Text by Sue Burns and Photos by Taylor Johnson
o say that Kelley Hansen is busier than your average lady would be an understatement. Her name will be familiar if you’ve ever purchased bakery-made apple products from her Cider House Foods branch of Mount Dennison Orchards, but that is far from her only endeavor.
Married to husband Chad for 20 years, she is mom to Phoenix, 18; Malachi, 15; Graysen, 11; Ezra, 9, and Liam, 6. She serves on the California Apple Commission board, grows and sells apples, and teaches students about apple history. And she has more projects in the works. A Springville native, she is solidly connected to the land and her community, her unique experiences making her dreams and her life as well-rounded as … well, an apple.
We spoke during the height of the SQF Complex Fire. Kelley said she’d been on a roller coaster of feelings that ran the gamut from hope to despair. She was feeling incredible relief that the winds had calmed, preventing the fire from spreading to Springville and Three Rivers. The previous Sunday night, when the fire had taken on a life of its own, she said, “You could hear the fire, and it was terrifying. I’ve never heard anything like that in my life … you just knew everything in its path was being incinerated. Our history was being burned … apple orchards, logging camps, everything we are as settlers of the West.”
Kelley took in evacuees and animals on the defensible space around her home. Because the family chose to stay when voluntary evacuation orders were issued for Springville, Kelley and Chad were able to quickly relay important information to their friend, a retired battalion chief, about fire activity on Moses Mountain. He arrived quickly and watched with them as it jumped to Mount Dennison Ridge. He immediately radioed the command station, which did not yet know of the new fire.
That same afternoon, they provided important information to out-of-town firefighters, including a battalion chief from San Diego, gathering knowledge about the terrain, weather conditions and water sources. One source comes from the Hansens’ orchards, where river water that gravity feeds from the North Fork of the Tule River does not require electricity. If local power goes out and well pumps stop working, the river provides a continuous water supply to fill the engines at the fire line.
Kelley was grateful to help in any way. “Our whole community is and has always been about making something out of nothing — creating our businesses and nurturing the community while supporting and encouraging each other. Watching the progression of the fire is akin to seeing our blood, sweat and tears burn.”
The daughter of a lumberjack, Kelley grew up in logging camps (Springville, Balch Park, Camp Nelson). She carried her father’s wedges, jacks and other equipment every day. In winter, her father was a trapper and fur trader; the family assisted in those endeavors, too. Spending their days in the mountains, her father was adamant that survival skills were a must, teaching Kelley to build a lean-to and catch trout with her hands.
Until her parents bought a home, the family lived off the land with no electricity, eating what they could catch and pick — and that’s where her lifelong love of apples began. Their best times were in their tent and trailer: “We were truly living our best life and didn’t want for anything.” Walking the trails, they would find old apple orchards planted by settlers a hundred years before. Kelley loved being surrounded by trees that she could pick anytime, never guessing the integral part that apples would play in her adult life.
Kelley met Chad in high school in Porterville. They reconnected in college, where she studied to be a teacher, and married. They purchased 10 acres of land above Springville and planted apple trees even before they built their home — which they did by hand with the help of family and friends. Their older two children helped in the process. It took a few years to clear the land, cutting down trees and stacking brush to burn. “I would often do this clearing with babies in backpack while my husband worked his day job. The older children would help me drag brush. Once the land was clear, it took us a year and a half to build our home … truly a family and friend affair.”
The children share in the daily responsibilities of the orchards and business, collecting chicken eggs for the bakery and feeding the chickens, goats, horses, dogs and cats. They pull weeds and cut suckers away from the base of the apple trees in the orchards and check irrigation lines for clogs or breaks to ensure that the trees are getting water.
“Concern for my children’s well-being and their character” led to a decision to home-school for 11 years. “My time was precious with them. Home-schooling is not easy, but at the same time, it is so rewarding. This last year, we put everyone in school, as my business was starting to take most of my time with a lot of increasing demand and growth … then COVID-19 struck and they came back home.”
Her inner teacher can’t be denied, though. Around Johnny Appleseed Day (Sept. 26), she’ll be in class (in a non-COVID year) at Springville Elementary School and on video for another elementary kindergarten as she shows students how apples trace migration in the U.S. from coast to coast. Apples aren’t native to America; crops arrived with immigrants from Europe and Russia, who planted them in the East. They brought them along as they migrated west, crossing varieties with other travelers along the way. Besides being a source of food, during times when water could be unsafe to drink, apple cider and hard cider were common beverages.
The kids learn how apples grow and turn into fruit, giving them some agricultural, planting and pruning background. They make pie that is baked by the school cook, press their own cider and taste fresh versus store-bought fruit. If the school has a garden, they plant an apple tree — Springville has a mini-orchard now.
Speaking of orchards, Mount Dennison Orchards has two. The family’s home, heirloom and commercial orchards are at 3,000 feet just above Springville. The home orchard has 10 acres of heritage apples, which Kelley has always been attracted to because of their history. Springville was thought to be the apple capital of the West Coast, but orchards declined as younger generations moved away for careers in other fields and necessary major updates became cost prohibitive.
“They were forgotten but still there, just like ‘The Secret Garden’ — I’ve always loved that story.” She’s grafted cuttings from the orchards to rootstock in her home trees and looks forward to the day when she can tell Cider House customers “these apples/this juice/these products are all made with fruit from our own orchards.”
Across the street, 50 acres of commercial varieties will be planted next spring, to be a “U-pick” in three years. It was originally a Winesap orchard established in 1925. The original apple stand is still there, as is an old mountain farmhouse being renovated to offer vacation rentals. Cooking classes will emphasize the farm-to-table experience for guests and students. Eventually, it will host events. ”It’s too beautiful not to share,” Kelley said.
Ever curious and innovative, Kelley is also working with a Cornell University professor who will be sending rootstock for planting in the commercial orchard. Observing how these transplants take to the mountain climate, which historically has been ideal for growing apples, will be a learning experience that could help to revitalize the area’s orchards.
At 5,000 feet in the Upper Grouse Valley lies an orchard that Kelley acquired this year, with trees more than a century old. In October (once the fires are out), she’ll be collecting samples to send to the Lost Apple Project, which will determine their varieties. In the spring, she’ll send leaf samples to the University of Washington for additional genetic information (an ancestry.com for apples). She’s eager to know what heritage varieties are growing high above the valley.
Folks are most familiar with Kelley’s Cider House Foods, founded to sell pressed apple cider syrup more than 35 years ago by locals Barbara and Larry Otter. Ownership was eventually transferred to another local couple, the Mannings, who became neighbors and friends of the Hansens as they got to know and respect each other at their farmer’s market booths.
When Kelley took over, she learned to make the existing recipes “the old-fashioned way,” and expanded the product line to include apple granola and other baked goods. She loves keeping artisan apple traditions alive through these recipes and so do loyal customers, who drive from all over the Central Valley to her home bakery and Ponderosa Lodge, which sells out each week. “I’m blessed that we have been able to continue working and keeping our employees working during this crazy year,” she said.