Apple of family’s eye for eight generations

In this series, RICHARD GORDON spends the day with some of the producers supplying Cork’s Farmers’ Markets. Today he visits an orchard in West Cork which is run by the eighth generation of a farming family
Apple of family’s eye for eight generations

James Scannell who runs Mealagulla Orchard. He is the eighth generation of a Cork farming family. Picture: Richard Gordon

EARLY every Saturday morning, James Scannell’s lorry reverses onto the plaza at Douglas Village Shopping Centre. He lowers the lift and then hauls his huge boxes of apples over to his spot at the market.

One box is packed with crates of apple juice, apple cider vinegar and honey, another box is full of red apples, and another is full of large, green cooking apples.

They get picked and are placed directly into the box — they don’t get touched again until a customer places their hands to them.

Large stems and leaves are often found throughout the box of apples. Unlike supermarket apples, you can actually still see remnants of trees attached to these fruits.

I wanted to know more about James’s operation so I asked if I could come out to see his orchard. He is the eighth generation of a Cork farming family. His 21 acres is located at Knockanemealagulla in Ovens. ]Cnocán a mhíle gulla] is the etymology of the word and it translates from ancient tongue to ‘Hill of a thousand streams’.”

It was a bright winter evening when I took the drive out to his land, which is hidden in a quiet but beautiful area of West Cork. As I was driving along the hilly terrain I could see his farm stretching out from beyond the ditches and hedgerows. I pulled up to one of his gates, stepped out into the muddy tracks that a tractor had torn into the soil, and began my exploration of his orchard.

James worked for an engineering company and ran a small dairy herd as his father was a dairy farmer before James converted the land into an orchard. The year was 2008 and the decision was made to transform the land and to start growing apples.

On a Saturday in April, James said: “Two trucks with 40 foot containers drove into the yard containing 18,000 bare root apple trees between them. And by that Monday night the 18,000 trees were in the ground.”

Apples at Mealagulla Orchard (picture courtesy of Mealagulla Orchard).
Apples at Mealagulla Orchard (picture courtesy of Mealagulla Orchard).

Walking around his orchard, the thousands of trees could be seen lined up for what felt like miles.

The lush and soft grass looked like pathways of green carpet between the skeleton apple trees. It still being winter, the trees were bare of leaves and the buds were dormant. No action was to be had and almost no growth over the course of the winter occurred. Instead, they were just waiting for spring to arrive when the blooming would commence again.

Walking around, I could hear the rumble from hidden rivulets and streams that cut their way through the land, hidden under huge ditches of gorse that were speckled with yellow flowers.

The importance of having flowering plants nearby cannot be overstated. Without the flowers, there are no bees, and without the bees, the trees are not pollinated. If the trees aren’t pollinated, there are no apples.

James occasionally buys hives and places them around the orchard, but they are a costly investment and he much prefers things to occur naturally. There’s actually a beekeeper who tends to bees on his land which helps in this process. He has insect hotels perched on stumps around the orchard.

Almost all life is good, except for types of fungus that can destroy a tree, and even an entire crop if they’re abundance is great enough. For this reason, only commercial fungicide is used and no insecticide.

Avoiding insecticide is important to him, “because of the principle of everything working in harmony with each other.”

Rather than eliminating all life, he wants there to be healthy populations of invertebrates. Aphids are a pest and can be a danger, but if there’s a strong presence of earwigs and ladybirds, their numbers are controlled.

As apples are being picked, often thick cobwebs abound the harvest. I asked about spiders, too, “Spiders are friends,” says James.

The harvest season is an intense eight week period around September and October — right at the end of summer and just before winter hits. At this time of year you can safely assume all growth has been completed and the crop won’t improve, so, it’s time to handpick every single apple. James relies on foreign labour for this endeavour, as it’s an impossible task for him to find anyone local who’s willing to work for that extended stretch — with almost no day off. It’s a gruelling haul.

During the harvest, James’s tractor rolls through the pathways between lines of trees, with his crew standing on the trailer that the tractor is towing, picking the apples and placing them into sacks that are slung around their torsos. These sacks then get gently placed into the large boxes and don’t get touched until a customer wants them.

“Treat them like eggs!” James says to his crew. Any bruising of his apples when they’re being handled may result in banishment from his land! (Not quite... but a stern talking to is a certainty as James is not a man to mince his words).

Mealagulla Orchard Pictures courtesy of Mealagulla
Mealagulla Orchard Pictures courtesy of Mealagulla

His produce can be seen at the farmers’ markets around Cork in the shape of his cold pressed apple juice (which is currently made from 100% golden delicious apples), apple cider vinegar, honey from the bees on his orchard, and his different apple varieties; such as, bramley cooking apples, grenadier cooking apples, golden delicious and the popular red, elstar apples.

An interesting fact about the bramley variety is that they actually get stored in huge, sealed containers that filter enough oxygen so that there’s an ideal atmospheric composition within the container — this gives them a long life and retains their freshness perfectly for months if necessary. It’s this kind of modern farming ingenuity that enables us to have apples all year round.

You’ll find James at Mahon Point on a Thursday, Clonakilty on a Friday, Douglas on a Saturday and his son runs the stall at Cornmarket Street (Coal Quay in the city centre) also on a Saturday.

For more see Mealagulla Orchard Instagram: @mealagulla and @jnscannell. You can also follow the markets at @mahonpointmarket @douglasmarket

Next week: Richard meets Cork’s own Sushi master.

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