ELKTON — It was a glorious autumnal Saturday for an agricultural festival in Elkton, and that’s just what more than 900 residents and visitors got at the Cecil County Farm Museum’s Apple Butter Festival.
A packed parking lot gave way to a large multi-purpose barn — a dairy barn from the 1920s that’s been updated and repurposed by people like Mel Bacon and the Cecil County Farm Museum Committee.
Lowell Haines and approximately half a dozen other farmers stood in between the barn, a vendor and livestock space and antique farm equipment and stationary engines making apple butter. In the distance, families sat at tables and listened to live music under a tent, while high school FFA kids showed off their goats, chickens and pumpkins.
The grounds are just off the aptly named Appleton road, flanked by the Cecil County School of Technology. They aren’t far from the state line, but the agricultural life reflected is all Maryland. Saturday saw the best people and parts of the two decade effort of the Cecil County Farm Museum come to fruition, after quite a bit of behind-the-scenes toil.
The hard work — and delicious apple butter — is indicative of the triumph of the county’s agricultural roots. Bacon, among others, knows the meaning of a hard day’s work. And they’re more than happy to watch it come to fruition.
“You get up and you put 30 gallons of cider in,” said Haines, while stirring a giant cauldron of apple butter. “You put a wood fire underneath it and you boil it down. Then, you start adding processed apples to get it more like an applesauce consistency. And you just keep adding and adding until you get the moisture out of it.”
Haines said a batch takes approximately six to eight hours to make.
“We started at 2 o’clock this morning,” he said.
One of the large kettles (pictured) makes about 200 pints of apple butter, which is put in mason jars by volunteers on a picnic table assembly line. On Saturday, the team made two kettles. Last weekend, Haines said, they made three kettles full.
“You can put it on crackers or bread,” said Haines. “It’s just good to have. Put some apple butter on homemade bread. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Haines laughs when asked how many years he’s been canning the farm fresh delicacy. It’s safe to say he knows what he’s doing.
Anyone within a several yard radius of the apple butter kettle and canning station can smell cinnamon and clove. Other seasonal spiced smells waft through the air, but there’s no telling exactly which and what proportions are used in making the apple butter. It’s a secret heavily guarded by the tight-lipped canners.
“We can’t give away our secret sauce,” one of the canners said. “Only a very few people know it.”
Vendors in tents spun wool into yarn, showcased their farming wares or had seasonal items for sale. One vendor, a beekeper, brought a demonstration to showcase to onlookers the importance of healthy beehives.
“I’m a Cecil County beekeeper,” said George Codding. “I’ve been keeping bees for about 11 years.”
Cotting showed onlookers the different layers of a beehive, and had fresh honey from one of his honeycombs for tasting.
“In a full-size hive, in a productive hive, I’d have about 60,000 bees. Right now, I’m getting my hives ready for winter. Honeybees don’t hibernate. They form a ball around the queen to keep her at 98 degrees or so.”
Other sights included a Cecil County Farm Museum booth, two different antique apple crushers to make cider — one operated by hand and one by motor — and antique plows and corn shuckers from the early 20th century.
None of the sprawling educational opportunities of the festival or beyond would be possible without the dedicated individuals of the Farm Museum. And Cecil County’s Agribusiness Coordinator from the Office of Economic Development, Maureen O’Shea, has been helping with that effort.
“I’ve been helping the Farm Museum write grants to get the funding going and started,” said O’Shea. “They’re an educational hub, and by expanding to a regional focus, they’re able to do more educational outreach. We really need that in our county and in the surrounding counties.”
O’Shea said the museum seeks to honor and educate about the past, but pointed to the multi-purpose repurposed barn as evidence that the collective is hoping to “innovate and incorporate technology.”
O’Shea lauded the regional importance of Cecil County, especially for agribusiness. She said there are more than 500 farms in the area.
“We have a really sweet spot in terms of location, and our farmers have really capitalized on that.”
The Apple Butter Festival was made possible by a partnership with Cecil County School of Technology, which was evident throughout the day. High school students from the Natural Resources section as well as the FFA (Future Farmers of America) club were on hand to help out with everything from parking safety to education.
The natural resources students has mums and pumpkins for sale, as well as metal painted pumpkins that the students had made. They also had information available about the spotted lantern fly, an invasive species that’s been making its mark in the area as of late.
“Our kids know about them. We’ve seen some in the parking lot of our school,” said Brittany Rigdon, the instructor for the natural resources program at the high school.
“We have a partnership that we’re trying to build up with the Cecil County Farm Museum,” said Rigdon. “We’re on the same property, and that’s a very unique thing — to have a tech-related high school be this close to an agricultural facility that they’re trying to get up and running. We have our kids come out and volunteer.”
Rigdon has about 30 students in her program, which are juniors and seniors from CCPS. Between Rigdon’s program and the FFA program, more than two dozen students participated in the day.
“We focus in our program on horticulture production and landscaping. We have a greenhouse and we work on floral design, agriculture and hydroponics. Students get certified before graduation, just like other people in the industry. They take the same certification, which is a benefit.”
Rigdon said her students are beginning to collect GIS information on the spotted lantern fly throughout the county, which they will share for the public benefit.
The agricultural science instructor for CCPS, Rachael Coffey, had several of her students both volunteering and showcasing their skills. Bantam chickens, goats, rabbits, a mini-horse and a pig were all on the grounds for participants to see and sometimes touch.
“We are in our second year of FFA,” said Coffey. “And there are many people in Cecil County that live right next to a farm, and they never know what’s going on with it. We want to people to see up close what’s happening.”
Coffey said the Farm Museum was a “great thing,” and that the partnership between her school and the group helped both succeed.
“We want people to interact with agriculture,” she said.