UNITY — Ben Cottrell has been wondering what kind of apples grow on the trees outside his old farm house in Winterport, so on Saturday he brought a handful to the Common Ground Country Fair.

That’s where he found John Bunker, an expert in apple identification whose knowledge kept a steady stream of people stopping by his tent at the fair.

Bunker, 66, of Palermo, took one look at the gnarly red and green samples Cottrell presented him with and knew instantaneously.

“They’re not in very good shape, but those are Northern Spy,” Bunker said.

“Yes!” exclaimed Todd Little-Siebold, a history professor at College of the Atlantic who also studies apple identification.

Little-Siebold said there are more than 1,500 types of apples in Maine. But experts like Bunker and Little-Siebold said many of them have not been tracked and preserved. The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association is currently working to build up its heritage apple farm outside their headquarters where the fair is located, Little-Siebold said.

The Common Ground Country Fair, which concludes Sunday, draws about 60,000 people over three days, and is one of the main ways that new apple varieties are collected and added to the heritage tree farm. But first comes the process of identification.

Bunker, who also authors the Fedco tree catalogue and has worked for the company for 35 years, has been identifying apples at the fair for over 20 years.

He started learning to identify apples at a young age by stopping at people’s houses and asking if he could pick the fruit, while growing up in Massachusetts and California. Most times the residents would come out and start talking to him, and he learned identification.

As he got older, he would take a new apple, write the name on it with a marker, and place it in the cup holder of his truck. At stop lights or during construction stops he would study it.

“After a while you look at an apple and you just know,” he said. “It leaves an impression on your brain.”

Knowing the parts of an apple and the subtleties between different colors also helped Bunker learn to identify an apple.

He said he’s “pretty good,” but at the fair there may be an apple about every half hour or so that he doesn’t know.

When that happens, he asks the apple owner to put it in a paper bag and write their name and phone number. Over the course of the year Bunker will visit hundreds of farms, orchards and individual trees across the state.

So far there are about 300 types of apples in the Maine Heritage Apple Orchard, with plans to grow to 600 or 700 varieties over the next four years, Little-Siebold said.

“It’s not just about nostalgia,” Bunker said. “It’s a connection to the past, but you also can’t buy a good pie apple in the store any more. There are several dozen out there, we just need to find them. So it’s about preserving them and passing them on to the future.”

Jared Kane, of Milton Mills, N.H., one fairgoer who brought apples to Bunker on Saturday, said that as an aspiring producer of hard cider he is searching for a good apple.

“John has the knowledge that nobody else has,” said Kane, 36. “He really takes his time and researches it, that’s for sure.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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