If you drive along a stretch of road northwest of the Fargo-Moorhead metro, you’ll see the farms and fields characteristic of eastern North Dakota. But one such location you’ll pass—about five miles east of Ayr—looks a bit different from the others. A large swath of land is fenced off, enveloping row after row of trees. In fact, they’re apple trees of more than 40 different varieties, all of which produce the key ingredient used at the adjoining Cottonwood Cider House.
The orchard and the land it sits on has been in Stacy Nelson-Heising’s family for generations, stretching back to the early 20th century when her great-grandfather first broke ground and established a farm. Taking it over and starting her own farming operation wasn’t always a part of Nelson-Heising’s plan.
“I was needing a career change,” she says of the decision to start farming. “I grew up here. I was always into the dirt and enjoyed growing things, so we just decided to plant the orchard.”
From there, the pieces all started falling into place. Nelson-Heising and husband Dan Heising planted the orchard’s first 100 apple trees in 2012. The following year they planted about 900 more and have planted every year since. They plan to plant again in the spring of 2018 to bring Cottonwood’s tree total to around 2,000.
Cottonwood Orchard is the first certified organic orchard in North Dakota. Nelson-Heising’s father was one of Cass County’s first certified organic farmers, and carrying on the organic tradition was a no-brainer.
“I don’t know how to do it any other way,” says Nelson-Heising. “It’s part of my values; it’s what I was raised with.”
Nelson-Heising says apple trees take five or six years to reach their full production level. Cottonwood’s first batch of trees are reaching that point, and after setbacks from a particularly long cold stretch in the winter of 2013-2014, the second batch of trees should be on track to reach max production soon.
The idea for what to do with their apples came after a 2014 feasibility study pointed them toward hard cider. Heising had always been interested in brewing beer, and Nelson-Heising says they had even attempted brewing cider previously as a joint hobby. When the study results came in, it was almost a natural fit.
After the renovation of an old machine shed on the farmstead, Cottonwood Cider House found its official home in late summer, with Heising serving as head brewer. It now hosts the cidery’s brewing equipment and walk-in cooler, which was packed with apples on the day of our visit.
The cider-making process begins with harvest. After apples are picked, they’re cleaned and sorted before heading into the grinder. Ground apple material is then transferred to a press, where a water-filled bladder presses material against slotted metal sides, separating juice from solid.
Apple juice is placed in fermentation tanks where it sits for a length of time that varies depending on temperature, sugar content of the apple variety, and size of the batch. Nelson-Heising says they currently shoot for a fermentation time between two and three weeks.
After fermentation, the cider is kegged or bottled and is ready for distribution. Nelson-Heising says they expect to have product ready to sell in December. Additionally, she says they have been in contact with establishments in Fargo regarding distribution and have received very positive feedback.
“Everyone in Fargo is excited to have a locally made [cider] product,” Nelson-Heising says.
That excitement rings clearly in Nelson-Heising’s voice, and it’s no wonder why. For her, Cottonwood Cider House is the latest chapter in a generations-long family story. The farming tradition—reshaped through time—is alive and strong. It’s hard not to get excited about that.
Check in with Cottonwood Cider House on Facebook and at cottonwoodciderhouse.com.