Musgrave Orchard is more than a place with great apples for sale. It is a way of life for Amy and Andy Hamilton, who make sure it is more than just a down-to-earth grocery store. They have created a place where the community can eat, socialize, learn and take a second to breathe.
“November is the middle of the winter share craze,” says Amy, who has owned Musgrave with her husband Andy since 2002. The intensity lasts 10 weeks, starting in mid- October and ending shortly before Christmas, when the Hamiltons wrap up farming until March.
The couple spend many sleepless weeks with 15-hour work days. And each has had moments when the thought of picking up and moving their daughters Grace and Willa to Arizona sounded ideal. But they realized they wouldn’t live any other way.
“This isn’t just a winter orchard anymore, this is where people come to get their food,” Amy says. “It has been a taproot into the community for its localness. It’s turning into the old market where people come up here and get their beans.”
The Musgrave Orchard “office” looks like a small house from the outside, but inside it is one big room. Barrels of pink lady and Winesap apples, Indiana corn, garlic and jars of jam are lined up in the middle of the room, each color more vivid than the produce next to it. The boarded floor is embellished with baskets of gourds and pumpkins peeking over the sides. Scarves and hats handmade by a local mother and daughter sit in a basket. Seven-year-old, home-schooled Grace excitedly told me the dried peppers dangling from the ceiling come from a retired schoolteacher named George.
The wall behind the register is painted light green with a mural of a red apple. Amy says a friend whipped it out one day, and she plans on painting the rest of the room. On the other side of the back wall is an apple cider bar, which explains the smell traveling around the room.
Before taking over Musgrave Orchard, the Hamiltons gardened, landscaped, grew fruits and vegetables for the Bloomington Farmers’ Market and helped others prep the soil for their gardens. In 2002, Robert Musgrave, the orchard's previous owner, offered the couple an apprenticeship to press cider, lead school tours and basically run the place. After a year, Amy and Andy bought the him out on contract.
They joined Community Shared Agriculture (CSA), a community of people who support individual farms so they become community farms. Growers and consumers provide support and share the risks and benefits of the food produced.
The season after the Hamiltons took over, their apple cider was awarded the best in Indiana by the Indiana Horticultural Congress. After that, their future became clear; stumbling upon the orchard was no accident.
Bundled in a red winter jacket, Amy carries two cups of cider to the small wooden table covered with coloring books, crayons and paintbrushes, and sits down. Steam rises from the cider, not because it is too hot, but because the air inside is so cold. Her red-framed glasses and blue winter hat add character to her warm smile and face, which bears not a hint of makeup.
Amy breastfeeds Willa, sips her cider and explains how families buy shares at the beginning of the summer for 10 weeks and come to the Orchard every Saturday to fill up their baskets. They walk around, picking whatever they wish to fill their share: turnips, kale, collards, apples, winter squash, potatoes, parsley and, in the summer, yogurt and cheese.
With summer being the busiest time, the 120 families have the option of collecting on Wednesdays or Saturdays. Andy delivers food during those three months, which can take up to three hours and are limited in an effort to save gas. In the future, the Hamiltons hope to have a drop-off center in town.
When Amy and Andy press cider, it takes all day, sometimes until 1 in the morning. During the thick of the season, the pair put in 17-18 hour days. On these crazy days, Amy says lines form from the cash register to the garage, the floor shakes, there are no parking spots anywhere, and Amy and Andy run on fumes. But the hardest part is closing the door at night.
Amy says she is amazed when their customers, who would probably be complaining if they were in a grocery store, wait patiently as their filled baskets pull on their shoulders. Amy attributes the calm to their need for tradition in a crazy world and a place where credit cards aren’t accepted.
A shareholder at Musgrave Orchard, Barbara Ann O’Leary moved to Bloomington from New Jersey, where she was part of a CSA. She joined the Hamiltons’ CSA four years ago during their second season. O’Leary loves that they help her understand the spontaneous relationship with food in a relaxed and friendly way.
