Apple picking in Vermont is a seasonal ritual, up there with summer vegetable gardens, lazy days fishing, hunting in season, and tapping the maple trees in the late winter. It’s part of what defines us as Vermonters, willing and able to hunt and gather beyond the grocery store. Unlike other parts of the country where collecting food at its source is something done as a hobby, pursued by food tourists in search of a thrill, here in Vermont, many of us actually undertake these endeavors because they make economic sense, because they put high-quality food on our families’ tables for an affordable price.
Last weekend, I made my first seasonal foray into the orchard, and spent an afternoon liberating apples from trees. Once my bag was full, I had the added reward of sitting in the sun with a cup of coffee, a homemade donut, good company and conversation. In addition to the healthful benefits, both physical and mental, of my excursion, I walked away with two pecks of apples for a fraction of what they would have cost at the store. And, since the orchard is only one mile from the Price Chopper I typically use, I didn’t even use additional gasoline to get there. My only investment, other than the payment for the bag, was a very enjoyable couple of hours spent with a friend.
Twenty-four hours after my apple-picking adventure, what do I have to show for it? There are the remnants of a large pie sitting on my stove, the cake for a friend’s birthday delivered and enjoyed, and the cores that remain of a few Cortland and McIntosh apples, crispy and fresh from the tree. In the meantime, with 2/3 of a sack of apples remaining, options for additional culinary adventures abound. All that for $17
Even if all I do is dream, and I end up composting what’s left, I feel that my $17 investment has been well worth it. Between the pie and the cake I’ve already baked, I’ve already more than covered my apple costs, even taking into account the additional expenditures of the flour, oil and other ingredients used to create my scratch efforts.
But there is so much more to a trip to the orchard; the smells, the sounds, the stretch of muscles unused to this kind of physical labor, the relaxation that comes from doing something so different from my daily routine. And there is the pleasure of plucking fruit straight from the tree and biting into it, still warm from the sun.
So I stare at my apples, dreaming of baked goods yet to be made even as I yawn and plan my week around meetings and appointments, work obligations, after-school chauffeuring, daily exercise, and other assorted calls on my time, both domestic and professional.
On a purely fiscal level, my apple economy is probably a false one; my eyes have once again outpaced my family’s appetites. Just like the vegetables in our CSA share, which we often compost straight from the farm because we just don’t have the time or the energy necessary to turn them into the nutritious meals I know we should be eating, these apples stand a very real chance of turning to mush before we ever reach the bottom of the bag.
So I once again face the eternal question as the family budgeter: how do you balance the potential against the actual, and arrive at a place where both can comfortably meet? Am I saving money by buying more, and better, apples at a cheaper price per pound than what is available at the grocery store, even if there is some waste? Am I picking these apples as an excuse to make baked goods that my family loves, but that are ultimately unhealthy, sugary desserts? Wouldn’t I be better off paying a higher price per pound at the store and purchasing the number of apples I will realistically use, rather than waste an entire afternoon down at the orchard, flitting from one tree to the next, ultimately unable to leave any apples behind, even the quirkily misshapen ones that provoke great mirth?
Rationally, I should buy only what I need, and no more. But I am not always rational, and there is more to an apple than the crunch when you bite into it. For me, spending time in the sun, picking fruit from trees, was worth the price of admission. The aftermath of my gathering is, in many ways, inconsequential; on that afternoon, my pleasure was solely in the diversions of the hunt.