April 3, 2020 at 9:16 p.m. EDT Washington Post:
Tom Burford, an expert on heirloom apple varieties who helped restore the fruit’s exalted place in American culture, died March 29 in Bedford, Va. He was 84.
The death was confirmed by Peggy Cornett, curator of plants at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation near Charlottesville. Mr. Burford was diabetic and had cancer, but the exact cause of death was not readily available.
Mr. Burford traced his roots to seven generations of apple growers in Amherst and Nelson counties, in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, and he came to preserve local and regional varieties in danger of being lost to modernity. With his encyclopedic knowledge, mannerly Southern bearing and gift for story telling, Mr. Burford became a hit at local food festivals around the country, including the Apple Tasting held each September at Monticello.
He also held workshops on the traditional propagating technique of grafting, what he called the making of an apple tree and a time-honored method of duplicating a given variety. And he worked as a consultant to an emerging number of hard-cider makers on the East Coast. “Any apple you could give to him, he would tell a story,” said Ben Watson, a fellow apple preservationist in Peterborough, N.H.
Mr. Burford wrote extensively about antique varieties of apples and their place in American history. In seeking to preserve and disseminate apple varieties at risk of extinction, he lamented the state of the apple as a supermarket fruit. Most Americans, he said, knew the apple only as a handful of varieties bred for appearance and durability but lacking the flavors and uses of heritage varieties, as well as their stories.
“For fifty years I painfully watched the disappearance of the apple culture and the emergence of so-called beautiful apples,” he wrote in his 2013 book, Apples of North America.” The book featured 192 heirloom varieties, a fraction of the many thousands that once were grown locally in the United States. Mr. Burford insisted that the photographic portraits of each apple showed those with blemishes. “Eating with our eyes brought this tasteless object to the fruit bowls of America,” he wrote.
Growing up on Tobacco Row Mountain in Amherst County, he said, he took his cornucopia of old apples for granted because of the richness of the family’s commercial apple orchard, which contained approximately 100 varieties and many more individual trees. The various fruits ripened between June and November and were used, depending on their qualities, for dessert, cooking, cider, drying, applesauce, apple butter and livestock food. Some were storage varieties and would keep the family in apples until the next season’s harvest.
Thomas Nelson Burford was born at his family’s farm in Long Hill, Va., on Aug. 29, 1935. He said his mother went into labor as she was picking apples from a variety named Smokehouse, which he pointed out was a 19th-century Pennsylvania apple well suited to frying in butter. He and his older brother, Walter, were home-schooled by their mother, who also invited local Native American and African American children into the classes at a time when state schools were segregated. “They were very progressive people and liked to rock the boat,” said W. Matthew Whitaker, a landscape architect who worked with and befriended Mr. Burford.
Mr. Burford, who never married, had no immediate survivors but was connected to a large network of friends and distant relations in and around Lynchburg. “He was kin to everybody. There wasn’t anybody in this part of the world who wasn’t one of his cousins” — actual or honorary, said Jane White, a friend.
Mr. Burford attended the University of Virginia but did not graduate, according to a college alumni official. With Walter, he established Burford Brothers, a consortium that included a farm, orchard, fruit tree nursery and sawmill. It closed in 1995, a year after his brother’s death. The nursery became an ark for Mr. Burford to keep alive many of the varieties he cherished and wished to share. One was a variety discovered by his family and called the Burford Redflesh. Small with white flesh stained red, it was found at the home of Patrick Henry’s mother, he said.
He attributed the loss of the country’s rich apple heritage not just to the industrialization of fruit production, with its varietal limitations, but also to the rise of mail-order nurseries in the 20th century that would sell a limited range of trees for the home garden or farmstead. Previously, folk would simply make new by grafting scion wood of the desired variety to rootstock.
After he closed his nursery, Mr. Burford worked with the emerging industry of artisanal cideries and guided owners on variety selection, orchard establishment and fruit tree cultivation, including traditional pruning practices. Charlotte Shelton said Mr. Burford helped with the establishment of her family’s Albemarle Cider Works cidery and Vintage Virginia Apples orchard and nursery near Charlottesville.
The latter grows more than 200 varieties of antique apples. “He was an inspiration,” she said. The Burford Redflesh is used by many cidermakers to bring a rose quality to their product, but his greatest contribution, Watson said, was the rediscovery and dissemination of a superior cider variety named Harrison, a New Jersey apple popular in the 19th century but thought lost. Mr. Burford told Edible Jersey magazine that when he first tasted it, he found it so superb, complex and mysterious that he had to sit down. “I was so unsettled,” he said.
“Tom did a great service in preserving the genetic diversity of the apple,” said Peter Hatch, author and retired director of gardens and grounds at Monticello. The two conducted the annual October apple tastings at Monticello and, later, at Jefferson’s nearby Tufton Farm, usually to a sellout crowd. “I think he had a significant role in the revival of cider orchards along the East Coast.”
Like his apples, Mr. Burford was a product of his terroir. His connections to his family and place, and the apples of his childhood, were an essential part of his identity. “Growing up on Tobacco Row Mountain lent a certain authenticity to him,” Hatch said. “He definitely comes from a place.”
