From Seed to Cider: An Interview with Mark Silm (The History)

I’ve met a lot of people over the course of my life. But to this day, I’m yet to meet someone quite so genuine as Mark Silm. Try as I might, I can’t think of a more appropriate term to use in relation to the man.

Seated beneath sprawling branches, with a well-worn Golden Star Australian Persimmons cap blocking out the summer sunlight, Mark seems less-than-comfortable in front of my camera. When I ask him if he’s ready to get going, he offers a small chuckle. “Ready as I’ll ever be, I don’t like cameras.” As I fiddle with the lens, he shifts anxiously in the lopsided plastic chair that we’ve borrowed from the old veranda nearby.

“Hi there, my name’s Mark,” he introduces himself. “I’m a third-generation farmer at Cedar Creek Orchard.” 

You’d never suspect the history that lies behind such a simple statement. “My grandfather started the farm,” Mark goes on to say. “Dad built it up, and I’m keeping it running.” From where he watches, perched on the veranda steps, Nathan huffs, amused. Unable to help myself, I do that same, because we both know that ‘keeping it running’ is perhaps the understatement of the century.

In 1937, the land that would one day become Cedar Creek Orchard was purchased by Mark’s grandfather, Hugo, after his immigration from Estonia. The first apple trees were planted in 1940, and when Roland, Mark’s father, chose to follow in Hugo’s footsteps, the future of the orchard was placed in his hands.

“Dad was a brilliant man,” Mark tells me. “He should have been an engineer. He’d see something happening, and he’d work on ways to fix it.” When I ask him to explain, Mark chuckles once again. “Ah, there’s just too many things that Dad did to build the farm.”

These days, Cedar Creek sprawls with over twenty-three-thousand apple trees. Roland’s first block, however, consisted of less than five thousand. “We called it the Old Orchard,” Mark recalls with fondness. “But Dad knew, because he had four children at that stage, that he needed to increase his production,” he goes on to tell me. “The only land he had was total bush. So he, with an axe, felled all of these trees on a thirty-two acre.” With the money raised from selling those very same trees, Roland purchased a bulldozer and created the space needed for another eight-thousand trees. It may have been hard-won, yet it was this space that would go on to become the orchard that Cedar Creek is today.

“It ruined Dad’s shoulders,” Mark adds with a laugh. “Two years of axe work.”  

It seems to me, however, that Roland Silm was not one to shy away from hard work. Sadly, he passed in 2015, and I regret that I’ll never hear this story from his lips. Yet all one has to do is wander a mere five minutes through Cedar Creek’s orchards for Roland’s legacy to become evident. From clearing thirty-two acres of bush by hand to constructing a juicing machine with nothing more than a photograph to use as reference, Roland dedicated his life to this orchard. Or, as Mark puts it: “It was his life.” 

It’s a lofty legacy to carry, this legacy of Cedar Creek Orchard. But the humble claim that he’s merely ‘keeping it running’ fails even to scratch the surface when it comes to what Mark himself has invested. Since its establishment, Cedar Creek has consistently set the standard for apple juice in Australia. His father formed the foundations, and yet, it is Mark who has ensured the longevity of the orchard’s bedrock. 

He tells me that it’s not been an easy road. “We’ve just gone through one of the worst droughts on record,” Mark points out. “It’s the worst drought that I’ve ever seen.” Australia is nothing if not a land of uncertainties. In 2016, the Picton floods saw the orchard overflowing, but by early 2017, the dam was dry. Since then, Mark has been forced to use bore water - or ‘survival rations’, as he describes it - to irrigate the fruit. “It’s been very difficult,” he admits. “But we’ve deepened our dam, hoping that next time there’s a drought, we’ll have enough water.” 

I ask Mark if he worries for the orchard’s future. “I always have worries,” he replies. “Look, I’m not smart, okay?” Again, I hear Nathan huff out a laugh. “I knew that I didn’t want to go on to do the HSC and then a university degree, because my aim from fourteen, fifteen, sixteen was to come back to the farm and work with Dad.” There’s no laughter now: in Mark’s words, I hear only conviction and an unwavering determination. “I see Cedar Creek in ten, fifteen, twenty years being a destination. As long as we’re proactive instead of reactive, we should be able to overcome any problems that I can see.”

As I sit with Mark beneath the old tree, it’s impossible for me to doubt this assertion. In his words, I can hear the same passionate motivation that has resulted in the birth of our cider, and I’m reminded of something that Nathan once said. “Every single time when I was growing up,” he told me, “when someone asked me, ‘What do you wanna do, what’re you gonna be when you’re older?’ it was always the farm.” 

I realise that, at the heart of Cedar Creek Orchard, there is a family. Four generations of labour, of love, and of constant belief in the ability to grow, to become more. And it is, for this reason, I believe Mark when he tells me that the orchard will stay standing. “Many and varied things have changed,” he says, and this could not be truer. The orchard’s future may well look very different from its past, but Mark firmly believes that his children will steer Cedar Creek through the years ahead. “As an example, Nathan and cider,” he says, “or Anthony, our middle boy, he’s Cedar Creek Electrical. And Damien, our oldest boy, he’s joined us in a partnership.” It’s clear, to me at least, that so long as the Silm family remains, apple juice will flow from Cedar Creek Orchard. “It’s the family farm. It means everything.”

The tree is no longer holding back the sun quite so well, and I know that there’s juice to be bottled, to be shipped. And so, I let Mark return to his day, but not before posing one final question. When I ask him if he believes Roland would be proud, Mark smiles. “Dad would be proud. He’d be very very proud.

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