The Merrimans like to call themselves a "two-horse operation." Doug manages the apple orchard while Jan works the small retail nursery. Tucked away in Washington's Wenatchee Valley, about 6 hours from Portland, their 35-acre White River Farms produced 200 tons of apples last year. A small crop compared to the bigger orchards nearby, but people from all over love their Gala, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious and Fuji apples, sold in supermarkets.
On this day, the husband and wife team are between harvests. We caught up with them as they surveyed the orchard with their two year-old beagle, Butter. We're here to talk apples. Ice Apples. These delicious treats have become an annual favorite at Al's. Like clockwork once the weather cools, customers begin inquiring, "When will the Ice Apples arrive?"
If you've never tried an Ice Apple, you might wonder what it is and why they're asking. Just one bite and you'll understand. Ice Apples are Fuji apples that are purposely left on the tree until the first frost. This causes the inside of the apple (the water core) to crystallize, resulting in the sweetest, crispest, most delicious apple you've ever tasted!
"I can't say the first time we picked one it was purposeful," says Doug. "We had some Fujis that were too green and small for commercial harvest, so we just left them on the trees. When some friends asked for apples after the harvest, we had nothing left, so we picked them."
While Ice Apples are superior in taste, their high sugar content makes them less ideal for the supermarket sales, which requires long warehouse storage. Further, harvest time for Ice Apples can be unpredictable because it is dependent on cooler conditions. Doug says for the water core to appear, temperatures must drop below 40°F for at least three nights.
"Where we live, you're skirting disaster occasionally, so we keep a close watch of weather and temperatures," he says. "These apples don't freeze at 32°F because they have so much sugar. But, if they freeze, they have to thaw out on their own. So, sometimes we only have a window of a few hours to pick them." In the mid '90's, the Merrimans lost two-thirds of their crop when temperatures dropped to 15°F for an entire week.
Photography by Randy Dawson
Al's owner Jack Bigej was introduced to Ice Apples about ten years ago. "We were doing some nursery business with Doug and Jan and they brought some down for the girls in the office," says Jack. "Before Al's got into the plant business, we were in the fruit business for many years - so, I know a good apple when I taste one. These Ice Apples were the best darn apples I've ever eaten! I immediately knew we had to sell them in the stores and with limited quantities, Al's had to have them all!"
"We figured they might take off - if Jack had anything to do with it," laughs Jan. The first year Jack ordered 7,200 pounds for Al's stores, and had plenty to spare. But as word-of-mouth spread, that changed. Last year, Jack commissioned the Merrimans to expand the crop, bringing in nearly 30,000 pounds of Ice Apples, which promptly sold out in an matter of weeks.
It's just good to know there are still people who want apples that taste good. They don't have to be solid red and perfect, like at the grocery stores. It's all about the taste," says Jan. Doug agrees, "Ice Apples are the highest dessert quality, and definitely my favorite. And, I've got a choice of a LOT of apples to eat."