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Montana man grows 400 apple varieties

KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) — This apple is not your everyday supermarket fruit.

Its skin is a yellow wash with splashes of carmine down the sides and a streak of russet near the stem, and it hangs boldly juxtaposed against its leafy backdrop. This diminutive fruit is perfectly shaped and easily plucked from the bough.

If you take a bite, the satisfying crunch offers a crisp strong flavor with a good little kick of acid on the back. For an apple, it’s surprisingly complex on the tongue.

This apple is the Martha crabapple, a favorite fruit of Rod McIver.

“It’s a fairly early apple, but it ripens over a long period so you can snack off it for a good month,” McIver said with a lilting Southern accent. “It’s beautiful, it’s tough, and most people complain it’s too sour, but I think it just has a wonderful flavor.”

“That’s what got me started on all this,” McIver added, gesturing around his small orchard property.

On a scant three acres off Rose Crossing sits McIver’s small house and a large barn. In a fenced-off portion of the front yard is a garden and a dozen fruit trees, mostly apple with a few exceptions (one of McIver’s favorite pear trees, a cross between an Asian and European variety, towers over this part of the yard). The area immediately surrounding the house is dotted with more trees — pears, plums and a few more apples.

But further back on the lot, behind a classically red barn, sprawls the heart of McIver’s passion.

He calls it his Montana home orchard project — 13 rows of seven or eight trees apiece. Each tree has anywhere from one to 10 different varietals grafted onto them. By McIver’s estimate, he is propagating somewhere between 200 and 250 different fruit varieties, probably closer to 300 if you count the various berries growing on the property as well.

“I’ve got a lot. I think variety is the spice of life and I’m pretty spiced up around here,” he told the Flathead Beacon. “I’m so spiced up I don’t even know what all the spices are.”

McIver has a long family history of being tied to the land.

He was born in 1942 and grew up in the low country of South Carolina to a farming family– he says his ancestors were always big farmers, active in state agricultural organizations. His uncle was farmer of the year in the state numerous times.

Growing up, McIver’s father had a lumber business, and McIver went to forestry school to feed his own passion for the agricultural sector.

“My goal was always to own my own forest land and have a vertical organization that sustainably manages the forest the way it used to be,” he said.

He followed his first degree with a stint at Duke University pursuing a master’s degree in natural resource economics, but dropped out, disgruntled with the field of economics as a whole, and began work as a smokejumper.

After a short stint in Vietnam that ended after he stepped on a landmine, McIver was a smokejumper for more than two decades, which cemented his love of the U.S. West.

“I just enjoyed the outdoor life and natural history and when I was smokejumping it was just amazing,” he said. “I remember one particular week I was looking off a mountain outside Silver City, New Mexico looking into Mexico and the next week I was north of the Brooks Range in Alaska.

“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”

McIver retired from smokejumping when he turned 44 and his body could no longer handle the strain, and eventually settled in Montana, first in Missoula and then in the Flathead in 1998.

He tried to keep his hand on the pulse of the forestry industry with a portable sawmill, but made limited progress. Instead, he was making a lot of progress with his gardening.

“I first started planting trees that fall,” he said. “After I got home from the sawmill I’d be out here with my truck parked in the yard with the lights on so I could keep planting.”

In late September, Katrina Mendrey, an apple researcher from the Bitterroot, made a trip up to Kalispell to visit McIver’s orchard project for the first time.

“Apples have made it around the world; it’s what makes them interesting to people and romanticized in culture,” she said. “They first started in Kazakhstan, traveled the Silk Road and went around the world.”

“Montana is where apples have circumnavigated the globe and settled,” she added. “It’s kind of the last place for apples to get to.”

Mendrey is the orchard program manager for Montana State University’s Western Agricultural Research Center, and oversees the Montana Heritage Orchard Program, which works to document the history of Montana orchards and identify apples with unique qualities that allow them to thrive in the state.

Mendrey had corresponded with McIver for years, and when she compiled a guidebook to Montana’s heritage apple varieties, he sent her a number of samples she couldn’t find elsewhere.

“Rod has probably the largest single collection of apple varieties in the state,” she said en route to the orchard. “I’ve always wanted to see it in person.”

Seeing an apple enthusiast in their natural orchard habitat is one thing, but putting two together in that setting is something else entirely, a combination of mad scientist and sommelier.

As McIver led Mendrey on the grand tour of his orchard, the two quickly devolved into niche conversations about apple picking tools, which varieties had ripened well this summer and the nuances of apple identification.

As the duo meandered among the trees, Mendrey would pluck an apple, cut it open to examine seeds and flesh, give a spray of iodine solution to determine the starch content and therefore ripeness, and occasionally scribble notes. McIver meanwhile, spouted a near-constant commentary, sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of his crop, pointing to each tree and giving the history of the grafts, how each year’s crop had been and the flavor profile of each fruit.

Pulling one red apple from a branch, he held it out in the sunlight.

“This is a Scarlet Surprise,” he said cutting it in half to reveal a bright red flesh. “This has a little bit of a cooked apple flavor, usually with some tannins. It’s a tart apple, decent but not great.”

“But it’s a great novelty apple,” he continued. “When classes of kids come here to learn about apples, I will get tons of letters about the red-fleshed apple.”

For the longest time, McIver thought he grew the only Scarlet Surprise in Montana, but recently someone approached him at the Whitefish Farmers Market and handed him one of the novelty fruits found on a tree near the bike path.

“I’d like to know where that tree is,” McIver said. “Mine is so young I don’t want to whack away at it, but I would love to collect some limbs from a wild one.”

McIver’s website lists 123 varieties of apples he grows, but he acknowledges he doesn’t have much time for the Internet, and the list is woefully lacking. With the addition of 10-15 varieties each year, he estimates he could have close to 400 when all is said and done.

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