Since 1905, the family-run apple orchards of Gays Mills have been both a major source of agricultural employment and tourism. Every year, thousands of people, who want to enjoy the fall beauty of the Driftless hills and the harvest bounty of the orchards, make the trip to the Gays Mills area orchards.
This year, the apple season is running around a week to two weeks behind the normal picking schedule, thanks to a cool spring and a delayed bloom. Despite that, the early varieties are largely harvested and the orchards are picking their primary varieties just in time for Apple Fest weekend!
If you begin the winding path between orchards from the west, the first stop on the orchard trail is West Ridge Orchard at 52132 Highway 171, located near Mount Sterling, approximately 3.5 miles west of Gays Mills.
Orchardist Gaylon O’Neal offers 33 varieties of apples from the orchard he has owned since 2007. Planted originally in the early 1960s by Dick and Amy Heal, O’Neal has been busy bringing in new varieties. The orchard has 20 acres currently in active production with Honeycrisp, McIntosh, and Cortlands making up the bulk of sales.
“Around 75-percent of our sales are retail,” O’Neal noted. “And in addition to the apples, we have all the winter squashes, pumpkins, gourds, and Indian corn. We also have potatoes and onions, of which we grow about half. We just can’t grow enough to meet demand.”
O’Neal and his crew are also offering up samples of their newest addition to the salesroom – apple crisp doughnuts. Made with cider pressed from their apples and bits of apple pieces and spices, the doughnuts are made fresh daily throughout the season.
The orchard also offers pick your own grapes and plums. The plums were just ripening in time for Apple Fest, according to O’Neal.
You can also find cider, bake-your-own pies, and many specialty food items in the salesroom.
When you resume your travels east 2.5 miles toward Gays Mills, you come across Stevenson Road, which is the turn to take to visit the only certified organic orchard in the area. You will drive north on Stevenson Road until it ends at Turkey Ridge Road, where you turn right and drive another half mile to reach Turkey Ridge Organic Orchard at 50350 Turkey Ridge Road.
The orchard was founded in 1987 by Richard Gaynor. It has been certified organic since 1988. The orchard was owned and run by the Bedessem family and Bob Johnson through most of the 90s.
The Turkey Ridge Orchard has been owned by Faye and Greg Welsh since 2001. Greg was involved in planting the trees at the orchard when it was founded.
The orchard currently has 30 acres in active production with 16 varieties. Half of the varieties were developed by the University of Missouri. The others come from New York University and Michigan University. All were developed specifically for organic production. Enterprise, Anonymous, Priscilla, and Liberty apples make up the largest portion of apple sales.
Unlike the other orchards, all of the bagged apple sales are on the farm and the bulk of the crop is going to value-added products. The Welshes produce organic raw apple cider, apple cider vinegar, apple pies, canned apple pie filling, applesauce, apple butter, apple jelly, and apple syrup on the farm. And a portion of the apples is being shipped out wholesale as an ingredient in organic dog food.
They also sell morel mushrooms, asparagus and strawberries in the spring. They are further diversifying their crops, adding aronia berries, service berries, and high-bush cranberries.
“We also have grass-fed pork available, which is sold ahead primarily through people calling and letting us know what they want to purchase, sort of like a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture),” Faye said, gesturing to the pen set up to receive the next batch of piglets.
“It (selling pork) sort of just happened,” Faye continued. “People just asked us about it since we have them here grazing in the orchard.”
The Welshes use grazing pigs, cows, chickens, sheep, and horses as part of their management strategy for the orchard. The hooved animals help reduce plant growth through grazing that would harbor insects, the poultry eat the insects, and all of animals provide fertilizer.
The couple is extremely proud of their products and attribute the 26 years of organic practices for creating one of the cleanest possible apple ciders - the vinegar was tested by Pacific Agricultural Laboratories for Oregon Tilth last October for 164 known pesticides without any residue traces found.
That is quite an accomplishment. According to the Environmental Working Group, using data provided by the USDA, 98% of organic apples have pesticide residues when tested.
Now, if your ready to head back to Highway 171 and resume the eastward trek, after passing through the Village of Gays Mills and up the steep incline of the orchard hill you will come to Sunrise Orchards at 48340 State Highway 171.
