Scotch Bush – When Craig and Kayla Brooker purchased their 100-acre farm they knew they wanted to do something with the land and as they have come to know the property, the natural progression was to use the abundant wild apple trees dotting the fields.
“We had a loose plan,” he said. “We knew we wanted to do agricultural work on it and we were waiting to see what the land told us. We did a lot of walking around and saw more and more apple trees. So, we did our research and one of the most exciting things was hard cider.”
That was the start of Brooker’s Cider and with the first year’s production (2020) ready for sale this fall, they are also looking at expanding and inviting others to be part of a Community Cider Press using apples from across the Valley for a special cider. For community is much of what has drawn them into this area and why they chose to come to a farm with a plan to live their lives there, raise their young family and grow their business.
The farm, in the tiny settlement of Scotch Bush outside Douglas was most recently a pig farm with the Pork of Yore fame and heritage pigs roaming the fields. Prior to this it was the McFarlane farm. When the Brookers moved to the farm in 2017, they weren’t thinking necessarily animals, but they did want to take advantage of the fields and good soil the farm offered.
Kayla noted they had done their research and discovered the type of soil found in Scotch Bush is excellent and good for a variety of crops. She also offered a tidbit someone else advised her.
“The bigger the original farmhouse the more prosperous the farm and the better the soil and farming conditions,” she repeated.
Their farm is one of the older ones in the area with a large farmhouse and even a family cemetery in the back field dating to 1850. The way the apple trees have sprung up around the farm speaks of the good soil and durability of the land as well.
Craig had some experience as a home brewer making beer and had made cider a couple of times as well. However, the abundance of the apple trees on their farm made them investigate turning this into a business.
“We tried making cider with the apples here and were really happy with it,” he said. “It turned out pretty good.”
As they did more research, they learned their apples were perfect for cider making.
“They have been unmanaged for many years,” he said. “They are gnarly and not spaced evenly. They are all unique.”
Those apple trees, dotting the corners of fields and in one area a five-acre expanse of trees are not planted but propagated by seed, likely from foraging cows or pigs.
“At one point they originated from a heritage variety,” she added. “Now there are over 16 acres of apple trees around the property.”
Exploring the farm and finding the apple trees, they have found some are very densely packed and others are almost inaccessible because of other foliage growing around them, like junipers, she added.
“There is a lot of work to bring them into production without over-managing them,” she added.
The advantage to these “wild” apples is they tend to be stronger, hardier and more disease-resistant, he said.
Kayla pointed out the trees on the farm grow from a variety of seeds so there are different kinds of apples growing in close proximity to each other. In one patch of apple trees close to the house it was evident there were at least four different varieties of trees all together.
These wild apples are smaller than the store-bought varieties and very different. Those have been grown with fertilizer and treated with nitrogen, Craig noted. Although they look beautiful, they are not as healthy as the wild apples, he maintains.
“The wild apple trees handle disease and wild apples have more nutrients,” he said.
They also have a different taste, being slightly more sour or bitter and dry.
“For cider, that is perfect,” he said.
The higher tannins in the wild apples are ideal for cider, Kayla said.
“It has a chalky flavor and the product keeps longer,” she said. “It helps it ferment much slower.”
The fermenting process for the cider is between a year and 18 months, so this is not a fast process.
Because the cider is being aged there can also be notes of the oak from the barrel in some batches while others have more of an apple flavour.
“We are trying to group different colours of apples and see how it comes out,” she added.
Their logo is “Farm grown and nothing more – full of live and good to the core” and they are proud of their product, noting it is a dry cider since it has no added sugars and they don’t stop the fermentation process.
“There is a joke the cider maker doesn’t make cider, the yeast does,” he said. “That gives the cider a specific characteristic.”
They also feel the cider has the flavours of the area where the apples are grown, making it very unique to the Ottawa Valley and the Scotch Bush area.
As they experiment and learn, they go through a lot of apples. It takes about 27 bushels to make a barrel of apple cider, so it works out to about a bag of apples per bottle of cider. That is a lot of apples to harvest on the farm.
Harvesting is done by putting a tarp underneath a tree where the apples are ripe and shaking the tree so they fall. While apples with bruising and scabs are ok, ones that have bite marks in them are rejected.
While the 2020 harvest on the farm was a “bumper crop” and they were able to produce a large quantity of cider, the harvest this year has been poor.
“A lot of people are saying they are having a great year with their apple trees, but we are having a bad year,” he said.
