A Fruitful Labor

For Nick Cowles, fun is finding innovative ways to stretch his product line

by Mark Pendergrast

shelborchIn 1977, at 27 years of age, Nick Cowles took over the running of Shelburne Orchards’ 69 acres of apple trees from his parents, William and Virginia Cowles, who had left for warmer climes. His four siblings received the remainder of the 400-acre property. Cowles has enthusiastically broadened the business to include other fruits and products such as apple brandy.

Nick Cowles, 61, the impresario/ owner/ grower/ distiller/ singer/ songwriter of Shelburne Orchards, is an enthusiastic, wild man. His lanky, 6-foot, 5-inch frame is topped by a mop of long, unruly salt-and-pepper hair. He plunges into his enthusiasms, the latest of which is making apple brandy in two imported, handmade, Portuguese copper stills.

Last year he sold 100 bottles of his brandy for $100 apiece, but that $10,000 influx hasn’t persuaded him to sell more any time soon. He intends to let the other 19 oak barrels of the stuff age for a full eight years before bottling it as Dead Bird Brandy. (There’s a good story behind the name, about his grandfather’s moonshining days.)

Cowles has a way of roping people into his life. When radiation oncologist Peter Swift moved next door 25 years ago, they got together to sing a little. “I didn’t play an instrument,” Swift recalls, “so Nick handed me an electric bass and told me to pluck it.” Now the retired Swift plays stand-up bass for The Meatpackers, an irreverent country-bluegrass band for which Cowles sings lead and writes songs about New Age rednecks, pie-makers, and truck-lovers (“Why can’t my women be a little more like my truck?”). Other band members are Kevin Clayton, owner of Village Wine and Coffee, and Todd Sagar of G.E. Health Care. Cowles has bestowed appropriate nicknames on all of the band members.

“Nick has a presence that allows him to get away with things normal people couldn’t, just because of who he is,” Swift says. “He can walk into a room, and it lights up with his smile and stories.” Swift is also impressed with Cowles’ business savvy. “He’s constantly experimenting with ways to stretch his product line.”

Shelburne Orchards grows an astonishing variety of apples — over 30 — ranging from the familiar McIntoshes, Cortlands, and Empires to bitter antiques such as Kingston Black, Fox Whelp, and Tremlets. Cowles also grows peaches, sour cherries, grapes, barley, and pumpkins. From the apples he makes sweet and ginger cider, the aforementioned brandy, cider doughnuts, apple pies, and cider vinegar. His various products gross about $300,000 a year.

Not bad for a kid who dropped out of high school in the middle of 10th grade. His parents, William and Virginia Cowles, moved to Shelburne in the 1940s and later purchased the Silver Fox Orchard, renaming it Shelburne Orchards.

The elder Cowles was an architect who also served as secretary of human services when Deane Davis was governor. But son Nick (the fifth of six children) struggled in school with learning disabilities. At the private Stowe School, he thrived on the Outward Bound part of the curriculum, but when he told headmaster Jack Handy that he was quitting, Handy understood. Amazingly, so did his supportive parents.

“I fumbled around,” Cowles admits. He worked on the Rutland Railroad, then did woodworking. He earned his GED and a two-year associate of arts from Franconia College. He played the guitar and sang. He went back to the Stowe School and ran its winter program, teaching kids from Harlem to make and inhabit snow caves on Mount Mansfield.

During one summer, he and a writing instructor from Champlain Valley Union High School teamed up to put kids through outdoor experiences about which they wrote.

He got married and divorced in his early 20s. “I think marriage is like making pancakes — sometimes you have to throw out the first one because the griddle wasn’t hot enough.”

Then his parents decamped for the Turks and Caicos Islands (his mother hated Vermont winters) to run an inn and design buildings for a decade, before moving to New Mexico, where his father still lives.

In 1977, the 27-year-old Nick told his father that he wanted to run the orchard. “Dad was thrilled I wanted to do it.” The other children received the remainder of the 400-acre property, and Nick got the 69 acres of apple trees. “I totally loved it,” he says. “I was looking for something to sink my teeth into.”

He decided to go totally organic, which almost cost him the orchard, though he developed good relationships with health food stores. “Mostly I had to sell to Price Chopper and Grand Union for low prices, and packing apples all winter was like factory work. We sold wholesale to a distributor. It was a dark era.”

In 1981 Cowles remarried. He and Cindy have two children, Dylan and Moriah, and Cowles credits Cindy with being his “mentor and spiritual guide,” although she doesn’t work at the orchard. “She helps me balance my work life. Otherwise, I get totally consumed by it.”

In 1999, for instance, she dragged him away to go skiing in Colorado, where he met a man who grew apples and peaches. The Colorado farmer looked at a Vermont map, saw that Shelburne lay just south of Burlington, and said, “Are you crazy? Bring the folks from Burlington to your farm! It must be beautiful. You should be able to sell all your apples right there at your orchard.”

