This story published in the Peninsula Clarion.
There are more than 7,500 varieties of apples, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Trying a new type of apple a day would take more than 20 years. But, Michael O’Brien has a head start.
On his Nikiski farm, O’Brien Garden and Trees, he’s experimented with nearly 500 different varieties of apples. He grows the apples both outside and inside high tunnels.
O’Brien doesn’t come from a farming family, but he said he was born to do it.
“I think I was just born into it — not that it’s been in my family for generations — it’s just something I’ve always been interested in, ever since I was really small,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien was a master carpenter before he got his hands in the dirt. He started growing fruit trees in the ‘70s but moved to Nikiski shortly after to expand his property. In Nikiski, he built a homestead and a small orchard, which has now expanded to over 10 acres of orchards, fields and high tunnels.
While they focus on apples, O’Brien Garden and Trees grows a hefty list of fruits and vegetables, including pears, rhubarb, raspberries, gooseberries, ornamental trees, strawberries, red and black currants, blueberries, tomato, cucumber, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, beets, turnips, onions, garlic and much more.
“We’re so far beyond apples at this point,” O’Brien said. “We haven’t done a very good job promoting that.”
As a first-generation farmer, O’Brien said he likes to experiment with new plants and learn along the way.
“The mistakes we’ve made are generally done in duplicate, and in mass quantity,” O’Brien said. “A lot of the pitfalls have already occurred and we’re moving on from those.”
The farm is really a family affair. O’Brien’s daughter, Michelle LaVigueur, said that as a second generation farmer she’s got it made.
“(The farm) is already ready for me,” LaVigueur said.
A sure sign of fall is the annual O’Brien apple tasting events, which have been happening for over 25 years, O’Brien said. Although recently, O’Brien admits that folks get to try a lot more than apples.
“We’ve sort of changed it from apple tastings to fruit tastings,” O’Brien said. “We’ve expanded so much.”
There are two more apple tastings this year that will include nearly 30 varieties of apples and other fruit. The Sept. 16 tasting will feature seasonal cherries and the Oct. 7 tasting will include plums.
“We try to keep it limited because after a while people get apple-ed out and all the apples begin to taste the same,” O’Brien said. “We want (visitors) to make it through the total amount of apples that we offer because we want them to fill out an evaluation sheet to tell us what the majority of people liked.”
For LaVigueur, the apple tastings bring her back to her childhood, even though the event has expanded significantly since the early 90s.
“We’ve been doing these tastings since I was a little girl,” LaVigueur said. “When the farm was back at the homesite, and we were just doing the outside apples, we would do tastings for the public. They’ve definitely gotten lot bigger. Last year we did a tasting and it was raining, but we probably got about 75 people.”
LaVigueur said their largest tasting event last year was attended by over 200 people. She said they are hoping to offer people a chance to make memories and a product they can’t find in any store.
“It’s just not me doing this because I enjoy it,” O’Brien said. “It’s for the people on the whole peninsula, and in the whole state. It pretty much affects everyone. (The farm) really means family. My children all had their certain trees. When I’m gone Michelle will offer the same thing to her children. It’s something that is lifelong. It’s not a toy. It means something to (people that visit) because of the memories they shared.”
And for O’Brien, working his farm comes down to passion and legacy.
“These trees will outlive us,” O’Brien said. “There are a lot of rewards, but as a farm, it’s never about the money.”
People can visit with the O’Brien’s and purchase produce and trees at their U-Pick events at 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, at the Farmer’s Fresh Market from 3 – 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11. They will also have a booth set up at the Kenai Visitors Center from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. on Saturdays through September. Catch the farm set up at the Harvest Moon Local Food Festival from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 15 in Soldotna Creek Park.
Their tastings will be at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 16 and then on Oct. 7. Check their Facebook page for updated information on the Oct. 7 tasting. The tastings are $5 for adults, and $3 for children 12 and younger.
O’Brien will also be also be conducting a workshop for the Central Peninsula Garden Club at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, Peninsula Church, 44175 K-Beach Road.