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Despite challenges, Alaska apple farmer keeps harvesting

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Posted: Sunday, August 28, 2011 12:08 am | Updated: 1:29 pm, Wed Apr 10, 2013.

FAIRBANKS - The rumors of Clair Lammers’ retirement have been greatly exaggerated. Lammers, a fixture in the local agricultural community for decades, is still going strong in his apple orchard, despite chatter that he has an eye on his rocking chair.

“It’s a lot of work, but it keeps a guy out of the bars,” Lammers said.

To prove he is still active, Lammers said he harvested 6,000 pounds of apples last year, selling all he could at the Tanana Valley Farmers Market and donating the surplus to the Food Bank.

His Chena Hot Springs Road orchard is home to 200 varieties of apples, including several he grows for the University of Saskatchewan, testing to determine the coldest temperatures the trees can survive.

Formerly an X-ray technician, Lammers built his home in 1979 on Esro Road, off 6 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road. What today is a picture-book orchard was then virgin forest. In the early 1980s he cleared the land and started planting apples. Why?

“Everybody said it couldn’t be done,” he said. “They all said I was crazy.”

When starting out he read books and consulted with Pat Holloway, University of Alaska Fairbanks horticulture professor. He wanted to learn grafting techniques and Holloway told him to practice on willows. He did and now he is known as one of the most inventive grafters around.

Holloway said Lammers’ orchard is truly amazing.

“There are many people who have dabbled in growing fruit trees over the years but nobody has done the research and experimentation that Clair has accomplished,” Holloway said. “He is a master.”

Lammers grew up in Nebraska where his father had a small orchard and his brothers have orchards today.

“They can raise so much better quality than I can because of the longer growing season,” Lammers said. “They raise keeper apples that last ’til Christmas or Valentine’s Day.”

Growing apples does not require any special skills, he insists. However, one thing to watch out for is moose, who love to eat the trees. Lammers solved the problem by erecting an eight-foot fence. Rabbits and voles are also hard on the orchard, so he places metal plates around the base of the trees to deter the critters.

Fairbanks’ harsh winters don’t keep Lammers from producing fruit. He also uses no pesticides or herbicides.

“I let Mother Nature take care of them,” he said. “If an apple tree needs special care I don’t want it around.”

In addition to apples, Lammers grows cherries, plums, apples and pears. He has not been pleased with the quality of the pears but keeps trying.

As he gets older, Lammers admits it is getting harder to keep up with everything. A high school student helps him with some chores but he still does the majority of the work.

In the past few years, he began teaching his methods to a few young farmers, hoping to pass on the knowledge. “This country needs something like this. I want to encourage the younger ones to take it up and get kids interested in this.”

“I wish I had started this when I was 25 or 30 years old,” Lammers said. “I’m getting too old for this but whomever takes over is going to need me (for advice), not to brag.”

Very soon the harvest will begin and friends from Calypso Farm and Wild Rose Farm will show up to help Lammers get the apples picked and bagged. He’ll sell the fruit at the Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays until the apples are all gone.

This column is provided as a public service by the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Nancy Tarnai is the school and station's public information officer. Contact her at ntarnai@alaska.edu.

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