By Patricia Guthrie
For the Bellingham Business Journal
Pruning, picking and packing nearly 32 acres of apples makes for long days and hard work for John and Dorie Belisle, a former Florida couple who decided to turn a chunk of fertile valley soil into an orchard near Lynden 20 years ago.
They quickly learned that apple season is gone in a flash.
“Two months, it’s over,” says John Belisle as he gives a tour of perfectly aligned rows and rows of trees laden with 21 varieties of apples — many of them grafted into unique blends.
Called BelleWood Acres, at 6140 Guide Meridian in Lynden, six miles outside of Bellingham, the farm has become a popular year-round destination for families wanting to ride the “Apple Bin Express,” an eight-seat bin cart ride pulled by a bright blue tractor, and for it’s mosaic of fall colors come to life on pumpkin, squash, sunflower and corn fields.
Apples growing on this side of the Cascades? It’s the other side of the mountains — in Eastern Washington — where apples, cherries, apricots, peaches and many other fruit grow by the tens of thousands of acres because the climate is drier and hotter.
But there is one apple variety called Jonagold that grows well in cooler climates.
From that one variety, the Belisles struck gold, so to speak — or at least decided to try their hand as small-acreage fruit farmers. “Eastern Washington was looking for Jonagold growers on the west side of Washington because Jonagolds like the maritime climate we have here,” Dorie Belisle explained. “We had packing houses that wanted our fruit so we decided to learn how to be the best grower around.”
Car parts to apple crates
Former owners of an automobile repair shop in Florida, Dorie and John Belisle moved to Washington with four adult children who soon followed various pursuits and careers of their own.
In 1995, the couple purchased a 30-acre former dairy farm and planted their orchard. The next year, they converted a 10-acre grass field into a high density Jonagold block (780 trees per acre). Five more acres were planted with Jonagolds in 1998 and in 2000, 8 acres were planted with Honeycrisp, another cool-climate apple.
They added a 10-acre Jonagold orchard in 2003 and then purchased a 17-acre plot to take a giant “gamble” and leap from largely wholesale into a retail roadside destination. In 2012, 10 years after first selling their fruit to the public from a one-bay garage, the couple opened the new BelleWood Acres — a cavernous 14,000 square-foot red barn-shaped building that holds a cafe, country store and distillery. It’s part outdoor apple playground that features fruit-picking, outdoor games and entertainment, and a place to set down, relax at the picnic tables and order from the Country Cafe. (Be sure to try your hand at the “corn cannon” that shoots ears of corn off into the great yonder and at tire targets).
The farm has grown over the years to 61 acres total, half planted with apple trees, and to 25 year-round employees with an additional 40 hired during harvest season, which peaks in October. Seasonal activities and sales — such as Christmas trees and wreaths — keep BelleWood Acres hopping during Thanksgiving and Christmas, while beautiful blossoms are featured in spring and early summer.
Needing steady year-round income, the Belisles decided to diversify three years ago. Today, a tasting room and distillery are a four-season draw for the over-21 crowd wanting to belly up at BelleWood Distilling, the farm’s liquor-making operation. While sipping shots at the bar, visitors learn how BelleWood apples end up in bottles of vodka, gin, brandy and it’s newest liquid creation, pumpkin spice liqueur.
“It takes 30 pounds of apples to make a fifth (bottle of liquor),” Dorie Belisle says as she deftly pours a small shot of gin for a customer. (Ask for the recipe and she’ll hand you a small tray of seven botanical herbs, including juniper, angelica root and orange peel to sniff and whiff. But she won’t reveal in what proportions the potions are infused into the liquor.) “We worked on getting this mix right for months,” she says.
“The recycling unit”
Head distiller Jesse Parker describes distilling as a natural extension of fruit orchards. “They’re like the recycling unit on a farm. Whatever you have left over, you turn it into spirits,” says Parker, 24, who was hired to help launch BelleWood Distilling.
