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News and blog

Keep up to date with the latest news on the farm and at your market!
Posted 9/16/2010 4:00pm by Ben Wenk.

This year, I've decided to sell two kinds of Red Delicious at our farmers market and I thought it a good opportunity to talk apple variety "strains" and to talk about the fascinating history of the apple they called "Delicious" - its rise to fame and its fall from favor.  Most of the following is an oral history - I don't remember where I learned some of these details.  The minutiae comes from wikipedia because I'm a farmer, not a journalist and I'm not willing to reference everything.

Red Delicious - notice the trademark calyx!Up until the turn of the century, the Ben Davis apple was the national sensation - the most popular, most planted apple variety in the United States.  What I was told about the Delicious apple is slightly different than what I'm reading in this the little wikipedia refresher linked above, so I'll tell you what I was told and you can put as much faith in it as you'd like.  I was told there was contest for the best apple variety in the United States to coincide with the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.  The winner was this sweet mottled apple called "Hawkeye" brought from Iowa by an older fellow named Jesse Hiatt (thanks, wikipedia).  I was told Mr. Hiatt couldn't be located when the time came for him to claim his prize.  With their eyes on this great new variety, Stark Brothers Nursery (still around today) held their own contest, hoping this "Hawkeye" would be submitted again.  It was, they made Mr. Hiatt a great offer and began propogating and selling "Stark's Delicious" shortly after.  Again, this is the version I was told. Starks claims on their website to have been selling Stark's Red Delicious since 1893, so take my version for what its worth.

a dejected Red Delicious staring off into spaceThe name of the apple was never intended to be "Red Delicious", you see.  The name began merely as "Delicious" and has only more recently been called Red Delicious after the folks who discovered a "delicious" yellow fleshed apple growing wild in West Virginia decided to piggyback off of the success of "Delicious" by naming their fruit "Gold Delicious", necessitating the Starks variety and all future sports be called "Red Delicious" to avoid confusion.  The perfectly red, perfectly conical fruits with the accentuated calex "bumps" is the result of years of selective breeding.  You'll find the "Stark's Delicious" apple to be very tasty but not visually appealing fruit.  Orchardists and plant breeders have selected for and taken cuttings from naturally occuring mutants or "sports" (also "strains") of this variety as long as the original has been around.  Marketers discovered that consumers at that time were looking for dark colorand shape uniformity (which also packed better to ship).  So these qualities were most preferred by breeders as they sought (like everyone else) to find a better Red Delicious.  The rest of the story, you likely know already as a big apple fan, reading this blog.  Color and shape were chosen ahead of flavor in development of new apple varieties.  When customers proved that they would eat a mottled, bi-color apple if it tasted terrific (see 'Gala', 'Fuji', more recently 'Honeycrisp'), the Red Delicious have began a 'Ben Davis'-like slide down the fresh apple pecking order.  For now, we still have a few "Stark's Delicious" trees in the ground.  This is your chance to experience where this variety began before we remove these trees, never to be heard from again!


[update 9/10/14: We no longer grow "Hawkeye", for one.  For second, this piece in The Atlantic relates a more complete version of the history Red Delicious despite their incorrect assertion that it's the most widely grown apple in the US.  According to a recent report by US Apple, Gold Delicious is the most widely grown variety.  I got no beef with Golds - they're pretty stellar, actually]

Posted 9/9/2010 3:49pm by Ben Wenk.

Here's a quick run down on a some publicity we were fortunate to have received of late:

Food Alliance recognition is popping up here and there, including a mention in Food CEO magazine, and this YouTube clip with some spiffy shots of our beautiful orchards, a little dialogue from our friends Brian Synder of PASA and Joan Norman at One Straw Farm, plus some footage shot at our Kenilworth Farmers Market:


Gaining Style Points

Our customers are always the most stylish folks on their block, Philadelphia Style Magazine proves it, ranking our Heirloom Apples as no. 4 on their list of the top 10 fall eats!  Thanks, Philly Style!

Upset Alert!  Washington Gardner Tomato Challenge

It was a close match, but we were narrowly edged out for top honors in the Washington Gardner Magazine Tomato Taste Test, 2010.  In a survey of over 100 tomato maniacs at the Silver Spring Farmers Market August 28th, our very own Green Zebra tomatoes were edged out by the Lemon Boy tomatoes of our friends at Down to Earth Farm.  One measly vote was all that separated us from the honor.  Our 27 votes tied for third place with our other friends (and market neighbors) at Sligo Creek Farm whose Sungold tomatoes were also a big hit.  Oddly, my favorite variety, 'Cherokee Purple' didn't fair as well.  I would have voted for Spiral Path's tomatoes, but what do I know anyhow?  What a fun idea and thanks for the folks at Washington Gardner and the Montgomery County Master Gardners for organizing this event!

Posted 8/13/2010 11:01am by Ben Wenk.

