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Grey County is Apple-licious!

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By The Gremotraveler


It was a cool grey day when we first arrived in apple country.  Our farmer host told us the name of the county comes from the colour of the sky.  “We have an unusually high amount of grey cloud cover in this micro-climate.  Hence the name, GREY county” he said with a smile.  Turns out this Grey County is one of the world’s great apple capitals and a lovely foodie day-trip opportunity for anyone living in or visiting southern Ontario.

Located 2.5 to 3 hours northwest of downtown Toronto, Grey County is home to one of the most beautiful and rugged landscapes in all of Canada.  Highlands rise over a coast of beaches along Georgian Bay famous as a summer getaway for urban dwellers for sun in the summer and skiing in the winter.  While recreational tourism is abundant, few know of the rich apple-growing industry and its history in this majestic region.

It all started back in 1837 when David and Hanna Doran arrived in Cape Rich.  They brought with them some MacIntosh seedlings and planted the first orchards.  Over time, other settlers started growing Northern Spy, Russets and McIntosh Reds for domestic and foreign markets.   In 1870, the Collingwood Evaporator Works was established.  This facility was the first to dry apples for export and over the next 100 years, more businesses sprung up specializing in all things apple.

Today, the region is home to the largest concentration of apple producers in Ontario specializing in Honeycrisp, Northern Spy, Ambrosia and Gala varietals.  Apples are pressed here into juice for President’s Choice and Simply Apple branded products sold across North America.  They are bagged, sliced, pureed, and exported to far reaching corners of the globe.

On our visit to the region, it was the beginning of the blossom season.  Row upon row of flowering trees could be seen for miles through the valleys.  Most of these farmers are members of a special cooperative known as Bay Growers Cooperative Inc.  In 1992, this new age co-op was one of the first in Ontario and they built a large central storage and processing centre to support the local apple industry.

The Bay Growers Cooperative Inc. is a true shareholder interest venture.  The size of the share was based on the initial investment from each grower.  As orchards went from large to dwarf style trees, there became a greater need for storage.  The farmers pooled their money and built a storage facility.  They then further expanded the facility to become a packager in 1999.  As a result, it became the first pre-sort plant in eastern North America. 

Pre-sort means the various apples from across Grey County arrive at this facility where they are sorted by colour and size then hydra-filled packed out for industrial and consumer use.  This new step allows the producers to pack fruit faster and more efficiently.  The project has been incredibly successful and they are the new template for other regions looking to build packing plants.

The facility itself is very impressive.  There are 22 rooms allowing for 680 bins of apples per room.  The entire space is climate controlled and the doors have special locks which control the air pressure, temperature, and moisture levels.  As fruit comes in, a lot number is assigned and the fruit is identified by farmer and orchard block.  As a result, they can trace an apple right back up to a specific block of trees on a specific farmer’s orchard.  Inside the rooms, oxygen levels are pretty much the same across all varieties but the temperature may change based on the varietal.  Having different rooms allows them to store the apples for many months and release them to the market year-round.

When the apples are to go to market, they enter the processing facility.  Here they roll along an impressive system of baths, conveyors, and inspection stations to ensure quality.  Some apples make their way into bags to be shipped off to your local supermarket while others are reserved for juice.

Farmer Brian, whose farm we visited earlier often comes to the facility to see his crop being packaged.  “You get a different perspective of the fruit you have grown and are growing when you see it on the tree versus when it us being picked and packed” he commented during our tour.  Farmer Brian and the other members of Bay Growers are becoming harder and harder to find in Ontario.  In 1994, the province had 34,000 acres of apple orchards whereas today, they have 13,000 acres.  Innovative operations like the Bay Growers Cooperative are helping to slow this decline, but the need for locals to embrace apples from their own backyard is a must for Ontarians to ensure the industry survives long-term.  New business with a focus on apples are another great solution to help support this industry.

In nearby Thornbury, one such enterprise is doing just that.  The Thornbury Village Cidery is surrounded by a lot of apples, over 7,500 acres of them to be precise.  Today, this company produces a “to-go” bottled alcoholic cider called Peeler Premium Light Cider.  This cider is available at several LCBO locations across Ontario as well as finer bars and restaurants.  The cider, made from local Georgian Bay apples, is gaining rave reviews and along with Bay Growers Cooperative is one of the key players in the apple renaissance in Grey County. 

By now you may be a little “apple tired”.  We understand, the old saying is an “apple a day” and in this part of the province you could easily fill up on a year’s worth in a few short hours.  On the ride back towards Toronto, a must-stop is Haisai Restaurant & Bakery, Michael Stadtlander's new restaurant.  On our visit back in the Spring, we dropped by for a special tasting of you guessed it, apple inspired dishes.

Michael Stadtlander is one of Canada’s most celebrated chefs.  If the local food movement in Canada was like the mafia, few would question his role as the Don or "Godfather".  Dining in his presence is a treat for the senses and given the abundance of apples just north of his new restaurant in Singhampton, it is no surprise he would have some creative ideas for this truly local Georgian Bay fruit.  His new restaurant is as friendly and welcoming as the same suggests – “Haisai” is how the locals in Okinawa, Japan greet each other.

On our visit, we started off with some Peeler Cider from nearby Thornbury and some canapés.   This was followed by a multiple-course lunch of apple inspired creations.  The restaurant interior alone is worth checking out.  Broken mugs, pottery, glass, and other trinkets have been lovingly recycled into artwork which crawls up the walls and along the ceiling like vines from some symbolic tree of sustainability.  The furniture is made from natural woods while the plates and cups are one of a kind pieces of art sparking conversation amongst the guests even before the food arrives.  All the while, in the distance, the man himself can be seen working away at his creations from the open kitchen.  It is a wonderful place to spend the end of your visit or that one special evening while in Grey County. 

If you don’t have time for dinner, you can always drop by the bakery.  It is open Monday to Wednesday from 8:30am to 6:00pm and on Sundays from 9:00 am to 6:00pm.  You can pick up some baked treats for the ride home – with a high degree of certainty that at least one of the daily creations will apple-inspired.

So what are you waiting for?  Apple season is not something reserved exclusively for the Fall months, at least not in Grey County.  This little foodie gem of a locale is bursting with apple-goodness year round and just waiting for folks to explore it.  Maybe we will see you on a patio this summer with a nicely chilled Peeler.

Happy Travels!

Check out the many great pictures from our Grey County adventure by CLICKING HERE to see them on our Facebook Page.


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