Couple hopes retirement bears fruit

Mike Noel says he’s following a biblical tradition by growing the world’s oldest fruit.

His favourite apple in his orchard of 2,000 trees has no name.

The apple tastes like the Gala variety but is hardy to the Prairies. It has a number, 18-10-32, that its developers at the University of Saskatchewan gave it. Next month Noel is anticipating the university breeders will release an

official name.

Mike and Anne Noel have been planting trees for three years on their 50 acres of land near Petrofka Bridge on the North Saskatchewan River, 70 kilometres north of Saskatoon. This summer and fall they will reap their first commercial harvest when they open their U-pick apple business.

It seems a strange occupation for the former RCMP member turned financial planner. He and his wife met when he was stationed at Assiniboia, Sask., and the couple moved several times before settling in Saskatoon after his retirement from the police force. Eleven years ago they moved to their large acreage by the river. There was nothing there, not even a house.

A visit to a boyhood friend in Mike’s home province of Quebec led to memories of raids on apple orchards and Mike contacted U of S horticultural experts Rick Sawatzky and Bob Bors on his return.

They helped him obtain the dwarf apple trees they were developing and showed him the trellising style of growing them. He and Anne spent their evenings and weekends after their city jobs planting and pruning. Mike jokes that with Anne retiring in May from her city job, she will have more time to pull weeds.

They started with 100 trees in 2003. Being dwarf trees doesn’t mean they produce small fruit. Rather, it means they can be picked from the ground. Each mature tree can bear 30 to 40 apples, with some varieties producing 31/2 inch diameter apples.

In his research Mike visited apple orchards in Quebec and learned some of the pitfalls of U-pick.

“It’s a headache. Everyone goes and reaches for the big red one even though it won’t be ripe for another three weeks. They don’t pick in the row you ask them to. They break branches and there are bitten apples on the ground and the liability of kids.”

But Mike is undaunted. He will use his former enforcement skills to ensure people follow his maps and instructions. He plans to patrol his orchard morning and evening.

“Aug. 15 to Oct. 1 will be our first U-pick season. I’m preparing a pamphlet with notes on the apple types, whether for cooking, eating or storage.”

But he learned something else about the U-pick operation: some apples are always left on the trees. The trick is what to do with them.

Mike is testing out a soft apple cider, meaning no fermentation because the regulations are less onerous than for drinks with alcohol.

He has turned to the labs at the U of S Food Development Centre to test his cider and staff there assure him the juice his apples produce is good quality with a long shelf life. He is also working with the centre on a bottle and cap to ensure the apple liquid, which is heated to 82 C for pasteurization, is safely sealed inside.

Because of food regulations he will only be able to sell his cider in the province.

“I’m not in a position to compete with Sun-Rype on apple juice,” said Mike.

However, he dreams of working with other apple growers in the province to develop their industry.

By pooling their money they could afford to bring in the presses, slicers and other equipment to turn out more cider, apple pie fillings and applesauce.

“Apple growers must unite and visit and talk to each other about what works for them and help with grafting and pruning.”

Mike said the average dwarf apple orchard in Saskatchewan is only three years old with about 20 growers. However, with their collective work and help from the Saskatchewan Fruit Growers Association, he hopes to work himself into another full-time job.

“I’m not there yet. Give me another year.”

Contact the Noels at 306-497-2234.

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