The University of Saskatchewan began breeding apples and crabapples decades ago, and has since included farmers throughout the province to assist with the fieldwork. These farmers have become interested in growing apples in test plots while establishing an orchard at the same time.
Mike and Anne Noel reside on and operate Petrofka Bridge Orchard, a family-operated business. Their 50 acres are on the fertile North Saskatchewan River valley, approximately, 23 kilometres south of Blaine Lake or 54 kilometres north of Saskatoon on Highway 12.
In 2003, the Noels met Rick Sawatsky, a technician in the department of plant sciences at the University of Saskatchewan, who provided the information and knowledge needed for an orchard venture.
The couple planted 100 Ottawa 3 rootstocks that year, a hardy choice known to be able to survive Saskatchewan’s winter.
The Noels kept planting rootstock at a rate of 500 to 600 per year until their present-day total of 4,000 trees in three different orchard areas, totalling 14.5 acres.
Today, there are four major varieties of apples available at Petrofka Bridge Orchard. The Prairie Sensation is a large, firm, crisp, juicy fruit with an intense aroma and is similar to the Gala; Misty Rose is a medium-sweet, firm, crisp fruit that is best eaten fresh; Autumn Delight is a small to medium fruit that is bright red, crisp, sweet and excellent as a fresh fruit; and Granny Annie is a medium to large apple that is flavourful but tart making it great for pies or cooking or can be eaten fresh.
Developing an orchard does not come without its challenges, and frost, deer damage and winterkill are ongoing problems. In years when production is not the best, the Noels work with members of the Prairie Apple Producers Inc., to compensate for their reduced production. Petrofka Bridge Orchard works with 20,000 pounds of apples annually; approximately half is selected for fresh fruit consumption while the other half is processed to produce cider and other value-added products.
“I purchase apples from other member growers that practise the same orchard maintenance and growing methods,” said Mike, referring to pesticide-free operations.
The Noels introduced an apple cider product a few years ago, and their original apple press was adequate at the beginning. As demand increased, Mike decided to add a hydraulic press. After much research, he found a design that would work for them and had steel manufacturer, Darren Sacher of Cottonwood Spring, build a two-ton hydraulic press. Once the cider is extracted into a 45-gallon food-approved drum, the pulp is removed from the press to be used as compost.
After the apples are picked manually from the orchard, they are washed, rinsed and graded then stored in the cooler. The No. 1 grade is offered for fresh fruit; the No. 2 and No. 3 grades are still quality apples but do not meet the standards in size and colour so are processed for cider. The culled apples, which never include apples picked from the ground, are first coarsely chopped then placed in a tub grinder for finer chopping. This is then scooped and placed on cloth-lined forms, which are stacked on the press table, and with use of hydraulics, the table is raised to meet the top plate. Pressure is applied to the forms, squeezing the juice out to collect in a tray. The cider is then drained into a drum and stored in a cooler for a short time until pasteurization can take place.
“It is pure apple juice which is called cider because it is unfiltered. It is a brown colour because it still contains pulp,” said Mike. “There are no additives, no ascorbic acid and no water added to alter the flavour or dilute the product.”
The drums are transported to the food centre, the processing plant on the University of Saskatchewan grounds, then pasteurized and bottled hot into plastic containers according to health and food regulations. The cider is then transported back to the farm gate where it is frozen, awaiting use.
Petrofka Bridge Orchard also offers pre-packaged, nutrition-labelled dehydrated apple slices.
Over the years, the orchard has grown to 4,000 trees and has also increased the number of apple cultivars, which are constantly being checked and rated for firmness and flavour.
What’s in store for Petrofka Bridge Orchard? The Noels are planning on upgrading the equipment and are looking at applying for government funding to research, market and package the production of apple cider vinegar as well as continue research on the dehydrated apple slice. The Saskatchewan Chef Association has shown interest in the Petrofka Bridge Orchard apples, and a Saskatoon restaurant and a major hotel chain have expressed interest in offering locally grown apples from them.
Petrofka Bridge Orchard is a family-owned and -operated business, following all Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulations. The orchard produces quality food products without the use of pesticides and the apples are not waxed.
You are invited to visit the orchard or its website at www.petrofkaorchard.comor call Mike and Anne at 306-497-2234 for more information.
Vivian Nemish writes from Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan