North Dakota Grows: Stacy, Dan, and Cottonwood Cider House

Stacy Nelson-Heising and her husband, Dan, have found a new apple-y ever after for her family’s 100-year-old Ayr farm – now reinvented into Cottonwood Cider House and Orchard, North Dakota’s original cidery.  The wonderful Stacy has kindly offered her thoughts on biodynamic farming, building a cider culture in North Dakota, and some valuable advice for readers on planting apple trees:

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Tell us about your connection to North Dakota.

Dan and I were born and raised in North Dakota.  He is the son of a long-time Fargo South teacher.  Dan is a Fargo South alum and later went on to graduate from NDSU.  He served in the Navy after high school, but other than time away for military service, he has always called North Dakota home.  I’ve called North Dakota home most of my life, only leaving the state to attend college in Montana.  I am the fourth generation to be farming on my family farm.  Dan and I are very blessed to be able to carry on this tradition and legacy.  We aren’t farming in the typical North Dakota manner, but we figured out a way to farm that works for us by planting the apple orchard and building the cidery.

What made you plant your first tree in 2012?  

The decision to plant a fruit orchard was based on the desire to continue the Nelson farming legacy.  After my dad retired from farming in 2006 he rented out most of the land and sold all of the equipment essential to operating a grain farm.  Planting a fruit orchard and becoming an orchardist was a way that I could keep my farming heritage alive.  For the most part, I can do many of the orchard jobs on my own.  I do get extra help with tree planting, harvesting and other bigger jobs that require a little more strength from Dan or others when needed.  I’ll admit that caring for an orchard isn’t what comes to mind when you think about farming in North Dakota, but I am seeing a lot of promise out there in my orchard.  I can say that apples can be raised in ND with success.

Please explain Biodynamic farming.

Biodynamics is a growing practice that believes a farm has its own unique identity.  Each farm is an individual because of the soil’s terroir, terrain, plant life, climate, wildlife, and who it is that is farming the land.  There is a great care taken to create biodiversity on a Biodynamic farm.  In our orchard you will see a mix of alfalfa, wild flowers and weeds growing with the apple trees.  This diverse plant life helps to encourage birds and beneficial insects to take up residency, aiding in pollinating our trees and helping with pest control.  Another component to Biodynamic farming is to employ herbal remedies.  For example, I use Stinging Nettle plants that have been broken down in water as a fertilizer and pest control.  Horsetail plant is used as a natural anti-fungal treatment.

Our orchard is a certified organic orchard that uses Biodynamic methods to compliment our organic techniques.  The orchard is a healthy and happy place for our workers and for the people who drink our cider or eat our apples.  Organic and Biodynamic growing methods help us grow a more flavor concentrated apple.  This flavor intensity is evident in our cider.

Tell us about Cottonwood Cider House – what got you into cider making? 

At first, my family didn’t have a definite idea of what we were going to do with our apple harvest.  We considered a U-pick apple orchard or making some sort of pastry or apple food product.  It wasn’t until Dan and I were reminiscing about the one time, years ago, when we made a batch of hard cider together, that we then had the idea to consider building a cidery.  Dan had always been a home brewer and with my training in culinary arts, the idea of making cider just felt like something we could both get behind.  Becoming cider makers really felt like it matched our personalities and skill sets.  We had a feasibility study done on whether or not a cidery business would be fruitful.  After determining that it could be prolific, all our energy went towards making it happen.  Even though Dan and I came up with the idea of building a cidery, many family members and friends supported the vision of a North Dakota cidery.  We couldn’t have actualized it without their help.

Where do you get your inspiration for your cider flavors?

Dan and I come up with the ideas for our ciders by doing brainstorming sessions.  I draw from my knowledge of what food flavors work well together.  Dan knows what cider we need to work with next or what is on the schedule for our wholesaler and that too can dictate what gets made.  Sometimes we’ll get requests from customers, family and friends to craft a particular cider.  Coming up with new ideas for ciders can be fun, but sometimes the work behind developing a new cider can get frustrating.  Small batch trials are done and not all of these experiments turn out.  But better to lose 5 gallons versus 500 gallons of apple juice!

You recently built a new cider house – what has that process been like for you?

Dan and I started gathering information and educating ourselves as to how to plan our cidery in 2014.  Since there were no cideries in North Dakota, we needed to travel to the East and West Coast, plus the Midwest region of the United States.  The first cidery we toured was Woodchuck in Vermont.  Woodchuck is one of the biggest cider producers in our country.  Needless to say, after seeing their facility, we became somewhat discouraged and started to ask the question, “How will we ever build something that big and SOOOO expensive?”  The pieces fell into place after touring smaller cideries that were operated by families or cideries similar to what you see in the craft beer industry.  Visiting cideries that were directly tied to an orchard was especially helpful, given that we are making our cider from apples that are harvested from the trees that we care for.  It was a real eye-opener to see how others were working with similar circumstances that we were or would be dealing with in the future.

In 2016 we felt confident enough in our plans for the cidery, that we started to hire contractors and purchasing cider-making equipment.   The construction started in January of 2017 and was completed in less than 6 months.   We were able to move in by the end of July and began making cider in August from our early season apples.  Overall, the construction of the cidery was a fairly quick process when compared to the time that went into planning our building.  The hardest part was designing the cidery.  It’s also more difficult and expensive to ship equipment to our location.  There isn’t a well-established cider/orchard culture in North Dakota.  Consequently, if an essential piece of equipment breaks down, we can’t drive an hour to find a replacement.  Dan and I have become very good at “making it work” by using our wits, a collection of inherited farm tools and duct tape.