Mr. Burford was known for his mouthwatering apple pies made from several select varieties, but when asked to evaluate the pies of others, he would often say, “This is a very good cinnamon, lemon juice pie, but where is the apple?”
--- Viron here - I had the pleasure, then honor of meeting Tom Burford while attending both his pruning & grafting seminars at Albemarle Cider Works, orchard and nursery near Charlottesville. Talked with him and the owner after the presentations. Learned that the owner, Bill Shelton, knew my employer, and that Mr. Burford knew the Home Orchard Societies own, Shawn Shepherd. Then began the cider tasting stories of Shawn’s visit to Charlottesville! I’ve a description around here ... having quoted Tom describing how he and some NAFEX conference attendees, “Sipped Shaun’s cider at the rotunda of the University of Virginia, under the stars”
Not sure why our local Public Radio station waited until today (mid April) to announce Tom Burford’s passing and air a tribute, but it woke me immediately, and I thought of our Society ~
-- Found my post describing the day at Albermarle ... seems I was pretty excited ... so here's to Tom:
I’d been sponsored and transported by a friend who's attended several of their fruit tree workshops, I’m advising him on his home orchard and perhaps a larger venture into Heirloom Apples up my way (we likely had the longest drive). The workshop was on pruning, and led by Tom Burford. It worked well for me, due to their preference for modified central-leader apple trees; that’s not my prefered structure, but appears to work better for their commercial operation.
There was a solid turnout, with ‘our kind of folks!’ Mr. Burford was something.. At 82, every question led to far more than just an answer I really enjoyed his ..accent, which is likely the closest I’ll get to how Thomas Jefferson likely sounded. And having led such seminars myself for the Yamhill Co. OSU Extension program, it was nice to just listen, sip coffee and eat several of their GoldRush apples...
Into the orchard ..I joked with their lead pruner about how painful it is watching another pruner, prune… He agreed, as the person leading the field examples likely cut the opposite of what either of us would have.. But into their peach orchard, with its ‘vase shaped’ trees, I was more comfortable ... and had an "Indian Blood Peach" recommended for my location.
Back inside, I used Tom Burford’s book - - and Jennie’s assistance to determine which apple cultivars my friend was going to take home with him. The book worked excellent for that; with six decisions to be made, it helped narrow down their extensive list of apple varieties. Then they dug them as we waited! … while sampling even more of their unusual apples, before they were turned into cider.
As I spoke with Bill Shelton, the owner and chief-grunt of the Cider Works, I found that in his professional capacity he'd helped put my (new) home town of Floyd VA on the tourist map, as well as being a good friend of my current employer.. So as their parking lot and patio filled with Saturday evening cider sippers, Tom Burford navigated his way to us ... carrying a goblet of cider.
We lost track of time... ...but Tom remains impressed with the Home Orchard Society and ‘our people,’ including Joanie and the TOC crew.. When he asked me 'what I'm doing over here?' - Cross-pollination, I told him Then he gets going about Shaun … describing him having attended a NAFEX conference where Shaun said, ‘I brought very few clothes,’ ... ‘so I could bring this,’ opening his assortment of cider. Tom, having just finished his own cider.. lit up - describing the night their group “Sipped Shaun’s cider at the rotunda of the University of Virginia, under the stars” ~
So, about the book ..Mr Burford said he asked his publisher how many apples to include, 'because there are around six thousand!' They settled on two hundred, and after Tom had flown across and around the nation to collect, return and photograph them, he had seven left… After returning late from a flight to the upper midwest, having collected ‘the last’ from an experiment station and various regional growers ..he'd stashed them in a refrigerator at his office location. Resting and returning a couple days later - gone. Asking those with access to the fridge, he got his answer, “They were delicious!” Thus, 193 (though I’ve now seen counts of 191 & 192 in his book, he said 193 yesterday) ... but what's seven ..out of six thousand Twas a magnificent day in Virginia ~
Sad to hear of another of the great ones passing. I liked his book. I like how he alluded to regionality of fruit growing and how industrialization has damaged that. I guess we are left to pick up the mantle.
Sad to see that. His book was one of my favorites. It was a major part of the decisions I made about what apple trees to grow. He was part of a movement, toward preserving and appreciating apple varieties, and by that, his life should be celebrated.
I'm glad that you got a chance to meet and interact with him. Tom's book was one of the "essential apple references" that I purchased about 4 years ago. Simply one of those books that "had to be had" as part of the library and illustrative palette of apple diversity. It has given me ideas for varieties that are certainly worth a trial here on my property, whether for chomping, or baking, or fermenting.
Having moved several times during my life, I can't imagine what it must've been like for someone like Tom Burford to have had such a deep-rooted, historically rich place on the planet. That he was ultimately able to get his book written and published prior to his passing is a gift to all of us who treasure the wonderful diversity of apples. The older I get, the more I treasure the knowledge and generosity of folks like Tom Burford. In this modern, genericized world, the richness and flavor of place and time is so often lost: Tom's book helps to retain and celebrate it.
Rest in Peace, a man who made his world a better place.