Uniquely New and Heritage Varieties Shape the Apples in Casey Cleaver’s Eye
The love-affair between apples and the Cleaver family in Norfolk began in 1915, when Alfred Cleaver planted 20 apple trees on the family’s mixed farm on Blue Lake Road. Four generations later, his great-grandsons tend 130 acres of orchards, with 45 apple varieties, some pears and peaches under the J. Cleaver Orchards name – the “J” coming from Alfred’s son, Jim.
Casey Cleaver delights in talking about the orchard diversity. He has farmed full time since 2003, attracted to do so in part by his pride in his apple heritage, and by the introduction of numerous apple varieties 20 years ago.
Today, 100 acres produce popular commercial varieties such as Gala, Honeycrisp, and Ambrosia, which are sent down road to Norfolk Fruit Growers, which the family belonged to since 1915. Bosc and Bartlett constitute most of the 10-acre pear crop. But another 25 acres consist of lesser-known apples, both heirloom varieties such as Gravenstein, Golden Russet, Northern Spy and Tolman Sweet to new varieties like Evercrisp and Ludacrisp. There is also an acre of what Cleaver understates as “unique peaches”, such as the Doughnut or Peento Peach, which is shaped like a flat doughnut and valued for its high sugar content.
These varieties sell at a roadside stand that his father established in the 1970s. Some of them are available for only one or two days. Cleaver and his wife, Sarah, alert customers about what is available on social media.
“So many varieties came out when I came onto the farm in 2003,” said Cleaver. “I fell in love with apples at a time when the new varieties came.”
The Cleavers manage the farm themselves. Cleaver and his father, Richard focus on production. Brother Cody handles the mechanical matters, while their mother, Sandra, does the bookkeeping.
Assisting are 15 off-shore workers from Jamaica, whom he considers as family. “Some of them have been coming for 30 years – I grew up with them!” said Cleaver.
Strategic variety choices create timed ripening, allowing the Cleavers and their 15-person crew to handle the picking comfortably. The harvest starts in late August with varieties like the Ginger Gold, and Paula Red and ends in late October with apples such as Fuji and Fuji.
“We made it so that we can manage it ourselves, as a family.”
When selecting new varieties, Cleaver determines whether they fit their timing for picking, its suitability to their sandy and sandy loam soils and the Norfolk climate. He also heeds customer inquires about a favourite variety from their past. “I will plant one or two trees for them if it proves suitable.”
A best seller is one of Cleaver’s favourites – the sweet-tasting Silken. Its thin skin makes it prone to bruising; making its harvest tedious. “You wouldn’t want to grow it unless the community asks for it. But I introduced it to customers and now they ask for it.”
Other new farm stand favourites include Crimson Crisp, Snow Sweet, Evercrisp, Ludacrisp. So is the Hidden Rose- a tart apple with a pink core that retains its colour when cooked. The family is keeping a few McIntosh trees , even though they fell out of popular demand, because some customers still ask for it.
Cleaver values his relationships with his regulars. “Some customers knew my great grandfather. Or they say that they watched me grow up and now they are coming with their kids.”
Cleaver is grateful for his family’s century-plus ties with Norfolk Fruit Growers Association, where his great-grandfather and grandfather served as presidents. “They’ve always been an integral part of Cleaver Farms.”
“I’ve always felt the deep connection to the family part of farming – I was raised on my great grandfather’s and parents’ farm, and I love the soil part of it,” said Cleaver. “The best part is spending time in the orchard with my daily walk through the trees to inspect them.”
The family’s three children, aged 10, eight and six may absorb their father’s passion. “We are still a small family farm. My kids are listening to me talk about apples just like I used to listen to my dad talk. Now my youngest can point out diseases in the trees and my daughter can bite into apples and say that they need a few more days on the tree.”