Cider House Rules

Tom Wilson and Nicole Judge should not have had to endure four years of administrative tomfoolery to establish Spirit Tree Estate, their cidery, bakery and local food shop.

September 15, 2009 | | Homegrown in the Hills

With one urban foot and the other one rural, it’s understandable that the Town of Caledon has a split personality. Nonetheless, it doesn’t seem right that good, visionary people such as Tom Wilson and Nicole Judge should have had to endure four years of administrative tomfoolery on the part of the town, Credit Valley Conservation and the Niagara Escarpment Commission.

[NOTE: Update to story appended below.] The indefatigable duo are the epitome of near-urban farmers. Nicole, 38, who grew up in Cheltenham, is a veterinarian turned chief operating officer for the Ontario Veterinary Group. She was three weeks short of producing the couple’s first child when I met her, and had no plans to give up her number-crunching career.

Tom, 37, is a fourth-generation Caledon farmer who studied history and politics at university. The pair has spent their holidays over the past few years taking courses in cordon bleu artisanal bread baking, cider making, and brick oven construction, in Europe, the U.S. and Canada.

I asked Tom what his father, who raised beef and grain on the family farm on Dixie Road near King Street, would think of the couple’s plan to open a cidery, bakery and local food shop that caters to food-loving yuppies and builds on the buy-local craze? “He would be impressed,” Tom says.

Slated to finally open this month, Spirit Tree Estate Cidery is the latest example of the mix between agriculture and tourism that Caledon encourages in its official plan.

Spirit Tree Estate Cidery

Spirit Tree Estate Cidery. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Tom says that he is following in the footsteps of Downey’s Farm Market and Winery and Broadway Farm Market. But one look at the 6,500- square-metre facility, built from straw bales by local contractor Colin Cherry, makes it obvious that Tom and Nicole are going a step further. Spirit Tree is more upscale winery than farm market. Think Jackson Triggs or Henry of Pelham.

Inside, your eye is drawn to an enormous wood-fired bake oven. “It’s an Alan Scott style oven,” explains Tom, “that we built using red Ontario bricks.” It looks rustic, but is actually wired with nifty technology that allows the baker to control the temperature at all times. A few pieces of wood were smouldering when I was there in July, because the oven needed to cure before it would produce to its potential.

There are dozens of such ovens across the US and Canada, many based on Alan Scott’s design, but Tom tells me the town has deemed it a “commercial appliance,” and by mid- July had still not issued him a permit to use it. The designation has more to do with the size of the building than the oven itself. The width of the straw bale walls pushed the size of building, along with its contents, into a commercial category subject to a whole new set of regulations.

This bit of bureaucratic red tape is only one of the reasons the cidery didn’t open in 2006 as the couple had hoped. When Tom first approached the Niagara Escarpment Commission with his plans in 2005, the agency gave it a pre-emptory nix, Tom says. “I remember Tom coming home and telling me that they wouldn’t even consider it,” recalls Nicole.

At that point, the young couple had already sold the family farm and moved to the house and forty-six acres on Boston Mills Road, just east of Mississauga Road. They had even planted the orchard.

It took extraordinary efforts by several Caledon councillors, especially Richard Paterak, who is an NEC commissioner, to get the agency to crack open its doors. But even that didn’t mean NEC was warm to the idea. One of its more curious requirements was that Tom plant large native trees on the perimeter of his land to hide the apple trees. (He has planted twenty commercial varieties of apples, along with fourteen cider types, including Kingston Blacks, Red Astrachan, Golden Russet and Yarlington Mill.) Moreover, Tom had to hire a certified landscape architect to design the planting.

But as expensive and over the top as that may seem, it failed to trump the provisions Credit Valley Conservation imposed. As we looked out over the wild apple trees that are scattered across much of Tom’s land and which had attracted him to the property in the first place, he wonders why CVC is so worried about his commercial apples.

Tom had originally planned to install a greywater system to handle the wash water used to process his fruit. But, per directions from CVC, he had to hire an engineer who charged him $1,500 to prepare a nitrate-loading report. Then he installed an $80,000 storm water management system, and a $36,000 bio-filtration plant to handle the nitrogenous material in his wash water. He also spent $6,000 on a 4,000-gallon grease tank, even though his primary source of grease is a bit of butter used in baked goods. (He has no deep fryers.)

