Pick your own apples this fall at Zion Heritage Farm.
Once upon a time, apple orchards were a common part of the small farms in the hills around Morgantown. Fall seasons meant caramel apples and latticed pies from fresh, local fruits, and winters were warmed by homemade, cinnamonlaced applesauce and apple butter.
In recent decades, the Potomac Highlands and Eastern Panhandle have been as local as apples get. “Folks from this area will drive a couple hours to get to Romney to go get apples,” says Heather Neill.
This fall, she’s changing all that.
Neill started planting apple trees on her farm a half-hour south of Morgantown in 2014. Her Zion Heritage Farm is a property that has meaning for her. A descendent of the local Morgans and Pricketts, Neill grew up in Florida but visited the area as a kid. When she decided to move north with her son, Wes, she found this eight-acre farm near Prickett’s Fort State Park that was first settled by her Prickett ancestors in the middle 1800s.
Neill worked full-time as a real estate agent and started to act on her ambitious plans. That included erecting a greenhouse, creating an irrigation pond, establishing a vegetable garden, and starting beehives, but, mainly, planting a large meadow in apples—land enough for more than 1,200 trees.
She planted her first 10 trees herself: Gold Rush, a variety created from the wildly popular West Virginia–originated Golden Delicious. By the summer of 2014, she and her son had almost 100 apple, pear, and peach trees in the ground.
They’ve planted more trees every year since.
Establishing a large orchard starting from very little experience takes grit. In 2016, the return of the 17-year cicadas damaged a tremendous number of young trees. In 2017, several bucks moved in, got all the apples, and destroyed more trees—so that fall Neill installed thousands of feet of eight-foot deer fence. Then, in the winter of 2019, mice or rabbits girdled more than 100 trees— chewed the outer bark all the way around, preventing the transport of nutrients— and she had to graft the trees to save what she could.
All of this labor and investment is finally bearing spherical, juicy fruits. “Barring some other yet unforeseen catastrophe, we’ve got a lot of apples,” Neill laughs.
What kinds? So many. Neill loves to experiment. She’s growing fruits like Honeycrisp and Jonalicious that are great for eating out of hand. Her Northern Spy is renowned as a sweet-tart baking apple that holds its shape, and Ashmead’s Kernel and Newtown Pippin break down smoothly for good sauce and butter. Gold Rush is good for all uses. She’s growing about 70 varieties in all, some that are found in the grocery store but most of them heritage cultivars that few of us have ever tasted.
Picking will start in September or October—dates and times are uncertain in this first year. Check the farm’s Facebook page, then give the area’s only u-pick apple orchard a try. @zionheritagefarm on Facebook