Blood, sweat and tears. That is what the orchard bees are after, and there's plenty of it to go around. For Andy, Amy, Grace and Willa it comes with the territory. They are the Hamilton family - the owners of Musgrave Orchard and the suppliers of fresh produce to the Bloomington community.
Day in and day out they work with one another. Pressing cider, selling goods, picking vegetables and taking care of animals mark
the minutes and hours on the clock.
Their goal is simple, and, as Andy likes to put it, they are "just trying to keep an old business alive."
Since the 1930s, the days have been long and the hours have been short for those who work at Musgrave Orchard. Lester Musgrave originally owned the farm during the Great Depression. Eventually, his son Robert gained control and sold the property to the Hamilton family four years ago.
Since they acquired the farm, the Hamiltons have joined a community-supported agriculture program. This program allows customers to buy shares of produce. Not only does this generate more money, but it also diversifies the orchard's crop.
Yet the orchard remains known for its apples and is currently home to nine different varieties. Another change they are in the process of completing is the move toward becoming organic, which requires farmers to refrain from using chemicals for a minimum of three years.
But with change, comes resistance and unexpected challenges. To put it bluntly, there is no such thing as a perfect organic apple.
Each member of the Hamilton family is responsible for a certain job on the farm, even Grace, whose head barely reaches the register. Andy oversees the pressing of apple cider while Amy takes care of the market and the two girls - 6-year-old Grace and 13-week-old Willa. Whenever someone needs help, there's always a helping hand.
But then again, that is what farming is all about according to the Hamilton family. When I first drove up to the orchard, located just off of Highway 37, Grace was leaning against a wooden beam on the front porch and followed me into the shop where Amy stood with Willa in a cotton sling across her chest. She was standing behind the register, watching and waiting for customers. Her hips slowly moved from side to
side as she rocked her youngest child.
As the greeter and caretaker, Amy's time is spent socializing, stocking goods and raising her two girls. She is a simple-looking woman with brunet hair and sun-kissed skin. Her eyes moved from one end of the shop to another. Left to right. Right to left. Constantly watching and making sure that Grace was still within reach and that customers hadn't snuck in the door without being properly greeted.
She touched on her family's background and how they came across the farm. Motioning with her hand around the room, she showed all that the orchard has to offer. The walls were decorated with various candles, bottles of honey and country crafts. Fresh produce occupied the bins located in the aisles.
"I don't know that we ever saw this, but this is what we've got, and it's good," she said. For Amy, farming has always been a part of her life. "My grandpa had an orchard and lots of truck patches. I'd pick his berries, and I'd help him press his cider. Wasn't as rigorous, but I think I've always been around the garden. It's just in my blood, I think."
Yet farming takes more than passion. There are challenges than cannot be predicted and struggles that come with every season. The hours are long and the days are hard.
"Some days are 15, 16 or 17 hour days," Amy explained. "School buses pass, people wind up around the building waiting to get their cider, and I still can't leave at 11:30 p.m. or 2 a.m."
This year's Easter freeze and the summer drought proved to be detrimental for the farm. The freeze destroyed a large percentage of buds on the apple trees, forcing Musgrave Orchard to import apples from northern Indiana in order to match the demand of its customers.
"Being a farmer you never know what tomorrow is - a drought, no apples," sighed Amy. "It's trying. But it's good, and when the leaves fall or change and the sprouts are coming up, you're connected and it feels good."
Grace ran toward her mother, picture in hand. "Look at the picture I drawed," she said. Amy replied, "You drew a lovely picture. Who is that? Johnny Appleseed?"
The multi-colored picture was torn from the pages of a coloring book. Johnny Appleseed looked more like a leprechaun than a farmer. Overhearing her mother talking about the farm, Grace chimed into the conversation.
"My goldfish sleeps on the back porch," she piped.
"She keeps herself busy," interrupted Amy.
"At least I feed him just a little bit sometimes," Grace muttered. "I watch him eat."
"He's surviving," laughed Amy.
"My grandma have horses also," Grace excitedly exclaimed. "She rided Misty one time. Misty is the momma and Suede is the brother of Chester and . . . "
Amy abruptly ended the conversation when she asked, "Grace, will you show . . . What is your name again? . . . Danielle down the driveway?"
Grace agreed and led me down the dusty gravel driveway to the barn behind the shop. Her fiery red hair glowed in the sun just like her father's. As we walked, she crinkled her freckled nose as if she were about to sneeze. I asked her if she disliked anything about the farm.
"Umm, well, nothing," she said. "I really like my pets. I like my goldfish, my cat and my dogs. I still love my one dog Blue Sunshine. It was my mom's idea to name her. But I really like border collies because she was a border collie. Now she's up in heaven."
At the barn, the scent of apples and sweat was overpowering. A pungent combination of mustiness and sweetness. From behind the machinery, Andy appeared. He saw that Grace had escorted me down the driveway, nodded at her and then watched as she ran away.
"Grace was 14 months old when we bought this orchard," remarked Andy. "She's grown up here. She really doesn't know much else than Musgrave Orchard."
The floor was caked with smashed apples the consistency of salmon patties. The cider pressing was complete. Next comes the bottling phase.
"This orchard was endangered and close to being abandoned six or seven years ago" Andy continued. "Amy and I were the last naive college students to come along and think that we could resurrect it."
Andy is a burly man with a wiry, thick red beard. His ponytail was separated that day into three sections with pink, yellow and blue bands. Bits of apple hung from his lip. His hands were sticky from the apple juice and his shirt was saturated across the front and under the arms.
He excused himself and began bottling the cider. Andy grabbed an empty plastic jug, held it up to a metal spout and filled it. Smack. Smack. He hit the plastic to make it pop out since they can't sell dented jugs.
Soon a coworker joined him. They formed an assembly line. Fill. Smack. Pass. Twist and cap. Crate. Fill. Smack. Pass. Twist and cap. Crate.
"Watch out for the bees," warned Andy. "They are going to get really bad here in a minute. They're out for blood, sweat, and tears."
Unlike Amy, Andy did not always want to become a farmer. While his grandfather used to farm on a small two-acre lot in southern \Bloomington, he never showed interest.
"By the time I was a teenager, I wasn't very into farming," he said. "I was more into playing sports and hanging out with my pals."
Yet as Andy grew older, he formed an appreciation for farming and the hard work his grandfather endured. With farming come certain challenges. Some were expected, others were not.
"You can't control your crop," Andy huffed. "It's like a science project in a way. You're always testing yourself. Testing your equipment and testing Mother Nature to see if you can keep up and make everything work out positive at the end of the year."
He took a long drink from an old, beaten-up jug, wiping droplets from his mouth and beard.
"It's something we haven't found yet," Andy explained. "It's our fourth year and we have yet to make any money running it. But we wouldn't trade it for anything."
Danielle Dravet can be reached at .