Kayla noted this year there seemed to be an absence of pollinators on the farm during the crucial budding time, although now the bees were in ample evidence buzzing around the farmhouse. Craig added the wetness and drought could have been a stressor on the trees and some are dealing with fire blight as well.
Getting to this stage in the business has not only been a learning experience about cider but also dealing with various government agencies to be able to produce, market and sell their products. They must be licensed with the CRA to produce alcohol and then have an alcohol users license to create other things, in case they decided to eventually make other products like apple cider vinegar or a fortified cider product. As well they must have an Alcohol and Gaming license to sell it and retail authorization.
“And we had to have a zoning exception to allow for a cidery,” she said.
They are currently in the process of their organic certification as well.
“It is a lot of work,” she said. “We feel like we are on ‘Plan G’ to figure out the right size and scale. It has been a journey.”
Now they are ready to sell their product this fall both online and through their store on the farm in Scotch Bush. With attractive labels, a catching logo and large sign at the end of the property, Craig is putting the finishing touches on the store and revamping their cellar.
“Right now, we are focused on getting the new cellar in place and the harvest,” she said.
Their cider has between six and seven percent alcohol.
Along with the cider, they also will be doing a product called ciderkin which Craig described as a “poor man’s cider” which uses the pulp from the first press, rehydrates it and then presses it again.
“It is a lighter, refreshing drink,” he said.
This was the product farm hands and even children would drink in earlier times.
“When you did not have a good water source, it was something safe to drink,” she said.
“We are hoping that will be our summer offering,” he added. “We use the apples twice to get what we can out of the apples.”
Living in the Valley
Their life on the farm is very different than it was when they lived in a condo in Gatineau and worked in the National Capital Region.
“We went from no land to 100 acres,” he laughed. “We had wanted to get out of the city and we were saving about 60 per cent of our take-home pay with the idea for an early retirement.”
However, they began to question what they would do when they were retired. They were also interested in eating organic and growing some of their own food and selling it to others, so the search began for a farm.
“You have to be pretty naïve to move to a farm,” she added.
Reality hit their first winter on December 20 when Craig walked into the barn after he heard a noise and went to the pump room, opened the door and was hit by a torrent of icy water.
“It is constant learning and picking the brains of anyone willing to lend a hand,” she said. “It is humbling.”
“Three years on a farm, you learn more than the rest of your life,” he added.
They have found community as they learn.
“I know more of my neighbours here than I ever did in the city,” he said. “The word neighbour changes quickly when you live here.”
“The word community does too,” she said. “It makes a difference to feel welcomed and to know this is our lifelong project and we have a five, 10, 20 year and more view.
“We wanted to move to a community that is connected and we found that here,” she said.
They are also busy anticipating the birth of their daughter, due later this fall. Their son. Cole, just started school at Eganville District Public School and he too loves living on the farm. While Kayla continues to work remotely, Craig quit his job earlier this year to focus full-time on the farm and the business.
Community Cider Press
The idea of a Community Cider Press is something other cideries have done and something the couple wanted to bring to the area as they launch their business and get to know the wider community.
“We are asking people to bring us backyard apples, roadside apples, any apples as long as they are unsprayed,” he said.
Those apples will be made into the community cider and 50 percent of the proceeds from those sales will go toward community organizations. This year the organizations are the Robbie Dean Centre and the Ottawa River Institute.
“It is a bit of an experiment this year to see how the community responds,” she added. “We want to see what we get and how much we get. The intention is the community comes together and we make use of the facilities.”
The apples, or crabapples, can be dropped off and later the community will be able to taste the fruits from their donation, they explained. The community cider idea is something which they hope will grow and evolve in future years, he added. While different charities might be chosen, they are hoping people will enjoy knowing their apples are being used for a fundraiser too.
Anyone wishing to donate apples or crabapples can drop them off at the farm starting on September 20. Having a gradual drop off process during the fall apple season will work well, he said.
“The apples for cider can sit for a couple of weeks,” he added. “That is called sweating. It turns the starches to sugars.”
If the apples are picked from the ground that is fine, if the skin has not been punctured.
“And we can’t use apples that are not ripe,” Kayla said, adding the seeds inside must be brown or black.
Since they can ferment things separately, they might try a few different blends with the donated apples.
For more information on the cidery or the Community Cider Press, visit brookerscider.ca. Anyone wanting to donate apples or crab apples can drop them off at the farm at 1632 Scotch Bush Road outside Hyndford in Bonnechere Valley.