For the Joy of It
The Care & Feeding of 196 Apple Trees—and Counting
Brent Hemeon exits his truck after a day spent building homes, and heads for his fields and orchards. “I don’t even step inside the house,” says Hemeon. “Come summer, it’s at least a twelve hour day.”
Bank Street in Harwich Port is where Hemeon farms, and he lives in a home he built in 1978 for his brother, but which he later acquired after the brother’s death. “This four acres of land was farmed since before I was born. It’s been in and out of cultivation for over one hundred years.”
“My grandfather farmed on that land just over there,” says Hemeon, gesturing through the trees. “This is exactly where I rode bareback through the woods as a young boy. It’s become a circle that I’m right back here again; a fairy tale story.”
With his grandfather, a dairy farmer by trade, and his own parents always tending a vegetable garden, the passion for working the land bit Hemeon hard. “I’ve learned I will never make money on it, and if you really figured it all in, I spend money on it,” says Hemeon. “I just really like doing it. You could call me a little touched, but my reward is just saying, “Hey, look what I grew!”
Hemeon shares an aerial photo taken around 1990, showing trees he’s since cleared for the orchard he envisioned. There’s also a swimming pool of sparkling azure water shimmering in the sunlight. It’s there still, just adjacent to the house, but it now lies dormant under a dark green cover. Does he ever have time to take a dip?
Hemeon replies, “I don’t have two hours for something like that.” One hundred ninety-six apple trees and counting, plus pear, peach and cherry trees comprise the orchard he is always fine-tuning—and this is just one facet of Hemeon Farm. Two greenhouses are for tomatoes and take him through summer and fall with bushels of fruit. “I actually ate my last one on January twentieth of 2012.”
Vines spiral across the wood fences Hemeon built, and by autumn they’ll bend under the weight of cascading grapes, fruit that he’ll blend into the wines he perfects each winter, when the farm work slows up. He grows several varieties, prizing the intense flavor of the tiny Pinot Noir grapes.
Large fields in the center of the property soak the sun and send up crates of fresh produce that keep restaurants like Cape Sea Grille in Harwich Port clamoring for more. Rows of potted hydrangeas stand sentinel nearby. “I do very well with them,” says Hemeon. “If you take good care, a hydrangea will last a 100 years.”
The apples though, were the start of it all. “I was thinking, ‘I’ll grow an apple tree,’ and so I just planted one. Growing good apples began with much more displeasure than pleasure, though,” admits Hemeon. “I just didn’t know what I was doing.”
Soon enough, Hemeon was selling to his neighbors from a little card table at the end of his driveway. Now his 30 to 40 different varieties read like a who’s who of apples: Cortland, Suncrisp, Macoun, Cameos, Fuji, Red Chief, Mutsu and Zestar. Some, like Williams Ridge, a summer ripening apple, produce so consistently that he is adding to his stock.
“I ordered 27 different fruit trees this spring and my supplier could only ship 17. It’s because of everyone’s interest in growing his or her own garden. Fresh and local are more popular now. The whole country wants to be part of nature,” says Hemeon. “I think it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened.”
Showing off his recent plantings, Hemeon notes that apple trees can last generations. “What I really should do is knock off the fruit during the early years to let the young trees strengthen. But what I should do is not always what I do. I’m just too curious, I need to find out how good the apples will taste.”
“I’ve never seen my trees as loaded with blossoms as this year,” says Hemeon. “But I am concerned about the wet spring. The bees have a tough go of it if they have to work with water-logged pollen.” With a good year’s yield being three to four bushels of apples per tree, Hemeon says, “We’ll just have to wait till fall to see how they did.”
Twin beehives belonging to a friend help with pollination as long as their occupants behave. Last summer those honeybees zeroed in on Hemeon and his workers several times, so this year they’re working on a trial basis. “I’m really rather partial to the big bumblebees that just show up,” says Hemeon. “They’re excellent pollinators.”
Peach trees number only 24, but he is clearly enchanted with the fruit. In early May, Hemeon scrutinizes the branches to locate many pea-sized white fuzzy nodules that will become the fruit. “I had a tremendous crop in 2011.”
Other fruit includes the four cherry trees he just dug in nearby. “They grow quickly and I’m hoping they’re on the tart side to keep the birds away.” He did concede to give up on raising watermelons. “It’s just too cool on the Cape to get them sweet enough,” says Hemeon. Cantaloupes though, are another story.
“I nearly had a fist fight with a customer who was asking where I bought them,” says Hemeon. “I grow great ones. My best year was 371, with one topping 11 pounds and I’ve got a photo of it on the scale.”
As Hemeon’s gardens and orchard expanded so did his customer base. He built a large farm stand in front of the house, and his wife has sold at the Harwich Farmers’ market for years. Restaurants have sought him out. “Vinings Bistro in Chatham prints it right on their menu that it’s my produce. It feels so good,” shares Hemeon.
Swiss chard is one of his biggest sellers, and he delivers over 100 pounds to one location. Spinach, golden beets, sugarsnap pods, asparagus, pole beans, cukes, tomatoes, mustard greens, peas, daikon radishes, cranberries and turnips round out his offerings. “They’re genuine Eastham turnips, too,” says Hemeon, “but I can’t tell you how I sourced the seed, or I’d have to take you out.”
There’s Cape corn here too, but Hemeon rarely sells it. “I could expand the field to ten times the size it is now, and still there would be no money in it. I keep a record every year—the numbers just aren’t there. But when you love what you do, you still grow it,” says Hemeon. “People would need to be educated, too, that yellow corn can be good, not just white or bicolor. I grow it to give to my helpers. It’s super sweet like honey. What an ear of corn!”
Hemeon’s passion for corn, peaches, turnips and apples pales when you learn of his pluot obsession. He grows this small fruit, a cross between a plum and an apricot, by the basketful. “They’re just wonderful, I wouldn’t ever sell them,” says Hemeon. “Honest to God, sometimes a farmer has to reap his own rewards.”
“I was transported here from off Cape at the age of two,” says Hemeon. “I started with my family’s vegetable garden when I was little and it just sunk in.” Now, he has no intention of backing off. “Any farmer will tell you the same story. You do what you have to do and no matter how hard a summer’s work is, you forget how miserable it was by spring and start again,” says Hemeon. “I can’t and I won’t stop growing.”
Hemeon’s Farm Stand, 186 Bank Street, Harwich Port
Open daily August 1 to Thanksgiving, 9:00 am to dusk
Hydrangeas are available starting in May
Come summer, freelance writer Michelle Koch races past the birds, chipmunks, squirrels and yes, now even the turkeys, to harvest her strawberries and raspberries. She works with eighth grade students at Nauset Middle School, grows flowers and bakes with whole grains for farmers’ markets, and lives with her daughters Camille and Chloe, and their dog Woof.