ELLSWORTH — Bob Sewall is an evangelist. Not of God, but of something a bit closer to earth: An apple cider vinegar evangelist.
“The list of benefits is probably in the hundreds,” said the Lincolnville apple grower, speaking on the phone in April during a lunch break from tending his 500 trees.
Sewall runs Maine’s oldest operating certified organic orchard at his farm on the side of Levenseller Mountain in Lincolnville, just north of Camden. The 46-acre parcel includes blueberry hills rising 900 feet above sea level, with views of the Camden hills and western Penobscot Bay.
It is on this land, which Sewall has farmed for more than 40 years, where he harvests his crops, grinds them, presses them and cold ferments them in barrels in his basement.
“They make a mechanical way of hurrying up the process,” Sewall said. “But I found that I get a lot better flavor and I don’t lose my amino acids or my micronutrients by heating it or heavily aerating it.”
Which means that he simply has to wait — three years, on average — for yeasts to convert the apple sugars to alcohol and finally, to acetic acid. He is so attuned to the process that he can eyeball a batch’s acidity level by the consistency, opacity and weight of the membrane that forms on top.
“I just let it naturally work,” Sewall said. “It’s really nature doing what it likes.”
Sewall grew up in Waterville. As a child he was an avid outdoorsman, hiking, skiing, canoeing and camping, and passed his Junior Maine Guide certification test at 16. For a year in the late 1960s, he guided wilderness trips and soon thereafter planted his first organic garden. In 1975, Sewall bought his first parcel of land and started a stonemasonry business, Sewall’s Seawalls, which he ran for 33 years.
And just in case stonemasonry and running a business wasn’t enough to keep him occupied, in 1980 on the advice of his mentor and neighbor, Finnish farmer Viljo Masalin, Sewall planted an organic apple orchard.
“I do not spray anything in my orchard,” he said. “I never have. The soil here was never used for agriculture other than hay and pasture, so it’s not like the old traditional orchards that had a lot of heavy metals which are pretty much in the soil.”
It is notoriously difficult to grow organic apples in the Eastern United States. Drier conditions in Western states mean growers generally have fewer pests and problem diseases to contend with, making managing orchards without chemicals more feasible. But Sewall has been up to the challenge. He spent years preparing the soil, and eventually planted standard-size trees chosen for their disease-resistance (Prima and Priscilla) and popularity (Jonagold and Golden Delicious).
For many years, Sewall and his wife, Mia Mantello, ran the farm as a pick-your-own business. “Being a nonconventional grower I was always looking for alternate markets,” Sewall said. “My pick-your-own was really designed for young families, children that liked applesauce and apple juice, but I needed some kind of value-added after season,” so that the surplus harvest didn’t go to waste.
Sewall experimented with vinegar-making for about eight years before he had a vinegar that was ready for store shelves. He uses fresh apples, not stored, to get a clear, traditional vinegar. “I started marketing it very, very locally.”
A bumper year will yield 5,000 gallons; an off-year, 1,000. His aim is to sell around 2,000 gallons each year.
“I’m not quite there,” said Sewall, “but I only deal with local markets — a lot of co-ops and restaurants.” He is looking to other markets up and down the coast.
Because of the fermenting time, “I have to think three or four years ahead,” said Sewall. There also is, of course, the unpredictability that comes with farming — pests and disease, frosts and droughts. This year, said Sewall, he has spent hours ridding trees of Browntail moths. But he doesn’t mind so much. “Now I’m retired and all I have to do is farm.”
Sewall and his wife, Mia Mantello, will give a talk on how vinegar is made and its many uses and benefits at the Ellsworth Public Library on Wednesday, June 5, at 6 p.m. Aged vinegar will be available to sample and vinegar to purchase. For more information, call the library at 667-6363. To learn more about the Sewall Orchard, visit sewallorchard.com.