Bob Sewall’s Lincolnville farm — Maine’s oldest organic apple orchard — is his life’s passion and a wellspring of innovation.
By Will Grunewald
Photographed by Molly Haley
From our October 2017 issue.
Bob Sewall, owner of Lincolnville’s Sewall Orchard, stands outside his barn on a cool autumn morning, eyeing a glass of cider. In the slant of early light, the freshly pressed juice shimmers amber and gold, and even though it’s unfiltered, it has not a hint of cloudiness.
“Good, traditional cider is clear,” says Sewall, who runs Maine’s oldest certified organic orchard. “When you go to a store and it just looks brown, with a lot of sediment in the bottom, that’s because the apples were breaking down. Fresh apples hold together — you only get the juice out.”
Not only is Sewall’s cider fresh, it’s also unpreserved and unpasteurized. Preservatives, he says, mess with the natural flavor. And for 40 years, he’s been asserting a maxim that’s suddenly trendy among the juice-bar hipsters, that pasteurization wipes out too many beneficial microbes and vitamins. So when FDA officials came knocking several years ago and told him he had to start pasteurizing if he wanted to keep wholesaling, he told them he’d rather just stop doing wholesale.
“I’ve been called inflexible,” he laughs. “But it’s what’s right for my environment and for what I’m trying to create here.”
That inflexibility extends to his understanding of what organic farming means. The USDA requires organic growers to eschew synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, but for Sewall, the USDA standards don’t go far enough. For instance, federal rules require that fields transitioning from conventional to organic methods go through a three-year waiting period before getting the “certified organic” appellation, whereas Sewall’s land had been the site of low-impact farming for decades, well before there were official organic standards. And while other organic farms can have organic fields almost side-by-side with conventional fields, Sewall’s property is buffered on both sides by dense woods.
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Sewall Orchard’s organic apples find their way into value-added products like cider and vinegar. Visit sewallorchard.com for info about picking your own apples this fall and watching the cider press at work.
Sewall grew up in Waterville in the ’50s and ’60s. Early on, he struggled to read and write and didn’t talk much. In second grade, he found out he had dyslexia, still a little-understood and rarely diagnosed disorder then. “A lot of people just called you lazy,” he recalls, “even though you actually had to work twice as hard.” Years of tutoring and speech therapy followed.
After high school, he studied art history at Colby College. Upon graduating in 1973, he went to work for a landscaper and soon wound up in stonemasonry, but his main interest was agriculture. Sewall’s dad, a doctor, had expressed early alarm about links between antibiotic use in livestock and antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, and his concerns got Sewall thinking about farming and chemicals. He bought a small woodlot in Lincolnville and started organic gardening. He built a hut but didn’t have running water, electricity, or a road. In winter, he skied in and out.
In 1978, Sewall bought an adjacent hayfield and pasture from a farmer named Viljo Masalin, a son of Finnish immigrants. At the time, Sewall’s reading list included the likes of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and back-to-the-land bible Mother Earth News. When he decided to start an organic orchard, one UMaine Extension employee told him it couldn’t be done — an orchard needed chemicals to survive.
Masalin became Sewall’s mentor. A sauna on the property still reminds of his influence. Sewall would help Masalin harvest potatoes, and Masalin would rent Sewall his tractor on the cheap. Masalin had inherited the land and knew its history: Sewall’s field had been plowed, limed, and fertilized every seven years, but was otherwise untouched. “I didn’t have to worry about lead, arsenic, and all of that in conventional orchards,” Sewall says, which jibed with his ideas about “soils-up organics”: that organics should be about the whole biome, with beneficial insects and microorganisms able to thrive.
For two years, Sewall prepped the soil with compost. When he finally planted, he chose standard-size trees for their durability, even though dwarf varieties are more popular for ease of picking and trimming. He was 30 at the time and wanted his trees to last him into retirement. “An orchard isn’t just something you can start from nothing and then make a living off of overnight,” he says. “It’s probably the most long-term investment of any form of farming there is.”
Sewall’s barn is nestled into the side of 1,065-foot Levenseller Mountain. Dense rows of apple trees flank the quarter-mile drive, reminiscent of the stately cypresses that line narrow lanes to hilltop vineyards in Provence. “I love trees,” Sewall says, looking out at his neatly ordered grove of Primas, Golden Delicious, Priscillas, and Jonagolds. “I love pruning them, planting them, dealing with the soil.”
In all, Sewall has some 500 trees. Year to year, the harvest varies — in 2012 he lost the whole crop when a warm March, followed by a cold snap, killed the buds. One way to counter unpredictability is to produce value-added products. Organic growing, on its own, adds value. Making cider adds more. But after the dust-up with the FDA ended Sewall’s wholesale cider business, sales dropped from about 600 to 200 gallons per week. So he’s changed course, focusing now on cider vinegar. While he can sell cider for about $8.75 per gallon, he can sell vinegar for $19 per gallon. Plus, vinegar doesn’t need to be pasteurized for wholesale.
In the barn, a conveyor drops apples into a large grinder, the rumble of which drowns out conversation. The grinder extrudes a mash that’s basically applesauce, which gets pumped onto cloth-lined wooden racks. The racks are stacked atop each other on a hydraulic press, and the press slowly squeezes out the juice. Five to six bushels produce 15 to 20 gallons, and Sewall does about 250 gallons a day, 150 of which go into fermentation barrels to become vinegar. Three years later, he has vinegar that’s matured to his liking.
Good cider vinegar, he says, possesses healthful qualities. He recommends it for killing toenail fungus and aiding digestion — plus it’s great in salad dressings and marinades (in Portland, Vinland chef David Levi and Fore Street chef Sam Hayward are fans of Sewall’s vinegar). He has plans to start adding flower essences to his vinegars, another way of adding value and, Sewall says, more health benefits. “If you need to calm down, you could have daffodil in your vinegar,” he says. “Or if you needed vigor, there’d be dandelion.”
Even as Sewall continues to expand his product line, the 67-year-old has an eye toward scaling back his workload, especially now that he has a reliable crew, many of whom return year after year. But it’s tough getting him to follow through on plans to slow down, says Sewall’s wife, Mia Mantello, a therapist. This past year, for instance, he built two new Airbnb apartments above the cider barn, in addition to refurbishing one above an older barn.
“If he forgets to brag about himself, just let me know,” Mantello says, before hopping in her car and heading to work. “The thing that’s most notable to me is that one person did all this. It’s not like he had five sons to help him out, and it’s not like he was a trust-fund fellow who could idle away his days building a farm — he was already working full-time as a mason while creating this place. He’s a pretty tireless guy.”