by Jennifer Casey, Slow Food WiSE Biodiversity Projects
I can just imagine…a warm autumn afternoon, in the not too distant future, sitting around the picnic table with a group of people to taste the Milwaukee apple. I won’t be the only one curious about the character of this apple, for not one of the many chefs, growers, food activists, and just plain eaters that I’ve spoken with in and around Milwaukee, WI have ever sunk their teeth into this rare varietal. Now, after much planning and a bit of planting, if we carefully watch over our tiny bench grafted trees, we’ll soon have our very own nursery to help usher this apple and others back into our regional foodways.
Guided by the work that the RAFT Alliance has been doing nationally, and with the help of local orchards Weston’s Antique Apples and Maple Valley, Slow Food Wisconsin Southeast is joining others across the country to protect apple biodiversity. We “adopted” the Milwaukee, but also planted the Pewaukee, Oneida, Ashmead’s Kernel, and Autumn Beauty apples—our choices of varietals guided by their ties to our region, description, and threatened or endangered status, or simply on the recommendation of one of our local orchard experts. Our chapter also planted a variety of apple that we refer to as the “Stahl-Conrad”—named for the historic homestead in which our nursery sits. The Stahl-Conrad Homestead once was home to a thriving orchard and now only and old, gnarly apple tree, sans fruit, still stands on the three acres that have been preserved. Wishing to cultivate this apple, we collected scions from the tree in very early spring and made our way to a grafting workshop at Weston’s for assistance binding our scions to root stock.
Here’s what Jeff Filipiak, one of Slow Food WiSE’s chapter leaders had to say about our apple planting day: “I’d never worked with tree graftings before, and this was a nice way to appreciate how a slow approach respects the present, past and future. Digging and getting one’s hands in the dirt kept me in the moment, taking the care required for the task. Planting old varieties draws upon the skills of farmers and fruit-growers developed over the course of decades. And planting a tree for food is an act of faith in the future (as Wendell Berry notes) and delayed gratification, since the benefits won’t be seen for years or decades in the future.”