After years in the works, Caledon’s new policies on agriculture and rural lands (OPA 179) came into effect in 2009. In announcing them, the town declared, “The fundamental mandate … is to maintain Caledon’s rural heritage while providing family farmers with the opportunity to complement their agricultural business with other appropriate on-farm businesses.”

Allan Thompson, councillor for the ward where the cidery is located, is appalled by how the town has failed to live up to its own policy. The farmer- turned-politician says that his greatest disappointment is that he couldn’t do enough to help Tom and Nicole avoid the red tape. What happened to them, he says, “is wrong, totally wrong.”

In spite of it all, Tom remains amazingly upbeat. The frustrations have been offset by lots of community support and encouragement, he says.

The couple plans to have several sweet ciders (non-alcoholic) available in time for their opening. Starting in 2010, they will offer hard apple ciders in English pub style (about 5 per cent alcohol) and French bistro style (about 8 per cent alcohol).

At some point, their Tied House will serve cider along with a light lunch. (Tied houses were popular in British breweries that wanted to provide limited food service with their beer.) And once they get the oven permit, artisanal breads and other baked goods will complement the local cheeses and produce these selfprofessed “foodies” will offer.

Spirit Tree Cidery Tom Nicole

It took them years longer than expected, but Nicole Judge and Tom Wilson are set to open their upscale cidery this month. Kiernan, at one month, is the apple of his parents’ eye. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Tom and Nicole are especially proud of Spirit Tree’s energy-saving features: gravity-fed fermenters, geothermal heating and cooling, a biofiltration septic system and, of course, the straw bale construction and wood-burning oven. And their cider will be pasteurized using an ultraviolet system that uses a fraction of the energy of the heat-based process.

They had hoped to produce their apples organically, but Mother Nature forced them to move to an advanced integrated pest management system. “We’re going as organic as possible,” says Tom. They even planted wildflowers between the trees to encourage pollinators and the four beehives on their land are doing well.

Ultimately, though, the couple knows that the soil will dictate the flavour of Spirit Tree cider. They wonder if the Niagara Escarpment’s clay shale will give it a signature essence – once these intrepid entrepreneurs get all the permits they need to produce it.

UPDATE (March 20, 2010): Spirit Tree Estate Cidery has been allowed to re-open. Visit their web site for opening hours or find them on Facebook or Twitter.

More Info

Spirit Tree Estate Cidery

Proprietors Tom Wilson & Nicole Judge, 1137 Boston Mills RD – just east of Mississauga Road, 905-838-2530

spirittreecider.com

  • Sweet cider
  • Hard cider (2010)
  • Apples – 20 varieties
  • Artisanal bread & baked goods
  • Local artisanal cheeses & produce

About the Author More by Nicola Ross

Freelance writer Nicola Ross lives in Belfountain.

Comments

4 Comments

  1. [from the Niagara Escarpment Commission]

    I am writing to correct the portrayal of the Niagara Escarpment Commission (NEC) published in your story (Homegrown in the Hills: Cider House Rules) in the September issue of your magazine.

    The piece suggests that the applicants for Spirit Tree Estate Cidery and farm market in Caledon were subjected to inordinate regulatory scrutiny by the NEC, local conservation authority and the Town of Caledon.

    In the Commission’s case, the facts speak for themselves:

    * Mr. Tom Wilson submitted an incomplete application with no details or plans to the NEC in 2005. Later that year, he submitted a second application that was conditionally approved by the NEC in April 2006, for a small-scale accessory farm market.

    * The NEC’s decision was appealed to the Environmental Review Tribunal by three abutting property owners and a prospective abutting property purchaser. NEC staff were instrumental in mediating to dismiss the appeal and then participated at the hearing in support of Mr. Wilson, but this process – whose timelines are beyond our control – delayed a final positive decision by six months.

    * In the meantime, Mr. Wilson increased the size of the proposed farm market and added a cidery component, which was not part of the approved application. At the time, cideries were not a permitted activity in rural Caledon, although they were being contemplated as such in an Official Plan Amendment to the Town’s Plan being considered by the Ontario Municipal Board. Niagara Escarpment Plan policies already supported wineries and cideries, subject to municipal policies.

