Lammers’ apples a fall tradition

Nancy Tarnai

The rumors of Clair Lammers’ retirement have been greatly exaggerated. Lammers, a fixture in the local agricultural community for decades, is still going strong in his apple orchard, despite chatter that he has an eye on his rocking chair.

“It’s a lot of work but it keeps a guy out of the bars,” Lammers said.

Photo by Nancy Tarnai
The Prairie Sun is a particularly pretty variety of apple in Lammers' orchard.

To prove he is still active, Lammers explains that he harvested 6,000 pounds of apples last year, selling all he could at the Tanana Valley Farmers Market and donating the surplus to the Food Bank.

His Chena Hot Springs Road orchard is home to 200 varieties of apples, several he grows for the University of Saskatchewan, testing to see what are the coldest temperatures the trees can survive.

Formerly an X-ray technician, Lammers built his home in 1979 off 6-mile Chena Hot Springs Road on Esro Road. What today is a picture-book orchard was then virgin forest. In the early 1980s he cleared the land and started planting apples. Why? “Everybody said it couldn’t be done,” he said. “They all said I was crazy.”

When starting out he read books and consulted with UAF horticulture professor Pat Holloway, who gave him excellent advice, he said. He wanted to learn grafting techniques and Holloway told him to practice on willows. He did and now he is known as one of the most inventive grafters around.

Holloway said Lammers’ orchard is truly amazing. “There are many people who have dabbled in growing fruit trees over the years but nobody has done the research and experimentation that Clair has accomplished,” Holloway said.

“I am thankful Clair is always willing to share, both his fruit tree trial information on his website and through the Pioneer Fruit Growers Association as well as joining in to help teach local enthusiasts how to graft their own trees,” Holloway said. “He is a master.”

Lammers grew up in Nebraska where his father had a small orchard and his brothers currently have orchards. “They can raise so much better quality than I can because of the longer growing season,” Lammers said. “They raise keeper apples that last till Christmas or Valentine’s Day.”

Photo by Nancy Tarnai
Clair Lammers in his apple orchard.

Of all the apples Lammers grows his favorite is Trailman. “Boy are they good,” he said. “I recommend that one for everyone.”

Growing apples does not require any special skills, he insists. “Just do it,” he said. One thing to watch out for is moose. “Moose love apple trees.” He solved the problem with an eight-foot fence. Rabbits and voles are also hard on the orchard so and he placess metal plates around the base of the trees to deter the critters.

Fairbanks’ harsh winters don’t keep Lammers from producing fruit. “I let Mother Nature take care of them,” he said. “If an apple tree needs special care I don’t want it around.” He uses no pesticides or herbicides. “You learn little tricks,” he said.

Over the years Lammers has invested much of his waking hours to his trees. “It takes a lot of trial and error,” he said. A south-facing slope is the preferred location for fruit trees. And Lammers advises planting two of each variety because “sometimes one will up and die for no reason.”

In addition to apples, Lammers grows cherries, plums, apples and pears. He has not been pleased with the quality of the pears but he keeps trying.

As he gets older and is recovering from knee surgery, Lammers admits it is getting harder to keep up with everything. A high school student helps him with some chores but he still does the majority of the work.

In the past few years, Lammers has begun teaching his methods to a few young farmers, hoping to pass on the knowledge. “This country needs something like this. I want to encourage the younger ones to take it up and get kids interested in this.”

He spoke with joy about his first visit to the orchard each spring when the snow melts and he gets to discover which trees survived the winter. He loves viewing the beautiful blossoms in June.

“I wish I had started this when I was 25 or 30 years old,” Lammers said. “I’m getting too old for this but whoever takes over is going to need me (for advice), not to brag.”

Very soon the harvest will begin and friends from Calypso Farm and Wild Rose Farm will show up to help Lammers get the apples picked and bagged. He’ll sell the fruit at the Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays till the apples are all gone.

“It’s rewarding to me,” Lammers said.

Learn more about Lammers’ Apple Orchard.

This column is provided as a service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.