The Good Earth
Taking in a fraction of New Mexico's orchard bounty
As I drove south out of Albuquerque, hot air balloons rose up into my rearview mirror. The biting cold of the previous October night still carried on the air, though the sunshine was already thawing night into morning when I arrived in Bosque Farms at the storefront of Hays Honey & Apple Farm (400 Esperanza). As I pulled into the dirt lot, Sherry Hays was just hanging up the “open” sign.
For 25 years Sherry and her husband, head beekeeper and grower Ken, have tended an apple orchard and cared for many thriving colonies of honey bees. It wasn't until Ken retired that he finally had the time to tend the trees and bees that he'd always loved—now at the age of 78, he hasn't slowed down at all. The Hays apple orchard offered up a literal bucketful of apple varieties—ranging in color from pale green-yellow to the deepest of reds—some squat, some tall, some perfectly round. Though late frosts in the spring led the Hays to doubt whether they'd have apples at all this fall, they are still harvesting a bounty of Stark Crimson, Winesap, Granny Smith, Blushing Golden, Braeburn and Rome Beauties, all of which are available for $1.25/pound. Hays doesn't offer u-pick, but Sherry walked me out to the giant cooler behind the storefront and opened the door on thousands of apples—plucked from boughs high and low, ready to be enjoyed. She explained which varieties are best for pies, for cider and for eating, handing me apples of every species to try. Before we were done, I had an armful of half-eaten fruit. Sherry's personal favorite—the Blushing Golden variety—is a pale greenish yellow with a soft texture and sweet skin. After sampling half a dozen types, the Stark Crimson emerged as my preferred varietal—exceedingly sweet with firm flesh—it seemed ideal for any application, from snacking to baking.
But it's really the honey that the Hays are most proud of, and Sherry was happy to share her wealth of knowledge. She pulled up a chair for me behind the counter next to her stool and described the trials of both honey bee populations and their stewards in New Mexico. “We used to be able to rely on alfalfa and salt cedar for our bees,” she explained, but with the rise of GMO alfalfa and a push to eradicate the invasive salt cedar tree, those reliable nectar sources are no longer an option in our area. This, compounded by drought, led most of the Hays' bees to be relocated to Truth or Consequences, where they are strengthened by abundant water and pollination sources. Sherry took me into the farm's extraction room—where massive vats of honey waited to be bottled, and a giant mixer aerated honey into a dreamy spreadable consistency for their whipped honey. Currently, Hays offers mesquite, clover and wildflower honey, as well as propolis—a powerful anti-inflammatory anti-microbial compound made by bees from sap—beeswax, bee balm, candles and beekeeping supplies, some of which the Hays' children and grandchildren make. They also occasionally offer apitherapy to their patrons, a practice that involves using bee venom as medicine. Before I made my way to the door, arms overloaded with the total abundance of the Hays' small farm, Sherry and I meditated on the bucolic beauty of the farm and the work. “It's a good life,” Sherry said before I closed the screen door behind me.
The Costanza Orchard property is idyllic—bordered by horse pasture and purposefully manicured very little, the orchard is home to an abundance of birds, bees, dragonflies and other tiny creatures. As we paused to pick Winesaps, a monarch butterfly drifted past—the first I'd seen in New Mexico in some time.
From Bosque Farms I continued southward on NM-314 through Peralta and Los Lunas, to the outskirts of Belen and Costanza Orchard (5 Padilla). I drove a short way down a dirt road and made the lefthand turn onto the property that has been owned by the Costanza family for decades. Rufus and Margaret, the owners, greeted me at their pole barn and loaded me up with the necessary gear—that is, a bucket and long fruit picker for those inevitably out of reach, but perfect, treetop apples. Rufus and I then set out on a tour of the more than 1,000 trees on the property, while his old dog, Whitey, trailed far behind us on the dirt path. Golden Delicious and Red Delicious were first on our itinerary. As Rufus plucked a stout Red Delicious from a high bough for me to try, I had to remark that it was unlike any of that variety I'd ever had from a supermarket. “That's an orchard Red Delicious,” Rufus remarked. “It's a whole different thing.” Also on tap at Costanza Orchard are Winesaps and a curious species called the Arkansas Black. Rufus shined one on his pant leg and held it to the sunlight—its deep auburn color shone almost black. “We call them Sleeping Beauty apples,” Rufus said as he tossed it to me. It was unlike any apple I'd ever had before—extremely firm, its flesh slightly sweet, its skin wholly bitter.
The Costanza Orchard property is idyllic—bordered by horse pasture and purposefully manicured very little, the orchard is home to an abundance of birds, bees, dragonflies and other tiny creatures. As we paused to pick Winesaps, a monarch butterfly drifted past—the first I'd seen in New Mexico in some time. And Rufus was the kind of humble, gracious person that I immediately felt at ease with as he detailed the evolution of the orchard in recent years. Previously the domain of older women, who gathered bushels of apples for their empanadas and dumplings, Rufus has now noticed the orchard is attracting an onslaught of “Googlers,” as he called them (us?)--those who come apple picking for the experience rather than the economy of it. Rufus’ observation wasn't a judgment, though—again and again, he mentioned that his favorite part of stewarding the orchard is all the people he meets, from all walks of life. “What really makes it worth it is hearing all the laughter and conversation coming in from the orchard,” he explained as we returned to the barn to sort my apples.
As I climbed back into my car—now laden with 20-plus pounds of apples, a gallon of cider and a jar of honey—I made my way northward once more, mentally divvying up the apples I'd share with my friends. At each of my visits, I was shone great warmth and each of the farmers I spoke with meditated on the sweetness of their lives in the orchards and among the bees. And not just that—they were eager to share the bounty of their individual harvests. As I was leaving Costanza Orchard, out of the goodness of his heart, Rufus offered me a bag of Golden Delicious apples he had bagged himself. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Maggie,” he smiled, “they literally grow on trees.”