John Bunker honored for preserving Maine's apple heritage

By Fran Gonzalez | Nov 08, 2019
Photo by: Fran Gonzalez John Bunker at his home in Palermo Nov. 6. Gov. Janet Mills and DACF Commissioner Amanda Beal presented Bunker with the "Commissioner's Distinguished Service Award" Oct. 20, for his work in preserving Maine's historic apple heritage.

Palermo — It is hard not to get excited listening to John Bunker speak about his work identifying, grafting and tracking down historic varieties of apples around the state. He spoke with The Journal Nov. 6 at his 100-acre farm about the importance of history and his work as an "apple detective."

Bunker said it was an unexpected honor receiving an award at the Blaine House in October from Gov. Janet Mills and Dept. of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner Amanda Beal for his work preserving Maine's historic apple heritage.

"It was humbling," Bunker said, and also "a thrill to be at the Blaine House."

He was more grateful, however, at the recognition given to the value of Maine's agricultural history, than for any personal acknowledgement.

"I'm a big believer in the great importance and significance of agricultural history and of its contribution to where we are now, and where we will be going in the future," Bunker said. "It's impossible to move forward into the future without a big contribution from the past. It's almost so obvious that sometimes we overlook it."

"A lot of what I think about is the past, present and future of agriculture in a more general sense, not just simply historic apples," he said. "This sort of vehicle into that thinking is the apple. The apple is almost like a metaphor for all of agriculture."

After many decades of de-population and relatively little development, he said, the state now has thousands of acres of farmland ready to be put to use. "This could be part of the new agriculture for the 21st century where Maine has the opportunity to feed itself, or feed itself more than it has for a long time."

"Not that long ago, 100 years ago, much of the food we ate, we grew ourselves," he said. "We can certainly do it again."

Bunker said Maine is also fortunate because it is attracting young people who are interested in farming, in part, because of available farmland that is reasonably priced. Though he concedes, much is still out of the price range of many.

"Look at the Amish, they are coming here because they have been priced out of the mid-Atlantic," he said. "And they are playing a valuable role in the Maine community as well."

"If you check in with people in other states," he said, "that is not happening. Maine is unusual in that regard."

Bunker believes the biggest and most important reason prospective farmers are coming to Maine, is the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and its dedication to rural life.

"That institution has done as much or more than any other institution to help shape Maine as it is today," he said. "It's not provable, but it is reasonable to say that is why there are CSAs, why there are farmers markets, why there are market farms that are servicing the co-op stores and many other stores — it's probably why there is Rosemont Market ( a small chain of grocery stores selling locally sourced food) in Portland."

It is uplifting, Bunker said, to see the cooperation and collaboration between organizations such as University of Maine Cooperative Extension, MOFGA and Maine Farmland Trust.

"If our goal is to create a totally livable state," he said, "it's a no-brainer that collaboration between institutions is the way to go."



Bunker said he still loves his work, and that he feels it has made a "tiny difference" in people's lives. That it is also gratifying to hear people say, "you changed my life."

"The contribution doesn't come off as being true if you don't love what you do," he said.

"Well, maybe it is a little of what goes around, comes around, because I was the recipient of many life-changing people as well," Bunker said.

Bunker said he was born in Boston and lived there until he was 9, then moved to California. He visited Maine when he was 9, then returned again when he was 11.

He attended Colby College and was so enamored with Maine he bought his current property, along with two other friends, when he was a junior in college. He moved in the day he graduated.

Land, he said, was "really cheap in 1971. They were still pretty much giving it away."

In 1984, Bunker started Fedco Trees, ostensibly to encourage others to plant trees, but really it was a way to fund his insatiable habit of tracking down heirloom fruit varieties in all corners of Maine.



Many types of apples were disappearing, Bunker said, that deserved a second look. He decided to focus on Maine apples and realizedthat he could do it for the rest of his life.

Bunker said he practices the art of detection, like a "Sherlock Holmes of apples." Very similar to being a detective, he said identifying is as much about the context as it is about the apple. Sherlock Holmes would say eliminate the impossible, narrow down the variety by excluding types that it definitely is not, largely through context.

These days Bunker looks at digital photos of the tree itself. "Over time you learn what to look for," he said.

Do you have a seedling or a grafted tree? How old is it? Apples also have convenient characteristics. Does it ripen in the summer? Then it could not be a Northern Spy. Is the flesh low in acidity or high? Is there red on the skin? The detective work is not easy to do.

The challenge for preserving any apple, Bunker said, is that the seed will not necessarily grow to be the same variety. "That is where grafting comes in," he said. The cuttings from one tree, or scions as they are known, can be grafted onto another tree, and the same plant can have several different varieties.

"My original strategy was to graft the things I wanted to protect," he said, "But found I was running out of room. I either had to buy more land or start a preservation orchard."

He talked with Russell Libby, the former executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, who wanted to help start a preservation orchard.

In fall of 2012, two months before Libby died, MOFGA passed a resolution allowing Bunker to raise heritage apples in a terraced, rehabilitated 10-acre gravel pit adjacent to the Unity fairgrounds as long as he raised all of the money.

Shortly after Gov. Janet Mills took office in early 2019, Bunker reached out to her administration with an offer to install a heritage apple orchard at the Blaine House, with varieties that represent all 16 counties. The intent of the orchard is to provide a home for more than 500 heritage apple and pear varieties.

"I think this connects Mainers to their agricultural history," he said. "The history is amazing and it seemed like a fun thing to do."

Statewide, Bunker still looks for apples to graft and sometimes when going through apples that are sent to him to identify, says to himself, "I've got to see this."

"I think it's worked out pretty well for me," Bunker said. "I helped find some varieties thought to be lost. And that is a good thing. And in the process I've met hundreds of apple growers, agricultural thinkers, people who I never would have met who are now colleagues and close friends."

Bunker, along with his wife, Cammy, and two collies named Radar and Scout, live in an off-the-grid house in Palermo called Super Chilly Farm. Together they grow most of their own food and collaborate on Out on a Limb CSA.

Bunker has also written two books, "Apples and the Art of Detection: Tracking Down, Identifying and Preserving Rare Apples" and "Not Far From the Tree: A Brief History of the Apples and Orchards of Palermo, Maine 1804-2004."

For more information, visit: outonalimbapples.com.

Comments (1)
Posted by: GARY STUCKEY | Nov 09, 2019 06:40

A well-deserved honor.  John has inspired many to re-consider how they live and to appreciate what the land means to us.  Well done!



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