John Bunker, MOFGA’s ‘Apple Guy’
By Marada Cook
On his first trip to Maine in 1961, and “moved by its beauty, the water and what seemed like a simpler lifestyle,” John Bunker decided on a plan to move to Maine and bid suburbia a permanent farewell. He was 11 years old and ready to head for the woods.
Twelve years later Bunker marched up to the podium at Colby College, shook the president’s hand, and beat feet to 180 forested acres in Palermo. “Two friends and I bought land while we were still in school,” he says; “I moved out here the day we graduated.”
From a small clearing with four or five log cabins, newly cleared garden space, and a constantly revolving cast of characters, Bunker and his friends watched the beginnings of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “At the time,” Bunker says, “we knew nothing about soil, gardening or crop raising. I was an English major, not an ag student. We had very little info available to us.”
Over the past 32-1/2 years, Bunker’s close contact with MOFGA aided his efforts as he worked in his garden and watched the evolution of SuperChili Farm. As his friends left the land to find ‘city jobs’ or go back to school, Bunker looked toward food and agriculture to provide a livelihood that would allow him to continue homesteading. Among his first food oriented enterprises were sales of “live-food sprout salads” at the earliest Common Ground Fairs, and wholesaling apple cider in later years. By 1980, he had founded and begun working for Fedco Trees, a job that both complemented and encouraged his skill at growing fruit trees.
“There’s no doubt that John loves apples,” says Jack Kertesz, who works with Bunker on MOFGA’s landscape committee. The gardens at SuperChili Farm are filled with rootstocks, whips and nearly 100 trees. Bunker has collected dozens of heirloom cultivars for MOFGA’s Maine Heritage Orchard, and his display of 120 apple varieties at the Common Ground Fair has earned him the nickname, “The Apple Guy.”
“The most important part of John’s work,” says MOFGA’s executive director Russell Libby, “is the infectious nature of what he does.” After attending one of Bunker’s orcharding workshops [see the MOFGA Notes in this MOF&G ], participants often find themselves determined to plant dozens of their own trees, enthusiastically memorizing names of local apple varieties.
“I felt strongly that we should have an orchard where we could ‘tip our hats’ to local agriculture,” Bunker says, explaining the philosophy behind MOFGA’s Maine Heritage Orchard, “so we planted the North Orchard with apple varieties originally bred or found in Maine.” The orchard has become both a classroom and a living history lesson. “John has a knack for reaching back and connecting with the old-timers in Maine,” Libby notes. “In a certain way, his work extends our notion of family.”
As he searches for remnants of our agricultural heritage, Bunker is also looking forward. He recently became president of MOFGA’s Board of Directors, and currently sits on “more committees than I can keep track of.” He’s excited about future efforts to improve MOFGA’s Common Grounds, and the growing awareness of local agriculture. “Maine is a state where agriculture and history are synonymous,” Bunker said. His work is an integral part of both.