    * Because the application was no longer just for a small farm market but for a larger building and a cidery, an NEC Development Permit could not be issued.

    * Mr. Wilson filed a new application for the larger, more extensive operation but now had to wait for the Town’s Official Plan Amendment to be approved.

    * The NEC definitely did not require Mr. Wilson to plant trees to “hide the apple trees.” The trees were required to provide complementary screening and landscaping associated with a large proposed building and parking lot in a rural area. Outstanding scenery is a feature that characterizes Caledon. Its maintenance is a very important consideration for the NEC when a new land use is introduced.

    I regret that the writer did not contact the NEC while preparing the story because the information that was presented was incomplete and unfairly negative.

    In fact, the NEC did everything in its capacity to allow Mr. Wilson to proceed with his farm market and cidery and encourages compatible agricultural commerce in the Niagara Escarpment Plan area.

    Yours truly,

    Don Scott, Chair

    Niagara Escarpment Commission

    site admin on Nov 19, 2009 at 4:05 pm | Reply

    • Mr. Scott,

      The fact that a position such as yours exists is in itself an affront to liberty. We live in a time when regulations such as the ones imposed by the NEC are crushing the economic backbone of our Province.

      That you and your commission feel compelled to go so far as to tell private property owners how to landscape their own property tells me all I need to know about the objectives of the commission: you are busybodies who like nothing more than to tell others what to do.

      There will come a time when the people of the province will have had enough of this ridiculous regulation. It’s getting so that you can’t even cut down a tree in your own yard without permission from some regulatory body. How much more can we take?

      Al on Oct 13, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Reply

  2. To the Niagara Escarpment Commission re: the request that Spirit Tree close their Tasting Room permanently, and close their entire operation for the winter.

    We must frankly tell you that we are affronted and incensed.

    This is entirely the type of operation that is needed throughout the Escarpment and Caledon. Their operation is sustainable, follows good conservation principles, and leaves as small a footprint on the environment as is possible. It uses the land for an orchard, which is wonderful. It produces cider, using technology that preserves the flavour of the apples. We have in fact been looking for about three years for sweet cider that has not been heat pasteurized, and so far failed to find it except for Spirit Tree. The cidery, bakery, produce area, and Tasting Room menu offer a product unmatched for at least 60 km in any direction. Not only is this cidery unique, it is in fact the closest source of any such supplies close to us.

    We ourselves live on lands under the NEC’s influence. One reason why we moved here because we believe very strongly in having food that is produced in a way that is:

    · Sustainable

    · Local

    · Focussed on quality and taste

    · Transparent as to who produced the food

    · Small / personal organizations

    · Agreeable with our philosophies and

    · Organic where possible

    We have patronized Spirit Tree since close to the time of its opening as it is very close to us in its geography, its philosophy, and its quality. Expanding beyond our personal horizons, this is an operation ideally suited to this area as it brings in and supports tourism without causing any damage to the environment. This is one of the supported priorities for this area. The story of how much needless expense and endless delays were endured to start this business is already heart-rending. Why they have been persecuted in the past during the creation of this business is beyond understanding. To shut down the operation (as per your request) now that it is getting established is outrageous.

    Having had discussions with the owners on a number of occasions, I am certain that they would happily comply with any reasonable request that would help the NEC preserve the area. How this unreasonable request helps those goals is not apparent. Please immediately rescind this request to have Spirit Tree close their Tasting Room permanently, and close their entire operation for the winter.

    John Patcai and Barbara Broerman, Terra Cotta

    [Editor’s Note: the text above is from an open letter, dated February 16, 2010, that was sent to Mr. Michael Baran of the Niagara Escarpment Commission and is published here with the author’s consent.]

    John Patcai on Feb 18, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Reply

  3. Update: Spirit Tree Estate Cidery (featured in our Fall 2009 issue: http://bit.ly/bSvBhB) is profiled on YouTube: http://youtu.be/y2ikz0n2yjk

    Online Editor on Aug 19, 2010 at 8:57 pm | Reply

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