Food Alliance Certified Producer

Here we are in August, the busiest harvest time of the season.  We're picking peaches, plums, pluots, apples, pears, blackberries, tomatoes (need I continue)... but!  Despite all of this, my lack of willingness to be inside when the sun is out, and the general rigors or late summer/early fall, I'm writing this blog entry to inform everyone about something very important.  Three Springs Fruit Farm is Food Alliance Certified.

I know what you're thinking - "fancy words, what do they mean"? That's a great place to start! Food Alliance is a nonprofit organization, established so that producers such as ourselves who effort every day to be on the forefront of what it means to be a sustainable farm can have our practices verified through an independent third party inspection. 
Food Alliance certification standards set a high bar for agricultural and food industry sustainability.  These standards are available for anyone to view on their website.  When you see the Food Alliance Certified seal on your food, you can be certain those who grew it practice intensive Integrated Pest Management (IPM), reduce their use of pesticides, and chose pesticides with low toxicities.  You can be sure that the farm on which this food was grown preserves topsoil, conserves water, and doesn't allow excesses of soil, water, or nutrients to leave cropped areas and enter wild areas.  You can rest assured a Food Alliance Certified producer maintains and promotes wildlife habitat on his or her acreage, that the employees of this farm are highly valued and treated as such, and that we are committed to continually improving our sustainability practices.The Food Alliance Certified seal denotes the most comprehensive third party certification in North America.

Why did we pursue such an intensive undertaking? The answer was two-fold. First, we thought we deserved recognition for going the extra mile to grow our fruit in this way. While we always will think of our growing practices as "doing the right thing" and that's good in and of itself, it was worth it to have someone verify these things because, two, others have made claims all the time. The second reason we sought certification is because our word against someone else's is only so valid. When an uncertified grower makes a claim about growing practices or water conservation, each customer can assign as much truth to that claim as he or she would like. Now that we are a Food Alliance Certified producer, and our apples, peaches, pears, and cherries are Food Alliance Certified products, we can make these claims and customers can accept them with full confidence. It's not my word against the word of someone else - it's an independently verified fact.

In a lot of respects, this is our way of rewarding our farmers market customers for their confidence in the past. You've met us, got to know us, and you've looked me and my friends and family in the eye at market and believed us when we told you that we're doing our best to grow your food in the most sustainable way we can. So here's the validation of what our farm has been telling you when you come to market. It's something we're passionate about and something we don't take lightly. Thank you for relying on our farm in the past and thanks for supporting your only local Food Alliance certified fruit growers in the future!

Farmer Ben

here's a link to our press release (link) - thank you, PASA!

more Three Springs Growing Practices, or

Three Springs Fruit Farm

Posted 8/2/2010 4:51pm by Ben Wenk.

Your last chance to mold our little fruit stand at your favorite farmers market in accordance with your will!  It'll only take a moment - I'll leave it up for a few more weeks and then share the results!

Posted 7/22/2010 12:52pm by Ben Wenk.

While scouting our orchards for pests and diseases, I came upon this interesting apple anomoly in our Crimson Gala block on the Weaner Farm.  Consider this pic something akin to Jon Stewart's "Moment of Zen".  Enjoy!


conjoined apples!

So I found this about a week later!  A little slower posting it, but interesting none the less:

conjoined yellow cherry tomatoes!

crazy 'mater II

Tags: farm, fruit, oddity
Posted 7/14/2010 1:32pm by Ben Wenk.

peach tree inner monologue

10.  Why can I never remember the last verse of Woody Guthrie's "Dust Bowl Blues"?

9.  What time did you turn the pump on?

8.  Which sections are we irrigating tonight?

7.  When are you going to be done with that pump, I'm gonna need it back.

6.  Did you backflush the lines this morning?

5.  How long should we extend the suction hose?

4.  "How in the heck can I wash my neck if it aint gonna rain no more"

3.  What time did you turn the pump on? (we'd been over this one a lot)

2.  There's a chance we're gonna get some (rain) tomorrow.

1.  When the #&*@%! is it going to rain?


Glad to finally have a little rain!  Can I order a little more for next week?


Posted 7/8/2010 1:53pm by Ben Wenk.

Among the more commonly asked questions at our market stands gets at the heart of an age-old debate.

Ok, so I'm exaggerating a little.  Regardless, people wanna know which peaches are sweeter: yellow fleshed peaches or white fleshed peaches?

rising star ripening 2009Peaches come in many shapes and size.  The two most distinguishing features are yellow fleshed or white fleshed.  Peaches can also be clingstone or freestone, but we've got that debate all wrapped up in this entry (link, "Ask A Grower III").  For the purposes of being thorough, I'll add that a few new peach varieties are listed as yellow fleshed and sub acid.  This not withstanding, the main difference between a yellow peach and a white peach is the amount of acid in that peach.

