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Article From Yankee Magazine:
Fruit from the Desert:
New Mexico’s Hidden Apple Country
Nothing about the drive to Dixon’s Apple Farm would ever tell you
that you’re in apple country. The road to the farm heads west from the interstate,
passing the man-made expanse of Cochiti Lake and the low-slung buildings of the nearby
pueblo. The high desert landscape halfway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe is mostly a flat
expanse of ochre-colored earth dotted with sagebrush and pinon trees, framed by the Jemez
Mountains in the distance.
That starkness makes the entrance to the farm seem all the more Edenic. Round a corner
and head down a little hill past a sign that reads “Apple eaters have the right of way,” and you’re
suddenly overwhelmed by green. Neat rows of apple trees—fifty acres’ worth—run the length
of a wide canyon floor edged by sandstone cliffs, the grass beneath the trees blazing up from
the moist, volcanic soil. The heavy fruit on the branches is a testament to the power of ample
desert sunshine and a regular supply of water from the narrow Rio Chiquito.
Nearly all year long, this is a quiet place. The farm is surrounded by the vast expanse
of Bandelier National Monument, a protected wilderness best known for its collection of
twelfth-century Pueblo cliff dwellings. Tourists travel from around the world to visit the park
and scramble up ladders to the caves, but few know of this little bit of apple paradise just a few
But the locals know. Every September, they come in droves to buy the Dixon’s apples,
snaking down those last few miles of Highway 22 in a long line. The apples sell out within
weeks; weekends are a madhouse. The farm grows Red Delicious and Rome apples, but what
really attracts the crowds are their signature varieties, which the farm’s founder, Fred Dixon,
named Champagne and Sparkling Burgundy, after he discovered the two chance seedlings in
the late 1940s.
“There are cars backed up for four miles,” says Becky Mullane, Dixon’s grandaughter,
who now runs the farm with her husband, Jim (Dixon passed away in 2009). “People waiting
at six a.m. to get in the gate. We sell everything. Being just a family farm, it’s hard to pass
people through quickly. But we don’t want it to be a Walmart experience. We want an apple
In a world of big box stores and commodity fruit, Dixon’s is a tonic for the soul. It’s
fully a family farm, with just one full-time employee and some horses. Becky and Jim’s
three children are being raised and home-schooled on the property. Until his fragile health
forced him to leave the farm in 2007, Fred Dixon lived in a small home next to Becky’s. Her
devotion to her grandfather goes back to 1986, when she left college at eighteen to move to
New Mexico and help him keep the farm after her grandmother, Faye, passed away. “As a kid,
I dreamed about living here,” Becky says. “And I was worried about him. Once I got involved
with the work and saw I could do it and saw people at harvest and what it meant to them, it
made me want to be here even more.” There was one problem, though: Dixon worried about
her prospects as a young woman living on a remote farm with her grandfather. “I didn’t want
her here,” he told me several years ago. “I told her, ‘I’ll keep the farm until you graduate from
college.’ I figured she was some scatterbrained eighteen-year-old.”
But Becky surprised him by staying.
“Grandad said, ‘You’re never gonna get married,’” says Becky. “Then Jim showed up and
he had to eat his words.”
Jim took to the farming life and Fred turned the property over to the couple in 1996.
In recent years, they’ve added a herd of cattle, three thousand more Champagne trees, and
a micro-irrigation system, which has helped them survive an ongoing drought. “We have
tremendous faith,” says Becky. “You have to have faith that you’ll get through freezing times
and hail. In fifteen minutes you can be wiped out. But I’m not afraid of it.”
When I visited Fred Dixon in August 2006, he was spending most
days in his green easy chair in his small house behind Becky and Jim’s renovated
log cabin. Becky and the kids wandered in and out. He was still cooking for the family. He
watched television. It was a quiet, happy life.
He first came to New Mexico in 1944, driving from Colorado with Faye and their two
children in an old Plymouth. He had been trained as an arborist, and “wanted a chance to do
something on my own,” as he put it. James Webb Young, the legendary advertising executive
who founded the Ad Council, had retired to Pena Blanca, New Mexico, and needed someone
to manage the fruit trees on his dude ranch. “There were wild apple trees everywhere,” Dixon
said. And rocks. Thousands of rocks that had to be moved by hand (the stones now form a
wall that you pass on the way into the property). He hated the place at first—its disorder, the
hailstorms, the Wild West nature of the surrounding community—and almost headed back
to Colorado, but Faye persuaded him to stay. “It was a mess. But Mr. Young let me do what I
wanted, as long as I made money.” One wild tree in particular caught Dixon’s attention. The
fruit was juicy and sweet, with bright acidity, and it held up well in baking. Plus, it kept for
months in the refrigerator. “Faye said, ‘I think we could sell this,’” Dixon said. He named it
after the finest thing he could think of: Champagne. “I honestly think it’s the best apple in the
world,” he said.
Once word spread, the apples became a New Mexican tradition. “People tell us that
this is a ritual for them like going to the Balloon Fiesta or roasting chiles,” Becky says. But
while Dixon did trademark his Champagne apples (and another promising variety he named
“Sparkling Burgundy”), he decided not to sell his scions to other farmers, preferring to keep
the apple on the farm, where its scarcity ensures steady demand. It’s a significant revenue loss,
but the family is determined. “Other growers don’t necessarily take care of the apples the way
we do,” Becky says. “And we’re not in it to get rich. We just want to keep it a family business.”
It looks like they’re pulling it off. It’s enough to give the most jaded city slicker hope for
the future. As Becky drives me around the property, she points out her sons’ horses, the spot
where she and Jim got married during apple blossom time. Without actually saying so, she
makes it clear that her “sacrifice” at age eighteen was really no sacrifice at all.
“Becky is more than a granddaughter to me,” Fred Dixon told me on that August day.
“She’s a great friend. And sometimes a friend is the best thing you can have.”