According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of the word ‘virtue’ is “conformity to a standard of right : morality”. This best explains the approach by a small Michigan cidery and farm that has kept sustainability in mind in every aspect of its business, from the ingredients to land management to energy conservation.
The Virtue cidery and farm
Virtue Cider sits on 48 acres of land in Fennville, Michigan — the home of an apple orchard in the late 1800s. The company pays homage to this history by not only producing a variety of hard cider beverages but also qualifying as a certified farm by the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program.
The cidery portion of the property is housed in three buildings. Cider House 1 includes a taproom and bottle shop for guests to sample and shop. It also contains space for apple pressing and barrel storage. It relies on passive temperature control, because the building has no central heating or cooling systems. Although the process of pressing apples and making cider requires low energy consumption, the farm added 200 solar panels in the fall of 2019 that meet more than half of the property’s energy needs.
Cider House 2 also has no centralized heating or cooling and was built with a floor that sits recessed underground for natural temperature control. The building holds 22 fermentation tanks, which allow the cider to ferment naturally in the environment without the need for artificial heating or cooling.
A third cider house is under development with a focus on low energy consumption as well. Turning to another resource, the process uses very little water too.
Of course any business has to deal with waste. In the case of cider, this means figuring out what to do with the piles of mashed apples, called pomace. Virtue Cider solved this dilemma by offering the pomace to a local beefalo farmer, who picks it up and feeds it to his livestock. They also compost in conjunction with a bigger plan that allows the plants, animals and business to work in balance.
Restoring the landscape
It was important to founder Gregory Hall to re-establish elements of the original homestead by improving the land. With this in mind, the farm has 15 acres of native landscaping including grasses and plants. This habitat attracts more than 200 species of birds and provides a haven for butterflies while also drawing in other pollinators, like honeybees. Visitors can watch the progress of monarch butterflies as they transform from caterpillars to chrysalis to majestic wings in flight.
“At Virtue we’ve taken a stand with the concern of our friends at the National Monarch Watch, dedicating our space as an established Monarch Waystation,” the company said. “We take it one step further by educating our guests through our staff when they visit our farm.”
In conjunction with the business, there is a young orchard on site. However, this farm has more than crops and native plants. It also puts a strong emphasis on rehabilitating heritage animal breeds. This includes Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs, which, as the story goes, gained their spots as bruises caused by falling apples, so they are a breed that marries well with the orchard and cidery. The farm also hosts a variety of heritage breed chickens. Virtue Cider practices a Living System land management philosophy, which means that while the animals enjoy the benefits of daily care, they contribute to a full-circle natural system that develops healthy soil by grazing on grass and plants to keep them trimmed.
All ingredients for Virtue Ciders are grown and sourced locally for minimal transport emissions. This process also means the business maintains personal connections with the farmers who provide the crops. These close relationships have provided farmers an opportunity to experiment with their crops and reinvest in heritage varietals rather than only cater to the commercial market. The variety means sometimes Virtue Cider doesn’t even know what ingredients will show up, but feels it adds to the challenge and joy of what it does.
As business partners and members of the same community, the approach of using multi-species livestock, pasture rotations, sustainable planting practices and native plants results in better grasslands and soil, which counterbalances the degradation issues in Michigan and across the country.
Virtue Cider also invites new farmers to take part in the development of their own businesses. The company offers The Grow Your Farmer Project by granting 1/4-acre parcels of land, resources and support to new and aspiring first-generation farmers. Virtue Cider Farm hopes to foster interest for other startups by making the process easier. It wants to mentor the next generation of farmers by taking away some of the challenges in launching a business and providing the infrastructure needed to get started.
Virtue’s ciders and swag
The Virtue Cider Farm offers tours and tastings as well as a storefront. It also has curbside pickup and shipping available. There are a variety of cider options, including the bubbly Salut! and fruit-infused options like peach, cherry and blueberry ciders. Check the website for seasonal specials. For example, a recent Earth Day bundle included four bottles of cider and a free solar phone charger. The company also has a full range of branded swag for its most loyal fans.
Images via Virtue Cider