With Dan as the head cider maker, and Stacy and the head orchardist, what is a typical day like for you? 

The tasks that I do in the orchard are seasonal-based.  In the winter, my only orchard job is pruning.  I usually prune starting late January into March.  In the spring, we plant new trees and prepare the orchard for the growing season and upcoming harvest.  Springtime in the orchard seems to be the time a year where everything has to be done in a matter of a couple of weeks.  I’ll cross a job off of my list and then replace it with several more tasks.  It can be a little overwhelming but the reward is seeing the orchard in full bloom.  After the intensity of spring, summer brings days and days of mowing.  The saying is, “If you are looking for the orchardist in the summer, look for them on the mower.”  Our cherry trees are harvested in July.  Shortly thereafter, the apple harvest begins.  We pick apples into November.  Once the harvest is done, I’ll ready the orchard for the winter.  My attention can then switch to helping Dan in the cidery.

Late summer towards the first part of December we are pressing apples.  After every press, the fermentation of the juice begins.  Dan keeps detailed records of what apples are pressed, their sugar/ph/acid levels, and weight of every variety.  Recordkeeping continues throughout the entire cider making process from the start of the pressing to when the cider is either bottled or keg.  Dan plans on what pressings should be blended together to give us the desired finished cider.  Along with recording data, one of the most critical parts of making cider is keeping the equipment clean.  Dan is always washing tanks and kegs.

What’s the best part of working for the Cottonwood Cider House?

There are lots of awesome aspects of working at Cottonwood Cider House.  It’s great to be your own boss and to be the ones who are at the helm of the ship, shaping our own company into what we want it to be.  We also appreciate being able to take something that we’ve nurtured from the point of planting to harvest and then crafting it into an appreciated product that we are proud of.  Another amazing part of working at Cottonwood Cider House is that Dan and I both enjoy having the chance to meet and become friends with interesting warm individuals from all over the world.  Creating and being a part of the Cottonwood Cider House journey has been a crazy ride from the start.  Many times we look at each other and one of us will ask the other, “Can you even believe that this is our life!?”  I think we are in shock a lot of the time.

As a married couple, what is your secret recipe for working together? 

Working together as a married couple does take some balancing and a regard for respecting each other.  Early on, we gave ourselves the titles of Head Cider Maker and Orchard Manager, but many of the decisions in the orchard or cidery are made in partnership.  We respect that each of us has a greater knowledge and experience level in our particular roles, but there is a genuine desire to listen and consider what the other person thinks.  Both of the roles are directly connected together.  Success in the orchard benefits the cidery.  We try not to function with a “your job-my job” attitude.  Creating Cottonwood Farm and Cottonwood Cider House has helped us deepen our love and friendship for each other.  There are challenges, but at the end of the day, it is respect for each other that nurtures our marriage and our work relationship.

What are you most proud of related to the Cottonwood Cider House? 

We experience a sense of achievement when people tell us they enjoy our cider.  There are so many steps that go into the finished product, starting with planting the trees and their care, and everything involved in making the cider.  We have firsthand knowledge and influence of all those stages.  We can tell the person who enjoys our cider that we know how the apples were grown, how the apples were pressed and about the process that went into making the cider that they love.  Dan and I are like proud parents of a child (our ciders) on graduation day.

You have 2,000 trees and 40 types of apples; what is your advice for people looking to plant their own apple trees (on a much, much smaller scale, of course)?

I think one of the most important things to consider when planting apple trees or starting an orchard is to find a good source of planting stock.  If you’re beginning with healthy planting stock, you will have a better chance of your trees thriving.  Also, pay attention to which trees are appropriate to plant in your growing zone.  It is also important to plan for the immediate and long-term care of your orchard.  An example of this would be to ask yourself, “How am I going to water the newly-planted trees?” or “How can I water a fully-grown orchard?”

Something else to keep in mind, you will inevitably meet and speak with many people who know a fair amount about the art of orcharding.  The advice will come in handy many times.  Be ready to adapt their techniques to work for your environment and orchard.  What works for them, may not work for you or your trees.  Become good at being adaptable.

Why is North Dakota quality important to you? 

The craft cider industry is just beginning in North Dakota.  Given this newness, the flavors that an apple grown in North Dakota can impart into a cider are just being discovered.    It is exciting to be a part of influencing the flavor profile of North Dakota cider.  Dan and I are passionate about creating a cider made from 100% North Dakota produced apples.  For us it is about the reality that great quality cider is being made from North Dakota apples.

What’s next for you?

We will be purchasing a bigger press and additional tanks this summer to help us with our growing apple crop.  We have also decided to invest in a canning line so we can begin selling our cider in cans in the not to distant future.  People often ask us where they can buy our cider to enjoy at home.  At the moment it is available for purchase at the cidery, special events, the Red River Market located in Fargo, ND and online.  Canning our cider will make it more accessible for sale at other outlets.  In addition to adding to facilities equipment, Dan and I want to continue to experiment with new and different cider flavor combinations.  Some of our most poplar ciders are ciders that have an additional ingredient component added in the blending process.  We will continue to make the favorites, but will never stop experimenting with new flavor ideas.

[From Amanda: Tastings open this month – May – and you can schedule a tour of the orchard by contacting Cottonwood Cider House on their fantastic website here.  You can also follow their latest and greatest news – hint, they are bottling now – on Facebook here.]

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