plus types grown on the farm are heirloom varieties. Or, as the Kilchermans refer to them, antique apples.
“They’re all different sizes, colors, tastes, textures,” John Kilcherman says.
“There’s so much variation.”
The Kilchermans have been working this farm for over a half-century, having moved in to Northport's Christmas Cove Farm on Christmas Eve 1955. The grounds and buildings weren’t then what they are now. Phyllis says she began to cry when first looking at the decrepit farmhouse with the leaky roof.
Over the years, the Kilchermans repaired and added on to the home where they raised their family. John spent time working as a school custodian, worked for other farmers, and was a factory foreman. And over the years, bit by bit, the couple built an orchard with a remarkable collection of apple trees that put Christmas Cove on the heirloom apple map. Today, the orchard ranks as one of the top three heirloom apple orchards in the state, and since Michigan is a top apple state, that puts Christmas Cove in the top tier nationwide.
The Kilchermans’ enthusiasm for the Northern Michigan apple farm is obvious from conversation or just the way they treat their customers. It’s clear that there’s no place they’d rather be. Part of that has to do with the fact that Christmas Cove has been a true family farm. All their children and grandchildren have worked at the farm at one time or another. That includes the current farm manager. Upon his graduation from Northport High School, Phyllis and John’s grandson Kylen went into the military, and after that attended Northwestern Michigan College. He began working locally in computer programming, but the lackluster economy forced him out of a job. That downsizing became John and Phyllis’s good fortune. Under the watchful eyes of his grandparents, Kylen now manages the operations at Christmas Cove.
“I grew up on a farm,” says Kylen. “It’s great, I get to help out my grandparents so they don’t have to do everything.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean his grandparents aren’t involved. They still work and pass their passion and understanding on to their grandson. “My grandfather has all the knowledge in his head,” Kylen says.
Along the way, Kylen has developed an eye and a taste for what works best, and has even developed his own recipe for apple turnovers (see below). “I make them fresh every day,” he says.
An heirloom orchard is all about keeping diverse individuality alive, and true to that, the apples all ripen on their own schedules. “The first that get ripe are the Red Astrican, the end of July,” John says. Other early varieties are Yellow Transparent and Bella Vista. But those varieties yield so little fruit the Kilchermans don’t even try to market them.
Apart from the very few varieties that ripen early, the harvest season runs throughout the fall, and the farm is open to visitors and buyers from early September through mid-November. “The different harvest times means a constantly evolving selection,” says Phyllis. “By mid-September there are still probably 40 more varieties to harvest.
“It’s a reason to visit multiple times,” she adds with a smile.
The Kilchermans are historians of the first order. Their home is awash in books and catalogs from farming days of yore. They not only collect books and magazines, they refer to them frequently to check facts. But John has probably forgotten more about apple varieties than most modern apple farmers know. Asked how apples got their start in farming, John immediately responds, “Cox’s Orange Pippin.” Though there are older varieties—Cox’s was introduced in 1829—the dessert apple became extremely popular in England and today accounts for 50 percent of apple orchard plantings there. Orchardists also crossbred the apple to create many other varieties. And yes, the Kilchermans grow Cox’s Orange Pippin on the farm.
Apples aren’t the only attraction inside their big pole barn. The walls are lined top to bottom with John’s bottle collection. It numbers somewhere north of 10,000.
“It might be the world’s largest pop bottle collection,” says John. That “might” is because the standards for determining the size and scope of such a collection are stringent. “To get into it [Guinness World Records], you have to itemize in seven categories, writing a description of each one. It would be a pretty big project.”
Though the Kilchermans are pleased and proud to be reintroducing the tastes of yesteryear to visitors, the genesis of their decision to produce heirloom apples was not anything so grand as trying to preserve nearly forgotten apple varieties for posterity. They merely wanted to make a go of their farm, and their original plan was not working.
“When we bought the farm we started selling strawberries,” says John. “We were just trying to make a living. It was 1975 when I started planting apples.”
For inspiration John turned to whatever sources he could find: Books, magazines, nurseries, other farmers. A favorite resource, pomologist Robert Nitschke, began Southmeadow Fruit Gardens, in Birmingham, Michigan, in the 1950s.
“Bob was an attorney, but he planted 1,500 apple trees. Nurseries talked to him for advice. I was in awe of him,” John says.
“And he was in awe of us,” Phyllis immediately adds.
When the Kilchermans started planting the apples, they didn’t craft a rigorous plan. “I planted 3,500 trees,” says John, “one of this, two of that, five, 10 … however many [of those apples] I felt like I could sell.”
Some Christmas Cove Farm trees produce fruit only every other year. Add that to the vagaries of weather, and visitors to the farm never really know what they’ll find. For example, the blizzard of 2012, followed a week later by temperatures in the 80s, wreaked havoc on many farms. Some downstate apple farms lost their entire crop. John and Phyllis weren’t that unfortunate, but the shifting weather extremes did damage some trees and cause others to produce blossoms too soon, resulting in fewer varieties and fewer apples altogether.
“It was a really early season,” says John of the 2012 crop. “We had blooms early—March was like late April.”
Not all the apples are sold to visitors to the farm. Many are turned into cider, made from a secret family recipe. And if you ask, the Kilchermans will tell you which apples are the best for making pie, which are best for applesauce, and which are best for eating fresh.
These days, as the local foods movement surges and heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables are trending hot, the fame of the farm is spreading ever farther. Patrons come from distant shores as well as from just down the road. On a fresh September day, Josie Butzier and Whitney Butzier Biggs stop by Christmas Cove Farm to source apples for dishes at Poppycock’s, their award-winning restaurant in Traverse City.
“We’re picking out apples for our specials,” Whitney says. So many textures and flavors afford a multitude of possibilities—apple butters and chutneys among the favorites. The same day the Butziers were there, visitors from China also stop in. They’re amazed at the variety of apples displayed.
Helping spread the word locally, when the Kilchermans’ granddaughter landed her first teaching job at Traverse City’s St. Francis High School, the couple donated a different variety of apple to the class each week. “We get letters from kids, from classes that come to visit,” Phyllis says.
When asked what their favorite apple is, John and Phyllis agree on one thing: It’s hard to pick one favorite. “I like a sweet apple … Sweet Boyd, Mollie’s Delicious, an old-fashioned Red Delicious,” John says.
Phyllis favors the Ingrid Marie, an apple from Denmark. “It’s an eating apple, it’s tart and spicy,” she says.
But before you get all excited about purchasing the world’s best apple according to Phyllis, be forewarned: “We only had two quarts” last year, she says.
Despite their obvious love of history and the care with which they regard their fruit, the Kilchermans derive their greatest pleasure from seeing the reactions of people discovering—or sometimes rediscovering—these heirloom varieties of apples.
“You get so many great stories,” John says. “We get people from all different countries.” He tells of one elderly customer a few years ago who began to cry upon seeing the apples, as they reminded him of his long-ago childhood. John himself begins to mist up a little as he recalls the incident.
“For John and me, most of the fun is [interacting] with the customers,” Phyllis says.
And no doubt, for the visitors to Christmas Cove Farm, much of the fun comes from chatting with the Kilchermans and hearing their stories … stories about the Sheepnose, Pink Pearl, Holstein, and so many other nearly forgotten varieties of apples.
RECIPES FROM THE KILCHERMANS
IF YOU GO
Christmas Cove Farm is open seven days from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., early September to mid-November.
1573 N. Kilcherman Rd., Northport.