Sunrise is the largest orchard operation in the Gays Mills area. The orchard grows more than 20 varieties of apples on just over 200 acres of trees.
The orchard was created in 1913 as one of the original 40-acre Kickapoo Development Company apple plantings. Ellery and Grace Teach came to the Gays Mills area in 1934. After years of hard work, they were able to purchase Sunrise Orchard for sole ownership in 1956. It continues to be run by their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Ellery and Grace’s son Maynard and his wife Janet return to work at the orchard during the harvest.
“It’s all hands on deck during harvest,” said Allen Teach.
The stars of the crop are the McIntosh, Honeycrisp, and Cortland apples, accounting for 75-percent of the crop. Retail sales through the salesroom and gift boxes account for 25-percent of their annual sales, with wholesale accounting for the remainder.
In addition to apples, the Sunrise salesroom has a wide variety of specialty foods and is known for a bakery that produces a half-million apple cider donuts each year. Add to that a cider pressing operation that produces many thousands of gallons each year.
Sunrise also offers one layer (18 apples), two layer (36 apples), and five layer (one bushel) gift boxes which can be shipped anywhere in the continental U.S. except California and Arizona. Boxes ship every Monday beginning October 27 and ending December 8. Specialty boxes are also available and can contain any of their specialty foods from jellies to Amish candy to Sunrise bakery’s Carrot or Pumpkin Logs. Specialty box orders can be made until December 13.
The salesroom at Sunrise offers a wide variety of jams, jellies, fruit butter, condiments and other specialty food items along with calendars, kitchen items, and other gifts.
Back on the road and headed east, the next stop is Richard’s Orchard, 47222 Highway 171.
The orchard belongs to Richard and Michelle Wilson and is run by Richard’s brother Larry and his wife Mary.
It was once part of Frank’s Orchard, founded in 1937, and was bought by Wilson 20 years ago.
Richard Wilson put his orchard dream mostly on hold after moving to New Mexico for his work. With his brother and sister-in-law coming on board, the dream is being brought to fruition.
The orchard is using organic methods to grow their crops. They plan to recertify the orchard as organic within two years.
The Wilsons’ have six acres in production with five varieties of apples for sale. Cortlands are being picked and Larry anticipated having Red Delicious on the shelf for Apple Fest.
The small orchard sells all of their apples through their salesroom and at farmers markets in Gays Mills, Prairie du Chien and Cresco, Iowa.
“We also have limited amounts of unpasteurized apple cider and dried apples,” Wilson noted.
The salesroom also has pecans from New Mexico and plans to add vegetables and native nuts to the line-up next year.
A mere mile east on Highway 171 is the Kickapoo Orchard, celebrating its 100-year anniversary as an orchard and it’s 50-year anniversary in the Meyer family.
Kickapoo Orchard was founded by the Shubert family in 1914. In 1964, Bill and Marlene Meyer moved to the orchard with their sons, Andy and Michael.
The orchard has approximately 100 acres in active apple production with another two acres devoted to cherries, raspberries, and grapes, according to Julie Meyer. Julie began working in the orchard 20 years ago and is the spouse of Andy.
“We have over 40 varieties,” Julie noted. “Honeycrisp, Cortland, Paula Reds, McIntosh, Jonamacs, and Wolf River account for the bulk of the production. The majority of our business is wholesale, 80 to 85 percent, between the cider and apples.”
The orchard keeps an up-to-date list on their website, www.kickapoo-orchard.com, with just a few older and limited varieties not listed.
Reflecting the growing demand for their cider in brewing and distilling, the orchard has added wines, hard cider, vodka, and seven-year old HoneyCrisp brandy to the salesroom. They are holding tastings with one of the wineries using their cider on weekends.
Kickapoo presses between 64,000 and 65,000 gallons of cider each year. Each batch contains five to seven varieties to produce the best flavor possible.
Yahara Bay will be back to sample their apple brandy the second weekend of October for the official anniversary celebration, and Kickapoo will be offering specials in the salesroom all month.
The bakery at Kickapoo offers its unique Apple Pizza, a concoction of pastry crust, a layer of the best apples in season, then a layer of special buttery topping with slivered almonds, sugar and spices, and topped off with soft caramel. Coffee, apple pies, cookies, turnovers and a caramel apple dish are also available from the bakery.