“You aren’t buying a quantity, you are purchasing the support of the farm,” she says. “In the first few weeks there isn’t much grown yet, but in the middle of the summer there is so much you can’t carry it all. That’s how nature works.”
With Grace behind the register watching a football game on a TV, Amy stands and slides a sleeping Willa from her breast into a sling. Ceramics made by local artists rattle on the shelves as she walks toward the newly fixed door on her way to the cider mill.
Outside on the porch, she spies a box of turnips, which a neighbor had dropped off. She boasts how perfect they are. Gently, she brags about the new porch on the side of the orchard, which was her husband’s creation.
“Andy built this in September, and by the end of the month there were 12 families hanging out there on the weekends, it was amazing,” she says.
Around the back, Amy opens the hatch to the CSA cooler and walks in. It is warmer than the air inside the building. She checks on the few dozen sweet potatoes and opens a bag of bright red radishes and choy. She then walks to the shed that houses the cider mill.
To make cider, the apples are first washed, and, after Amy and Andy pick out the bad ones, they are crushed on a large, steep mill. The apples fall down, and the mush is put on large swaths of pantyhose-like material, which are stacked to allow juice to seep through and collect in a large basin below. The apple mush is thrown away for now, but someday Amy would like to make paper with it.
The Hamiltons’ customers are much more than once-a-week passersby who collect food. They have seen Amy pregnant and have watched Grace grow. Amy gives almost daily school tours of the orchard.
“I am amazed that about 60 percent of students don’t know food grows from the ground and not the produce section at Kroger’s,” Amy says without a hint of judgment. “I am able to show parents from New Jersey who have dropped their kid off at IU and never been off campus what Bloomington’s soil and residents have the ability to create.”
Amy and Andy didn’t grow up as farmers. Amy grew up in northern Indiana and attended IU-Bloomington, where she majored in outdoor education resource management and met Andy.
After he graduated, Andy followed Amy to Colorado, where she lived in the mountains and led canyon hikes. He lived by the water and led rafting tours on the Arkansas River.
At that time, Amy says she was a “runner,” never lasting in a town longer than a few weeks. Restless, she returned to Bloomington five months later. When Andy followed, they married and started their family.
Although Amy knew she would end up doing something outdoors, becoming a farmer wasn’t anything she or her teacher parents had imagined. Her folks weren’t thrilled when she told them of her unconventional plans with Musgrave Orchard. But sure about what she wanted, she convinced them that this was going to be her life, and she wasn’t running anymore.
Today, the Hamiltons receive help farming from friends, Andy’s parents who live in Bloomington, and Teresa Birtles of Heartland Farm, with whom Amy and Andy have had a shared partnership in CSA for five years.
“The partnership involves the three of them sitting down to decide who will grow what,” Birtles explains, “One of them may have better produce or more quantity than the other, and we use what’s best.”
The CSA movement, Amy believes, has brought Bloomington together. Just as the community supports the farmers, the farmers support the community.
"This isn’t just a winter orchard anymore, this is where people come to get their food."
- Amy Hamilton
In the near future, Amy says she and Andy hope to apply for non-profit status so they can receive grants for their growing. This will allow them to turn the orchard into an educational entity and teach others how to garden. They will continue to grow food for customers but will also lead garden workshops. A grant would allow them to give food to people who can’t afford to purchase shares.
Amy stresses that she and Andy aren’t in the agriculture business for profit. They are in it so they can provide their neighbors with food, and in return get great turnips from the garden next door and a winter hat from the lady in town. They are in it for the sense of community it gives them and the people who support them.
As O’Leary put it, “I can really feel their heart is in it to make peoples’ lives more connected to what is nourishing them instead of something that is shipped from halfway across the world.”
Musgrave Orchard is a family-run business that is challenging, hard, and absolutely wonderful, according to Amy. As she wraps both hands around her third cup of apple cider, she inhales the steam and says, “I could sit around and drink this all day.”
Jessica Goldberg can be reached at .