Just how many ways are there to enjoy apples, anyway?
Everyone knows they're a delicious and healthful snack fresh off the tree. Dip them in that sticky red candy coating and they make a nice Halloween treat. And what would Thanksgiving be without the distinctive aroma of a fresh-baked apple pie wafting through the house?
Some people toss them into salads . . . and of course there's applesauce.
Running out of ideas?
Maybe a trip to Niagara's Apple Country Festival would spark the imagination. Among the activities scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 9-10 are demonstrations of "a variety of specialty apple food products," said David Kinyon, president of the Eastern Niagara Chamber of Commerce, primary sponsor of the event.
The festival, now in its seventh year and located at the Niagara County Fairgrounds on Route 78, was organized to promote "agri-tourism" and Niagara County's apple growers, among the tops in the state in both quantity and quality.
"It's a two-day event that features farm-fresh produce, a juried arts and crafts show, demonstrations, musical entertainment and kids' games," Kinyon said.
Among the highlights, of course, are the exhibits demonstrating the many uses of the apple. Sure, there's pie -- but what about apple pizza, "frapples" (fried apples), apple crisps, apple butter, apple sausage and the new alternative to fatty potato snacks, apple chips?
Mayer Brothers, another event sponsor, will be on hand with plenty of their own apple specialty -- delicious cider.
Even the crafters are asked to employ apple themes in their works, and organizer Donna Landers said there will be more than ever on hand for this year's event.
"The last two years we've drawn in excess of 40,000 people," Kinyon said. "It's really become a well-established draw." Rochester and Fayetteville also offer seasonal events, "but we're the biggie here in the Erie-Niagara region," Kinyon said.
One of the goals of the festival is to expose people to the variety of fresh produce available in Niagara County, in hopes they'll return later on to patronize roadside stands and farm markets.
Niagara County is one of the top fruit-producing areas in the state, in large part because it lies on an old lake bed that left behind "gravelly, sandy soil with lots of dead stuff in it," said Burt farmer Carol Murphy of Murphy Orchards.
"The soil is very rich," she said, which "allows us to grow beautiful fruit here. I would like to see the local people have an appreciation of it. It's disheartening to walk into local stores and see specials on Washington State apples."
Ms. Murphy said those stores are starting to recognize the quality and value of locally grown fruit, and are starting to offer more of it. But it's a measure of progress that came too late for some growers, who sold their operations or moved on to other ventures.
"Agriculture is the number one industry in New York and in Niagara County," Ms. Murphy pointed out, while noting that the state is nonetheless "losing farmers at an exponential rate.
"That's why things like this (festival) are so important to those of us in the business. If farms are to be saved, there needs to be some awareness. As a grower I'm thrilled to death with this, because it brings all kinds of attention to growers and the importance of (agriculture)."
Attendees at this year's event should be pleasantly surprised with the quality of the apples, Ms. Murphy said.
"They taste better than I have ever seen," she said, noting that the summer's abundant sunshine created perfect growing conditions.
Murphy Orchards produces 17 different varieties of apples -- "mostly ones that no one else in the area grows" -- and will feature many at the festival.
"There are almost as many different varieties of apples as there are breeds of dogs," Ms. Murphy said. "It's a popularity contest: (older) varieties are constantly being replaced by newer ones."
Fuji is one of the most popular varieties currently offered locally, along with traditional favorites Macintosh and Red Delicious.
And, of course, there are the Empires -- the state's "official" apple, a variety achieved by crossing Macs and Red Delicious.
"Fortunately it is a good apple," Ms. Murphy said. "But there are new (varieties) coming along every day."
The Eastern Niagara Chamber relies on about 100 volunteers to pull off the festival. Tops Markets, Independent Health, the Niagara Council on the Arts and New Horizon Fruit Sales are additional sponsors.
Festival general chairman Jean McKenna said that a local farm family will also be honored with induction into the Apple Hall of Fame during the event. The Hall of Fame was established in 1998 "to recognize families who have contributed significantly to the growth of the local apple industry."
Russell Farms -- suitably situated in Appleton -- was the first inductee. The farm was established in 1866 and pioneered the introduction of the dwarf apple stock tree, an innovation that significantly increased apple production, McKenna said
Farm personnel have also been active in local, regional and state apple associations.
Unfortunately, many local apple growers are unable to attend the festival in person because it falls during the heart of the harvest season.
"The people we would most like to have are unable to come because they have to be in the fields for their livelihood," Ms. Murphy said. "But the Eastern Niagara Chamber of Commerce has worked very, very hard to see it grows and to make it a success, and it's absolutely been growing by leaps and bounds."