Yellow-fleshed peaches have a rosy red cheek over a soft yellow background color.  These are your "standard" peach varieties - that peach flavor you grew up with.  They are very juicy, very sweet, and have a good acidic, peachy "bite".  If you were using your peaches paired with something sweet like cream, ice cream and they like, you'd definitely go for these peaches.  Yellow peaches are often preferred for baking pies, cobblers, and other similar deserts.

White peaches are commonly a darker, redder cheeked fruit whose background color is a soft, creamy white.  These too are sweet, juicy treats.  The white peaches, contrary to the yellow peaches, will not have that "bite" - that tangy, acidic counterpoint to the sweetness of the peach juices.  Conversely, if you are mixing peaches with a more acidic yogurt - plain yogurt, or a mildly acidic vanilla, you may find you prefer white peaches in these instances.

these donut peaches are white donut peaches!So stop skirting the question, guy!  Which are sweeter?  Well, in the interests of full disclosure, I've always been a "yellow peach guy".  That's the side of the debate I fall on.  White peaches, by virtue of their lack of "bite", will seem sweeter to many.  To me, they're a terrific mix-in after a few weeks of munching my favorite yellow peaches.  And they are terrific if you are pairing them with a little acid.  If you were measuring total sweetness by total sugars, both kinds of peaches would be similar.  The best answer is that the sweetness of a peach is determined more by where it's grown, when it was picked, where it was on the tree, and which variety it came from than white or yellow.  If you think the lack of acid makes them taste sweeter, you're probably right.  If you think yellow peaches are just as sweet as white peaches, but with a little acidic "kick", then you're probably right too!  Try both and choose for yourself!

There's a frequently vague answer to a frequently asked question!

Three Springs Fruit Farm

Posted 7/8/2010 12:14pm by Ben Wenk.

dead, brown Honeycrisp topsPicture, if you will, another hot day at Three Springs Fruit Farm.  Temperatures are nearing 100 and you have workers to check on before it gets too hot to continue.  My Uncle John found himself in such a situation earlier this week.  You're driving up to the big Honeycrisp block in Gardners to check up on somebody when you're faced with this image (left).  The tops of your trees are dying!  Just the tops, just one row.  Your heart sinks and you start thinking what you might have done wrong.  Is it fireblight?  Mildew?  You see the end post of the trellis is split from top to bottom and you wonder - did someone split end post, lightning damageback in to my trellis?  Did someone turn too short and whack it with a tractor or mower?  Did that uproot the trees?  The more you investigate, the more you start to discover that, hard as it might be to believe...

These trees got fried by a lightning strike!  AC/DC might liken it to being "Thunderstruck".  Either way, it's the only solution for this anomoly.  The row is at the top of the hill (shortest distance for lightning), it's isolated to only one row, and it shattered every support pole and bamboo conduit in the row.  The singed leaves are isolated to the places closest to that high tensile wire.  There are no signs of impact on any of the split support poles - instead, they look like they were split by the maul-weilding cousin of Thor himself; right down the middle, vertically!  Here are more pictures documenting this oddity!  These Honeycrisp trees are going to be stunted for life.  It's only a bit of consolation to have an interesting story to go along with it.

3 inch pine post, demolished by lightning

Here's the latest shot... things didn't "turn out the way we wanted them to"... see before shot on the left and after shot on the right... dead trees. 

lightning struck, early damage

lightning struck, "after  shot"

Not to be a downer, I wanted to include this shot - (courtesy @OurPeachCrop) shows some large Honeycrisp apples coloring up nicely.  More importantly, the apple on the left was DELICIOUS!  It was still just a hair underripe... so patience, folks.  Next week!

2010 Honeycrisp... almost

Posted 7/1/2010 11:43am by Ben Wenk.

Three Springs Fruit FarmPeaches are on everyone's mind as we delve into the first pickings of the season.  Curiosity with these fuzzy summer treats yielded this question, via our Twitter account:

"Is there a way for me to determine if a peach is freestone or cling just by looking at it?" - asks Kelly "Miss Peach" G. of Washington DC (@kgdc1)

Great question from a true peach enthusiast!  The short answer is no, there is no sound way other than to know the variety and know its tendency.  Let's examine things a little closer.

