Not long ago, when the small family farm was a key part of rural life, apple farmers relied less on chemicals and more on nature. The final products were more natural and therefore healthier. As modern agriculture started to take over, farms got bigger. Today, most of the work is done by machines, not people. Chemical fertilizers and insecticides replace nutrients and earthworms. Still, in some places, the old ways are making a comeback – and health-conscious consumers are responding.
Filsingers Organic Farms Ltd., one of the first organic farms in all of Canada, is based in Ayton, Ontario, population 400 or so. Founded by Alvin Filsinger in the mid 1900’s, its mission was to grow apple trees organically and then to create organic apple products. Turns out that by looking backwards, Alvin was ahead of his time. On February 16, 2008, he was awarded the Lifetime Organic Hero Award by the Canadian Organic Growers for his lifelong dedication to the organic industry.
The three main products are organic apple cider vinegar, organic sweet apple cider, and organic apple sauce, and Filsingers still follows many of the same processes and recipes Alvin used decades ago.
But the story is more complicated than that. Today’s CEO Shaun Becker has kept the best of the old while introducing several key innovations to grow the company while maintaining Alvin’s emphasis on healthy food and a healthy planet.
Shaun’s life story parallels the development of Filsingers. He grew up in the area and when he was a boy his mother worked at the company. “I knew Filsinger’s grandkids,” he recalls. “It was a great place to hang out in nature. I still remember the taste and smell of his cider. Everyone knew he made great products.”
In 2006, Alvin Filsinger, who was in his 80s, put the farm up for sale. Shaun, who had a business background, knew it had a lot of potential. “When people tried the products, they were hooked,” he says. “We wanted more people to try them.”
Shaun Becker and his brother and cousin made the leap and bought the farm. Alvin Filsinger stayed on for a year to help with the transition. “He taught us a lot,” says Shaun. “The products are essentially made the same way as in his day. Part of the holistic farming plan is making our organic apple products on site. This allows Filsingers to compost the apple pulp left over from the juicing and reapply it to the land, creating a natural fertilizer.”
Part of the process is to put the apple pulp back on the fields as compost. For organic apple cider, we finish the process in the building, using the skins for sauce.
Today, retailers rely on shiny packaging and many foods contain additives like sugar and salt, and the residues of fertilisers and pesticides. “We like to keep our products as clean and simple as possible, with nothing added, letting the natural flavour speak for itself,” says Shaun.
The farm is about 100 acres, with 65 in orchard and 15 to 20 acres left to plant. About 10 acres are the original old trees, planted more than 70 years ago.
In recent years, Filsingers has invested in growing more trees and adding specialized equipment that favours the small scale of the operation and its reliance on skilled workers. Planting new trees is a key part of the plan. “We planted 7,000 trees this year,” says Becker. “The trees are dwarfs, about 10 feet tall at most, designed to grow apples.”
With a maximum of 2,000 trees per acre, they started planting five years ago with wild root stock that is hand grafted from a small piece of leaf inserted into the bark. It takes the trees four years to reach a height of 10 feet, then the tops are cut off so they can be picked by hand without a ladder. It takes five years before the trees are ready to harvest.
Filsingers also started buying some trees from a nursery. Last year, they harvested apples from 25,000 trees and this year they expect 32,000. “We have room for 50,000 more,” says Becker. “We want to get to 80,000 total trees in about five years.”
ORGANIC APPLE SAUCE
Farm-grown apples are hand sorted, washed and then cooked with the skins on, releasing anthocyanins and imparting unique flavours, colours, and nutrients. “We make apples the old-fashioned way. We put the apples in the cooker and steam them to get the nutrients and the red colour from the skins of the apples. We use a giant ricer to take out the core and the skin. We don’t add any ascorbic acid or sugar.”
ORGANIC APPLE CIDER VINEGAR
Apple cider vinegar has been used for centuries because of its naturally occurring antibiotic and antiseptic properties. Filsinger’s Organic Apple Cider Vinegar is made with farm-grown, organic apples. The vinegar contains no additives or preservatives. The finished product is raw, unfiltered, and unpasteurized. It is based on a wild ferment (the natural yeast from the fruit) that creates the enzymes so beneficial to the human body. (In older bottles of cider, aficionados look for the telltale darkening that is evidence of the “mother of vinegar.”)
ORGANIC SWEET APPLE CIDER
A special blend made of whole apples of several varieties grown on the farm and processed the old-fashioned way, without preservatives or additives. The apples are pressed as soon as they are harvested. The cider is unfiltered, giving it a “fresh-pressed” flavour.
SALES & MARKETING
The products are sold online and on shelves in grocery stores, which may change year by year and even season by season. “We’re across Canada now,” says Shaun. Examples include Sobeys and Bulk Barn. In Ontario, in smaller chains like Healthy Planet and Goodness Me, as well as many small independent health food stores. To stay in tune with scientific and consumer trends, each year, Shaun attends the Canadian Health Food Association shows East and West.
Alvin Filsinger’s journey started in 1940, when at the age of 12, he began working for his great-uncle on his 21 acre apple orchard in Burlington Ontario. With help being scarce during the war, Alvin came to the aid of his 75 year-old-uncle to help with the harvest. Enjoying the work and the fact that he loved fruit orchards, he became steadily employed by his uncle in 1941.
He was given responsibility for pruning, spraying, harvesting and marketing of the apples he grew. While his love for farming would stay strong, the agricultural practices used by farmers would change drastically during this time. At the end of the war, chemical companies saw a major decrease in demand for their product and began marketing them for agricultural use instead.
At a fruit growers’ meeting in 1945, an extension service specialist introduced the growers to D.D.T and pyrethrim insecticides. The first product Alvin tried was a new chemical fertilizer. Later, he applied D.D.T, even though he was concerned about the warning on the label that rubber boots, a rain suit, gloves, and respirator must be worn during application. His wife drove the open tractor with the 100-gallon sprayer attached to it. She drove ahead and Alvin hand sprayed the 600 trees. It took two days to finish the job.
The next morning Alvin’s wife was unable to get out of bed due to extreme fatigue and nausea. It took three days for her to feel well enough to get out of bed due to the exposure of D.D.T. Alvin was also not feeling well from the effects of the chemicals.
The next morning, he noticed an acre’s worth of soil covered in dead and dying earthworms from the spray, which also changed the composition of the soil, making it much harder and less fertile, and he discovered the bodies of dead birds. It was then that Alvin decided he had to make a change and began studying how to farm organically.
Later in the season, he noticed he was having trouble with insects due to the elimination of not only the problematic insects, but also the beneficial bugs that keep the others in check. He realized he was faced with a life-changing choice.
Alvin decided to sell the Burlington farm and relocate to Ayton, Ontario. Starting over with a new orchard took courage and sacrifice. New fruit trees would have to be planted, and it would take years before bearing any fruit. During this time, they would have to be cared for and protected from mice, rabbits, deer, and insects.
It took eight years before he had his first meaningful harvest of apples on his new farm in Ayton and even though it took a lot of sacrifice and hard work, he was very proud of what he accomplished. He would continue to farm his way and expand his orchard for the next 45 years until finally retiring in 2006.
The next year, 2007, was the first full year for Shaun Beker and his team. Today, the abundant birdlife on the farm is just one reminder of the legacy of Alvin Filsinger, whose passion was providing delicious organic apple products.
If you enjoyed this article, check out Health benefits of apple cider vinegar.