GRAEME COUSINS talks to a family in the Orchard County who have turned their harvest crop into a craft drink that is growing in reputation
As Valentine’s Day approaches, an orchard in Co Armagh has been transformed into a unique location to take the apple of one’s eye.
A stunning light installation at Long Meadow farm on the outskirts of Portadown has created an atmosphere for love to blossom and for families to enjoy some quality time, while showcasing the craft cider that is produced on site.
The farm and associated orchard has been in the McKeever family for nearly 60 years. When he was in his 20s, Pat McKeever took over the farm after the death of his father Peter, who had run an apple canning business on the site.
Pat said: “My daddy was one of three brothers who used to can apples. They’d get the apples from the local orchards, peel them and can them. Daddy then started growing his own apples and supplying the fresh market and the cider markets.”
Now Pat’s son, and Peter’s grandson – also called Peter – is the third generation farmer who is set to carry on the business. Pat’s wife Catherine and their four daughters also have integral roles to play as the craft cider making end of the agri-business continues to grow.
Long Meadow started off with two craft cider drinks in 2014 before introducing a mulled cider and a cider aged in oak barrels, some of which had been used in the original apple canning business.
Over the past two years the company has branched out into flavoured ciders, apple juice and apple cider vinegar – famed for its health benefits.
Catherine said: “I know everything goes through a bit of a fad, but I think the craft ciders are still holding their own. The mindset of cider has changed with craft ciders.
“A lot of people would have associated cider in their younger days – maybe when they were at university – as a cheap drink you can buy in big quantities and get a hit off.
“But that wasn’t craft cider. People are prepared to pay that little bit extra for the quality that comes with craft cider.
“We’re using all our own fruit. We make it in smaller quantities so it can hold all the flavours, that’s the way we want to keep it. We only use hand-picked fruit, not any that has fallen on the ground.”
Of the harvesting process, Pat said: “We would have between 25 to 30 pickers. They would come the third week in July and do a bit of summer pruning.
“Once that’s finished, in August they start into the picking of the apples, that goes right through to the end of October, first week in November.
“The picking season we call it the nine weeks of hell. It’s your livelihood. You are depending on that fruit.
“We harvest approximately 1,600 tonne of apples yearly.”
Catherine explained how the orchard came to be illuminated: “A man called Walter Holt came to the farm last year to buy some apple cider vinegar.
“I got talking to him and he gave me his card and told me what he did – an outdoor lighting artist.
“I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I think the seeds had been sewn. I played about with it in my mind for a long time that it could be something we could work with.”
Walter Holt and his assistant Orlanda Delaforce spent a total of 120 hours working on the installation of the lighting scheme.
Walter commented: “The challenge on this particular scheme was working with smaller trees in an orchard setting. It’s a compact area and our solution was to develop a one way circular trail.
“We tried to have as much creative variety as possible, implementing different approaches to different trees, with the whole colour scheme carefully thought out.”
The light display is accompanied by music composed by Londonderry musician Sharon Graham.
Catherine said: “We chose Valentine’s week for the treelumination launch as we felt it was a novel way in terms of adding to the romance of walking in the moonlight, but it’s by no means just for couples, it’s designed very much as a family experience for everyone.
“I think we all have a vision of apple orchards complete with apple blossom or an abundance of fruit.
“This illuminations event highlights the orchards in a totally difference perspective – a raw natural resting state before the cycle of growth begins.”
The light show – designed by Walter Holt of Travelling Treeluminations – is the first of its kind to be held in an orchard environment and will open to the public from today until Saturday, from 6pm to 10pm each evening at 87 Loughgall Road.
Entry is £12 per adult and £5 for children. A family ticket for two adults and two children costs £30.
Visitors will be given the opportunity to see the pressing and blending facilities on the farm as well as taste some of the products.
Artisan food will be on sale as well as some free refreshment including tea, coffee and hot chocolate. Set to benefit from the four-day event is local charity ‘Katie-Rose’s Journey’.
For more information on this week’s illumination event and other aspects of the farm go to www.longmeadowcider.com