The difference between clingstone peaches and freestone peaches is little more than what you would think.  For clingstone peach varieties, the flesh of the peach will cling to the stone (or pit), making it more difficult to remove.  Freestone peaches separate easily from the pit, making it easier to pull out once the fruit is sliced in half.  Some peach varieties, as we'll discuss later, advertise themselves as "semi-cling".  As much as I'd like to tell you, our valued customers and random web watchers, that "this peach is semi-cling, not clingstone", the truth of the matter is so very few semi-cling peaches ever separate from the pit that you might as well not even make the distinction.'Rising Star' peaches

At the time of this writing, at the start of the 2010 peach season, our earliest ripening peach, our 'Baby Juble' peaches are clingstone.  We have several earlier varieties planted who will also be cling.  'Rising Star' and 'Sentry' are next, both reportedly "semi-clingstone" and you remember what that means.  'Red Star' you will get a few more freestone peaches than other "semi-clings" but our first true freestone peach is 'John Boy'.  From that point forward, all of our peaches are freestone.  'White Lady' is our first freestone white peach.  We grow a mid-season clingstone called "Baby Gold #5" to make our canned peaches.  If you ever had a notion to can some for yourself (to deploy some good rural verbiage), you can special request some Baby Gold #5's from us!

So which is better?  Well, everyone likes freestone better, mostly because they like to pull out the pit.  Truthfully, there's nothing about a freestone peach that tastes better than a clingstone.  If one peach tastes better than another, it's because the variety is good, not necessarily because it fell off the pit.  'Rising Star' and 'Baby Gold #5' are two of my favorite peaches for flavor and they are clings, but I understand the preference folks have for freestone. 

So to wrap things up, no, you cannot tell a clingstone from a freestone merely by a peach's appearance.  You'd need to "Ask a Grower" to learn about the peaches he or she brought to market!  Thanks for the question, enjoy the peaches, and keep those questions coming!


-Farmer Ben


Posted 5/20/2010 1:31pm by Ben Wenk.

You're reading the third entry in the series of blogs devoted to our growing methods entitled "Growing Greener".  My wish for these entries to to assure you through our candor and transparency that we truly are going out of our way to provide the very best produce for you and your family.  Feel free to comment or contact us with any questions.  Links to other GG blogs can be found at the end of this entry.

A recent study, as published in the medical journal "Pediatrics", cites childhood exposure to organophosphate pesticides as a possible link to ADHD.  As strict IPM (Integrated Pest Management) growers, a pesticide such as an organophosphate would be one of the last things we would ever want to have to spray and as a result, I'm proud to say that no organophosphate is sprayed on our crops.  We would never sell anyone anything that wasn't safe to eat.  Since this topic is a point of discussion in light of current events, I found this to be a terrific opportunity to address the "whats" and "whys" of the spraying we occasionally must do to prevent the failure of our crops.

seedling tree bloomFirst, the most difficult things we need to control in our tree fruits are diseases, not insects.  We control many of our most damaging insect species with Pheromone Mating Disruption, the subject of an earlier blog.  When we spray an insecticide, it's only after the results of hours of scouting and insect data has been evaluated and some sort of remedy is required (another blog topic covered earlier).  

The determination of what to spray when an insecticide is required is not made on a whim.  It's made based on whatever species needs controlled.  We intend to control only this species and leave other species flourish when we can.  During three different summers home from college, I collected insect data at the Penn State Fruit Research and Extension Center Entomology Department.  The USDA and state funded program my wages supported was known as R.A.M.P (Risk Avoidance Mitigation Program).  This program was devoted to the very topic in the news now - finding alternatives to organophosphate insecticides (OPs).  OPs control insects because they are neurotoxins - they affect the central nervous system of the insects they control.  OP insecticides have the same effect on an agroecosystem as a cannon shot - every insect is susceptible to nerve damage when these products are sprayed, whether their population was high or low, whether those insects damaged our crop or protected it.  The newer products in the RAMP study might attack the insects'
PSU  Fruit Lab, Biglervilleeggs or their ability to create an exoskeleton.  These materials, to complete the above analogy, are like a single arrow shot directly at the problem insect ("pest").  Working in the RAMP program, I learned there was a better way than these OPs.  As a volunteer in the RAMP program, my father learned how to use these softer pesticides (if an insecticide only works on eggs, you have to spray when those eggs are present - sometimes just a few weeks per year).  In short, the RAMP program proved that these greener insecticides could be as effective as OPs if they are applied correctly by folks who are studying their agroecosystem and can study the lifecycles of these pests.  Since these greener products are targeting specific insects, they pose very little threat to human health... I mean, except for the ones birthing offspring in external egg masses and the ones with exoskeletons, for example (if you meet this description, you might have a problem... and it'll have little to do with fruit).  Having learned from these experiences, we were able to move away from these compounds years ago.  While the OPs are still cheaper, we value the decreased toxicity of these products.  Because of this, we allow the species that are natural enemies of these pest to flourish in our orchards, including the biological control agents we spread a few years back... but that's another blog for a different day.

The results of our forward thinking approach is that we can confidently tell all of you that the fruits and veggies you buy from us are not sprayed with these harmful compounds.  As we continue to educate ourselves in the winter and partner with Penn State in their research, we'll continue to be ahead of the curve in terms of providing the safest fruits and vegetables you'll find anywhere.

Further reading on growing practices:

Growing Practices, IPM, and Food Safety