An area to sit and enjoy the baked goods overlooks the corn and sunflower maze and surrounding hills and valleys.
In addition to the wine and spirits, specialty food and gift items are available in the salesroom.
As you travel east from Kickapoo, you can turn down De La Mater Road to find the Starry Ridge Orchard. It’s the smallest of the orchards, Starry Ridge is a pick-your-own operation owned by Bill Reinders. Reinders bought the orchard in 1992 with his wife Diane (Di), now deceased. P.J. Lomas managed the orchard until 2000, when Bill retired and he and Di were able to move to the land full-time.
Originally a part of Frank’s Orchard, Starry Ridge offers six varieties on eight acres; Cortlands, McIntosh, Spartans, Harrelson, Empire, and Sweet 16.
“The Cortland trees are over 80 years old,” Reinders said. They and the Spartans make up the bulk of the sales.
“We pick some apples ahead to assist those who wouldn’t be able to get out and pick their own, but who want to come out for the experience,” Reinders said. “We like to say that we don’t sell apples. We make friends.”
The Sweet 16 apples should be ready for Apple Fest, Reinders expected. He described them as one of the apples customers found interesting, saying they had a bourbon-ish taste when ripe.
Next up is the Fleming Orchard at 46054 Highway 171. The orchard has been in the Fleming family since 1937. It was founded by James Fleming, the grandfather of Jim Fleming, who runs the orchard today with his mother, Ruth Fleming.
“It was the end of the depression, and he thought it would increase the value of the property, if there was an orchard planted,” recounted Ruth.
With more than 25 varieties, Ruth estimates that Cortlands, Honeycrisp, and McIntosh may make up as much as half of the harvest.
“At least half, if not more, of our sales are through the retail sales,” Ruth said. “It’s what we focus on. That is what we really feel is important. We want people to be happy with our product.”
The Flemings dry apples, which they sell at the farmers market in Madison. Some dried apples, baked goods, specialty foods, sausage and cheese are available in the salesroom.
Behind the salesroom building is a petting zoo for children and animal lovers.
Fleming’s is also famous for its apple tree that has 28 varieties grafted to it.
The orchard also has a nice collection of buggies both inside and outside the salesroom.
Last along the Gays Mills orchard trail, is the Hillcrest Orchard with a salesroom situated at the corner of Highways 171 and 61 in Rolling Ground.
Hillcrest has been owned by Bob Zimpel since 1985. Retail sales are managed by Terre Van Haren.
“The orchard was established around 1958 or 1959 by the brother of Boots Fleming (Ruth’s husband),” Van Haren explained. “Bob Johnson helped plant it back in the 50’s and he is still working here. Bob Zimpel is from just down the road. He went to Readstown High School. He left for awhile then came back and bought the orchard.”
The orchard has 35 acres in apple production with 24 varieties. Honeycrisp, Jonathans, McIntosh, Gala, and Cortlands are on the shelves and Empires, Golden Supremes, and Snow Sweet are coming on.
Out of those, Cortlands and McIntosh are the top production varieties for Hillcrest, with approximately 75 percent of their apples going to wholesale.
Hillcrest is a diversified farm, also raising and selling Christmas trees, sweet corn, tomatoes, squash, peppers, and other vegetables and fruit. Sweet corn was expected to still be available for Apple Fest, according to Van Haren, along with all the fall items such as potatoes, onions, winter squashes, pumpkins, decorative gourds, Indian corn, cranberries, maple syrup, and more.
“We have really friendly service here,” Van Haren said with a laugh. “You will find a lot of smiling faces around this place!”
All of the orchards have more acres planted in apple trees than in production. As you drive the apple trail, you will see many new plantings. Trees take three to five years before the first blossom, according to Julie Meyer, so planning and innovation doesn’t happen overnight.
Allen Teach of Sunrise concurred, saying Sunrise orchard planning is already focused on 2018, though they are using plantings with a faster return – one year – than the other orchards.
The orchards plans have to account for the vagaries of weather.
With the late start on harvest this year, the orchard crews are in a careful race against the seasonal clock to bring the harvest in unbruised.
“The way the colors are coming on, it looks like we could have a longer season, which is good for everyone,” Meyer said.