A friendly banter fills the quiet evening as people gather in the yard. Some have remembered to bring bags. Others forgot. Gravel crunches as someone walks up the driveway toward the group. Kids munch on apples from brown lunch sacks labeled “Tasty Treats,” in black marker.
“I just need about five pounds of pie apples,” says Anne Haynes, who has her pie crust waiting in the freezer.
Judith James sets a box of apples on the ground for customers to sort through. They are the windfall apples, ones that fell to the ground but are still good for making sauces or canning. As hands reach in for the rosy pinks and greens, James holds one up.
“This is a Vista Bella,” she says. Her words are quiet, almost reverent. “It’s the most aromatic apple you can imagine. And it’s delicious.”
There are sighs of appreciation as the apple is passed around and its perfume is inhaled.
“What makes it smell so good?” someone asks.
James looks up from her sorting. The fall sunlight shines through alder leaves, onto the box of apples and the women gathered around it.
Her voice rings with quiet assurance, “God.”
Judith James sells apples from her driveway, by the box and the bag. Twenty-three hundred pounds at last count. Early Macintosh, Lowland and Red Duchess, to name just a few.
Who would have guessed? Certainly not James.
The former homesteader grew up 12 miles out East End Road in the 1950s and moved back to Homer in 2002, after a 30-year hiatus.
“Back in those days, of course there wasn’t even a road, and we didn’t have running water or electricity,” she says. “We just got by with potatoes and carrots and peas and that kind of thing. We never dreamed that anyone could grow apples.”
Now James tends three orchards that produce Homer-grown, organic apples at an increasing rate.
High tunnel? No.
Tucked on a ridge off McLay Road there is an almost secret garden. A 10-foot-high fence surrounds its grass pathways and sloped rows of trees. Above the wide metal gate a wooden sign says “Fruktträdgård,” literally “fruit garden,” in Swedish.
After moving back to Homer James met a fellow who told her he had an orchard four miles out East End. She thought he was crazy.
When she saw the orchard, James says she had the same reaction everyone does — awe and amazement. The terraced garden, filled with apple trees, berry bushes, an arctic kiwi and even a pear tree, also has a panoramic view of Kachemak Bay and the Homer Spit.
That “fellow” was Dr. Walter Johnson. He planted the orchard in 2000 while in his late 70s. The story goes that a friend had been driving back and forth along the Homer bench, looking for a place to plant a few apple trees he had been nurturing at the Wagon Wheel. He drove up McLay to Johnson’s house and knocked on the door.
“Walter,” he said, “You’ve gotta grow apples.”
James says that Johnson always makes the joke that he went from being a doctor of medicine to a doctor of pomology — grower of apples.
At age 92, Johnson is no longer able to work in the orchard, but his contributions to Alaska reach back much farther. As she speaks of Johnson’s accomplishments, James’ voice conveys her deep respect, admiration — and love. She married “that fellow” almost 10 years ago.
As one of two doctors serving Bethel in the mid 1950s, Johnson had the idea to train local people to be primary care providers in the villages. Out of this concept came the Community Health Aide program (CHAP) — which has been successful across Alaska and replicated around the United States and other countries.
Johnson became the medical director of the Alaska Native Medical Center in the 1960s, where he was later the Chief of Medicine. While in that position, Johnson, along with other team members, was instrumental in bringing tuberculosis under control in Alaska, said James. Because of his work with TB in Alaska, he was invited to help set up TB monitoring and programs with the Peace Corps in Tunisia and Ethiopia.
In addition to what she refers to as “Walter’s orchard,” James has another orchard one road over, as well as a small one by the house. Among the three orchards there are 89 fruit trees — 46 varieties of apple, as well as 12 cherry, two plum, two pear and one apricot.
Harvest, prune, graft and thin. So the cycle goes throughout the year.
“There is a real special relationship that one develops with plants, and especially with trees,” says James. “I’ve learned sort of the structure of the tree, where it wants to grow, and where it needs to be cut back.”
As the orchard produces more apples, and requires more work, James said she would love to have someone apprentice with her. She has considered the WWOOFer program, (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) but would prefer someone local to whom she could pass on her knowledge.
Next year, she would like to sell apples at the Homer Farmers Market, instead of having people drive all the way to her house. To help get the word out, Kyra Wagner, with Sustainable Homer, announces apple sales through the Sustainable Homer Facebook page.
One customer who saw the announcement was Sharon Roufa, who co-owns Two Sisters Bakery with Carri Thurmon. She called up James and ordered some apples, 60 pounds so far, with another 30 on the way.
The bakery has used them in muffins, scones and pastry filling, as well as for apple bruschetta and with pork loins at dinnertime.
“They’re just really delicious apples,” says Roufa, who adds Two Sisters definitely will use them again next year.
Until next year, though, James will finish the season from her driveway, where she quietly shares the fruits of her labor with delighted locals.
Editor’s Note: The next apple sale will be from 4-6 p.m. Oct. 8 at the top of McLay Road. Follow the signs at the top.
Toni Ross is a freelance writer who lives in Homer.
(“Fruit garden,” in Swedish)
Upper orchard: Fenced and planted in 2000, 70 x 90 feet.
Lower orchard: Planted in the mid-1990s, 25 x 25 feet.
Judith James’ orchard: Fenced and planted from 2007, 120 x 35 feet.
Total weighed production as of Sept. 27: 2,330 pounds. There are 16 trees left to pick, with another 1,000 pounds of apples expected.
Next apple sale: 4-6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8
Where: At the top of McLay Road. Follow the signs at the top.
For more information: Stay updated on apple sales through the Sustainable Homer Facebook page, www.facebook.com/groups/HomerGreen/