Cayford Orchards Focuses on Heritage | October 2017
By Maria Landry
Almost 200 years ago on Hilton Hill in Skowhegan, Jason Davis’ great-great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Cayford, established a homestead with a few apple trees. His son, Charles, continued the homestead and trained racehorses on the dirt road. In 1889 Charles' son Maurice founded an orchard.
Today, the racehorses are gone and Hilton Hill Road is paved—but the 18-acre Cayford Orchards remains, and it’s all about heritage.
“My husband is the sixth generation to run the farm,” noted Heather Davis on a brisk October morning in the barn that serves as the orchard’s farm store. She and Jason are heading into their 23rd season of managing the orchard, following in the footsteps of previous generations including Jason's grandfather, Everett Cayford, and his uncle, Alan Cayford.
Jason was born and raised on the farm property during a period when the orchard sat idle—his uncle had been running it but died unexpectedly in a car accident. As a child Heather moved with her family to Hilton Hill in 1987.
“As kids we played in the orchard, but we had never seen it run,” she said. “After Jason got out of high school he decided that this is what he wanted to do with his life, so we started rehabbing the farm. We saved as many of the old trees that we could and have been planting in new varieties over the years. Now we’re grafting some of the old heritage ones that weren’t original here back into the farm.”
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Cayford Orchards—which Yankee Magazine named one of the best orchards in New England in 2016 and 2017—features 75 varieties, many of them heritage, from 1,200 trees. Heather compared heritage, or heirloom, apples to antiques.
“It’s no different than somebody having a super old, antique car,” she said. “We have super old, hard-to-find apples that sometimes can’t even be found anywhere else in the state."
She used Martha Crabapples as an example, noting that they have gained in popularity as people have learned more about them.
"They have this amazing sweet and tart flavor, they’re super crunchy, and they’re the perfect snack size," Heather said. "John Bunker, who’s the apple historian, has come here and taken wood so he can keep them alive because we only have two trees left.”
Other heritage varieties the Davises grow include the Wolf River, Yellow Transparent, and Ben Davis, among many others. When the orchard was first started, it was all Ben Davis, the prevalent apple of the time.
“We still have one original Ben Davis tree,” Heather noted. “As these other varieties became available, Ben Davis became much less common. Macs are more versatile. You can eat them off the trees. Ben Davis you couldn’t. They were more of a storage crop.”
She added that in addition to heritage apples, they also offer standards including Cortlands and Macs, plus newer varieties like Fuji. They grow blueberries, pears, peaches, and plums as well, and some years they even have nectarines, which aren’t supposed to grow in Maine.
The farm store also features a bevy of local products.
“We feel really strongly about supporting other small local businesses,” Heather said. “Most of the canned goods are actually from right here on the farm. That’s my summer job. I do all the pickles, the jams, the jellies. Our maple stuff comes from Sawyer’s up in Jackman—cotton candy, syrup. Maple candies come from Maine Maple in Madison. All of the honey is done locally right here.”
The squash, pumpkins, and gourds come from the Ring Family Farm in Canaan, which donates all proceeds to Make-A-Wish Maine.
Managing the orchard is a year-round job for the Davises, with help from local pickers in the fall and from the couple’s three children.
“Our children are all named after apples because we are slightly obsessed with what we do,” Heather said. “Our oldest is Cortlynn, our son is Ben—and our last name being Davis, it makes him Ben Davis—and our youngest is Liberty. Our oldest had a child, he’s almost 10 months now, and his name is Jonathan. He is also named after an apple.”
During the heart of the harvest in autumn—which Heather refers to as “organized chaos”—they’re busy picking, serving customers, giving tours to kindergarten classes, and packing and delivering apples for grocery stores, specialty stores, local schools, and Redington-Fairview General Hospital.
When winter comes, the rhythm of orchard life changes.
“While Jason prunes the 1,200 trees that are here—and it takes him all winter to do that—I make cider,” Heather said. “That’s when I do my hard cider, make as much as I can throughout the winter, and I make apple chips and apple syrup, process all of that stuff so we have it for next season. Then in the spring it’s right back to hauling brush and mulching the grounds. Then growing all summer and back at it again in the fall.”
With so many aspects to farm life, Heather doesn’t have a favorite part.
“Everything,” she said. “It’s great. We get to get up every single day and do what we love. We get to be here and get our kids off the bus every day. We get to put them on the bus every day. We get to do it for ourselves, and we get to share it with our customers. That’s the big thing. If it wasn’t for them and the support of everybody, we couldn’t do what we do.”
Cayford Orchards (99 Hilton Hill Rd., Skowhegan) is currently open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Learn more on their Facebook page.