For instance, it takes 250 pounds of raspberries to make 100 gallons of flavored vodka and 3,300 pounds of apples to make 28 gallons of brandy. All that fruity mash is brewed in two beautiful 150-gallon copper stills, handmade by Vendome Copper and Brass Works in Kentucky, and then bottled in a small warehouse behind the tasting bar. Both the Belisles and Parker, a communications major in college, learned the spirit business through workshops, hands-on training and American Distillers Institute’s conferences and classes.
BelleWood Distilling sells three vodkas, two brandies, one gin and a pumpkin spice liqueur.
“We’re always perfecting,” Parker said, adding that he’s sure to write down any tinkering that goes in the tanks — a lesson learned the hard way. “When we distilled our first batch of gin, we added random amounts of several ingredients,” he recalled.
“People loved it and we sold 400 bottles. But we really didn’t know how to make it again. We tried and tried but we never could repeat it exactly.”
The vapor-infused recipe they eventually settled upon (and keep in a top-secret location) seems good enough. On the rocks or with a little tonic and lime, BelleWood Gin is the company’s top seller and has won five gold awards for small-batch craft distilling. In its first years, the distillery already has been awarded medals from American Distilling Institute and National Beverage Tasting Institute.
Matches made in heaven
Lined up in the cafe are boxes and boxes of “Grandma’s Handmade U-Bake pies” — apple, blackberry, blueberry, strawberry/rhubarb and honey-roasted peanut butter chocolate silk. The grandma behind the name is the mother of Dorie Belisle who “baked all the time” to keep 10 kids happy.
Visitors also line up to taste another BelleWood treat — honey roasted peanut butter — patted onto slices of apples, of course. Those free samples pay off. John Belisle says his farm sells some 12 tons of peanut butter annually. Their apples, peanut butter and other products are sold in local grocery stores and farmers’ markets.
Apples and peanut butter are “a match made in heaven,” he said, a lesson learned from being members of the North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association and by taking one of its annual farm tours. Other homemade apple products for sale: apple vinegar, crisp apple chips, hard cider, apple sauce, caramel apples, apple syrup and three types of fresh apple cider. The orchard also supplies five local school districts with small apples called School House Red.
Many banquets and special events, such as weddings, art shows, fundraisers and company picnics are also held at BelleWood Acres throughout the year. Weekend events often feature singers, bonfires, barbecues and seasonal themes, such as a Father’s Day car show or a benefit for “hard-working honey bees.”
School kids, church and senior groups often tour the farm, weaving in and out of orchard trees and taking in the view of the white-capped Mount Baker on the horizon. Including the community and sustaining the farm’s rich soil, stream water and natural beauty are themes the Belisles have emphasized since planting their first trees in 1996. “Everything is done with the philosophy of strong community and responsible farming,” John Belisle said. Adds Dorie: “We know we would not be here without the support of the entire community. We so appreciate them. We try and share the farm, our local authentic products and provide lots of education.”
Harvesting 25,000 trees, 35,000 gallons of cider
On a sparkling fall day, the blue tractor cruises past the hues of autumn — yellow corn fields and sky-high rows of bobbing sunflowers, the greens of gourds and the orange blobs of the huge U-Pick Pumpkin Patch.
The tractor and train stop to unload visitors and they’re off to pick their own red and green gems from some 25,000 trees loaded with 21 different variety of apples. Annually, the farm sells 1.7 million pounds of apples, and 35,000 gallons of cider. A “ripening calendar” on the farm’s website charts the harvest season, recommending what apples are ripe for picking when and how to best use them.
For example, the season begins in late August with Gravensteins that make “terrific sauce or pie apple” and ends in late October with a variety called BelleWood Prince that is a “pleasing mix of sweet and tart and all-around versatile apple.” The heirloom Mountain Rose is billed as a “tart taste with a long-lasting shelf life.”
A long shelf life, just what these apple entrepreneurs have grown.
If you go
BelleWood Acres in Lynden has become a year-round destination. It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information, go to www.bellewoodfarms.com or call 360-318-7720.