That advice changed Cowles’ life. In 2000 he put on a small food festival during harvest season. In 2001, it got bigger and provided solace to people in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The 11th Annual Small Farms Food Fest, to be held on Sunday, Sept. 9, this year, now draws thousands of people to sample dishes made by local farms, including vegetables and fruits, cheeses, organic chicken, beef, pork, and wines.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Cowles says. “It’s a real community gathering. If you win a raffle, you can sit at the table with the farmers who made your food.”

Charlotte resident Lori Rowe and her husband, Doug Griswold, have attended every one of Cowles’ festivals. “I love that it’s not only a fabulous orchard with high-quality apples,” Rowe says, “but that the whole sense of community is so welcoming. My husband and I bring our grandchildren there, and daughter and son-in-law.” Last year, Rowe, with her daughter and grandchildren, did the Cider Run.

The Meatpackers played for the first festival, but now other bluegrass bands (including the Starline Rhythm Boys, Gordon Stone, Twist of the Wrist, and daughter Moriah Cowles’ band) entertain people all day, while Cowles ambles around, spreading good will, doughnuts, and “Big Bitchin’ Betty,” the Shelburne Orchards version of Apple Betty (see sidebar recipe. Cowles’ slogan: “It’s comfort without the commitment.”) There are tractor hayrides, a tractor petting zoo, hay bale maze, face-painting, apple prints, rope-making, and circus arts.

Two weeks later, on Sept. 23, the Pie Fest and Cider House Run features a two- or four-mile run, walk, or stop-and-pick romp through the orchards, and a pie contest for 30 entries, as sampled by three judges.

“People are very serious about the contest,” Cowles says. “They have to have their pre-registered entries in by 11:30 a.m., when a cannon goes off on the roof. I stand in the doorway with my arms crossed. People can get very upset with me, but those are the rules. Otherwise, a late entry would be warmer and smell nicer.” First prize earns $200 cash and bragging rights.

Cowles happily reveals that Shelburne Orchards charges more for pick-your-own apples ($1 a pound) than other local orchards, but he quickly adds that there are special deals. Carefully chosen drops cost much less — though don’t cheat, because Cowles can tell by looking at the stem if it has just been removed from the branch.

Near the end of the harvest season is Senior Citizens Day, when seniors (“anyone who thinks they’re old enough”) can buy $10 bushels. On Truckload Saturday, people can carry away drops by the truckload for $50 to make applesauce, share with neighbors, or use for cider. The same day, folks can also fill jugs or carboys with a special apple cider mixture for hard cider. People can also purchase Zesty Ginger Jack, concentrated cider infused with freshly grated ginger.

Two couples provide most of the labor for Shelburne Orchards. Terry Hotaling is Cowles’ right-hand man, who clambers into the trees to prune them during the winter. He showed up in 1977 as part of a pruning crew traveling New England who was tired of life on the road. “We’ve worked together for 35 years now. We’re like brothers,” Cowles says. “If he quit, I would probably quit, too.”

Hotaling recalls his early days living at the orchard in a little camper heated by propane, with an extension cord for electricity. Now he lives in Burlington with Megan Humphrey, who came aboard as the orchard publicist and festival organizer nine years ago. “I am really more like Nick’s handler,” she says, laughing.

Tina Freeman and Rob Healy arrived as traveling gypsies at harvest time 14 years ago. Now they live in an apartment above the doughnut house, although they also sail and have their Airstream “land yacht,” as Cowles puts it. Freeman runs the store and doughnut production, while Healy’s name changes to “Carboy” when he fills containers with hard cider.

The farm uses minimal pesticides, but it is no longer organic. During the harvest season — September and October — over 30 people work there. The eight-week, 14-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week “crazy time” pulls in all the money that needs to last the rest of the year. No one needs to perform the “factory work” of packing apples in the winter any more. They’re all gone.

“We’re totally done by Halloween,” says Cowles, “so I’m free to run my still and practice my mandolin. I’m excited every day when I get up.” •

Nick’s Mom’s Apple Betty

Because Business People-Vermont is so careful with its ethics, this writer must reveal that he, too, has been roped in by Nick Cowles. Inspired by his Portuguese stills, I sang “Copper Kettle” to him, and he’s promised to let me sing it some day with the Meatpackers. I arrived at the orchard for the interview just as the sour cherry season was ending. He helped me pick two bags and sent me off with recipes for a sour cherry pie and cherry cordial. It took a long time to pit those cherries, but the pie was worth it. The cordial is brewing. — M.P.

8 Vermont McIntosh apples

1/4 cup maple syrup

Cinnamon, nutmeg, and
allspice to taste

9 graham crackers (1 package)

1 stick melted butter

1 cup brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350º F. In a casserole dish, add peeled, cored, and chunked apples. Add maple syrup and spices. Mix and set aside. Mix graham crackers, melted butter, and brown sugar. Make sure that your hands are clean, then crumble it all together. Pat the crumb mixture over the apples.

Bake for 35–40 minutes or until apples bubble up through and crust is golden brown. Serve hot with vanilla ice cream. •