Mike O’Brien greeted people as they filed into one of his orchard’s many greenhouses for an apple tasting Saturday afternoon.
The 75-year-old retired master carpenter, who owns O’Brien Garden and Trees in Nikiski, said farming is more of a lifestyle than a career path for him.
“I was just pre-programmed,” O’Brien said on Saturday. “Farming has always been a real highlight to my life.”
O’Brien said he wanted to farm animals as well, but that he couldn’t bring himself to send them off to the butcher. So, he decided to build a life around agriculture.
For a few months in the winter, O’Brien said, he gets to spend his time at his farm in Costa Rica where he grows everything from citrus fruits and berries to avocados and coffee. For the first few seasons in Costa Rica, he stayed in a barn with no plumbing or electricity, he said.
“I stayed in the cowshed,” he said. “It was just another Alaska adventure, and it’s a good thing — growing up in Alaska really gives you a positive outlook on everything.”
Saturday’s tasting at the Nikiski orchard was open to the public and contained 18 different varieties of apples from this fall’s harvest. Community members moved along the table with evaluation sheets to score their favorite kinds of apples, and then perused the aisles of the orchard and picked their favorite fruits.
Pre-plucked plums, peaches and apples, as well as young, potted fruit trees were also for sale.
O’Brien said he hosts apple tastings at the end of each growing season, which happens three times per year. Generally, he said, the summer, fall and winter apples ripen within about three weeks of each other.
O’Brien said that he’s also hosted plum and cherry tastings, but on a much smaller scale. The farm is “experimental” — it all depends on which crops work best for any given growing season.
Tasting the fruit for oneself, O’Brien said, gives people a better gauge of what they’re looking for.
“It gives them an on-the-spot deal; it’s not a catalogue (where) you’re reading recommendations,” he said. “It is their own taste buds telling them what to do.”
O’Brien said he loves working in an environment with like-minded people who are passionate about the business, and he’s thankful he can still run the orchard at 75 years old.
“I’ve been fortunate because I have good health and I’m still with it,” he said.
By 80, O’Brien wants to expand his farm even further east on his property.
“My life is very much working with nature, that’s for sure,” he said.
O’Brien Garden and Trees is continuing with its fall tasting on Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. The cover charge for adults is $5 and kids 3 and older can get in for $3. The winter apple tasting will likely be in about two weeks.