“There are lots and lots of apples this year and were out there picking more right now,” Hillcrest Orchard manager Terre Van Herren said as she helped workers bring in some baskets of red peppers grown at the orchard.
Of all the orchards, Hillcrest is probably the most involved in growing and selling non-apple crops. It starts with asparagus and strawberries in the spring, there are also raspberries tomatoes, peppers, squash, carrots and many other vegetable crops grown by Terre and her crew.
Hillcrest is the orchard located the furthest east among the Gays Mills orchards. The salesroom is at the intersection of Highways 171 and 61 in Rolling Ground.
The orchard was originally a dairy farm that was converted to an orchard 50 years ago. It was purchased in 1984 by Bob Zimpel and Terre took over as the retail manager from Alyce Salmon in 2006. Bob Johnson is the orchard manager at Hillcrest.
Terre confirmed that Johnson is back working full time at the orchard after some very serious surgery earlier this year. It’s obvious she’s glad to have her good friend and veteran orchardist back at work.
In addition to apples, berries and farm produce, Hillcrest grows Christmas trees as well.
How was the apple crop this year?
“It was a very good growing year,” Terre said without hesitation. “The crop looks beautiful. The Honeycrisp are beautiful and they’re big.”
Terre reached over and put a large Honeycrisp apple on a scale—the single fruit weighed over a pound and it was as she had described beautiful.
“It was just an amazing growing year, and not just for the apples, for everything for the tomatoes and peppers and just everything,” Terre said.
Hillcrest also has a large, good quality crop of squash and pumpkins. In addition to the apples and other produce they grow, Hillcrest offers some produce grown by others like fresh cranberries from Warrens, Wis., and potatoes and onions from Wisconsin’s Central Sands.
Terre said there were some challenges presented by a wet spring and drier summer. She noted a few trees were lost in the winds of a June storm.
Hillcrest has lots of Honeycrisp apples for sale, as well as McIntosh and other varieties with more appearing every day.
Last week, there were bags and baskets of truly luscious-looking, deep red almost burgundy-colored round apples next to the cash register in the salesroom. What are they?
“Those a Ruby Macs,” Terre explained. “They’re a true Mac and they’re just the most gorgeous apples.”
Hillcrest isn’t the only orchard with “gorgeous apples” this season. Just west on Highway 171, Fleming Orchard is also in the midst of a great harvest.
“We have a tremendous selection of very fine apples available this year,” Ruth Fleming said.
Ruth’s son Jim Fleming agreed it was a good year. He attributes the large amount of apples this year to the tough weather of the year before, which reduced the harvest on some trees with frost damage to early blossoms followed by drought conditions.
“The trees just kind of made a comeback from that year,” Jim said. “Everybody has a lot of apples. It’s just one of those years.”
The third generation orchard owner noted that the late spring meant no frost damage for the late blossoms.
Fleming has lots of apples in every variety for the salesroom customers. However, Jim said that of all the varieties, the Cortland crop was a little light. However, there will still be plenty available for sale to the retail customers.
The Fleming Orchard was founded in 1937 by James Fleming, the grandfather of Jim Fleming, who runs the orchard today with his mother Ruth.
In addition to Honeycrisp, Macs, Galas and the rest, Fleming Orchard features plenty of old-fashioned varieties on 65 acres and still has the original salesroom building. Some of the old varieties for sale include Snow Apples, Golden Russets, Tolman Sweet and Greenings.
How was the year?
“It was a good growing season for apples, maybe not so much for corn and soybeans,” Ruth said.
Fleming’s is famous for an apple tree that has 28 varieties grafted to it. The orchard also has a nice collection of buggies, wagons and cutter sleighs. Ruth’s favorite buggy is a rather elegant looking funeral coach.
New this season, the Fleming Orchard will offer homemade charcoal created by Gays Mills resident and Independent-Scout columnist John Gibbs. The orchard also has cider, squash and pumpkins. And, there’s broomcorn and gourds.
For the kids, young and old, there is a petting zoo behind the salesroom featuring an array of goats, chickens and pet pigs.
For the adventurous, Jim Fleming’s homemade Southwest chili will be served again on weekends this year, as the weather gets colder. The hot chili is made from a recipe Jim brought back from New Mexico, a few years back.
The Fleming Orchard is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through the end of October.
Traveling west on Highway 171 from the Fleming Orchard, one encounters the Kickapoo Orchard, founded in 1913 by Harold Schubert and bought by Bill and Marlene Meyer in 1964. The Meyer family still owns and runs the orchard.
Kickapoo grows 40 varieties of apples on 100 acres of trees, according to Andy Meyer, the son of Bill and Marlene.
Andy is pleased with this year’s crop, but chuckled as he compared this year to last year, when apple crops everywhere failed because of the an early blossom followed by hard frost. Gays Mills orchards were some of the only orchards beyond the state of Washington to have apples for sale.
“Last year, everybody was calling me for apples,” Andy said. “This year we’re back to me doing the calling.”
Demand was so great last year that people arrived from Montana and Canada to buy apples from the Kickapoo Orchard. What about this year?
Andy said the season began with a cool and wet start. The bloom was later than average, coming toward the end of May rather than the middle or beginning of that month. However, this meant there were no frost issues.
Although the weather got drier as the summer went on, the early saturation of the soil, complete with standing water in places, meant the trees were able to replenish themselves from the previous year’s drought.
Andy also believes there was a bigger bloom leading to a larger harvest.
Kickapoo Orchard has ample supplies of every variety for the salesroom and plenty available for wholesale as well. The orchard has a light crop of Golden Delicious, but that will not affect the retail consumer, according to Andy Meyer.
In addition to apples, the Kickapoo Orchard salesroom has a large variety of other food and merchandise for sale. The orchard is probably best known for its ‘Apple Pizza,’ a caramel-apple-and-more concoction spread across a flaky dough. Kickapoo is also a major cider producer.
Sunrise Orchard is located east of the Kickapoo Orchard on Highway 171 on what is known locally as the orchard hill. Sunrise is the largest orchard operation in the Gays Mills area. The orchard grows 30 varieties of apples on 250 acres of trees. Sunrise has been in the Teach family for 75 years.
Allen Teach, one of the owners, agreed with what the other growers were saying about the season. He believes the 2013 crop may turn out to be the largest in recent memory at Sunrise and is also very high in quality.
Teach noted Sunrise had planted approximately 9,000 trees this spring.
Sunrise Orchard also made some changes in their retail building, which included installing new windows and enlarging access to the retail area. The orchard will have its retail store open until Christmas.
Sunrise will have McIntosh, Cortland, Royal Gala, Jonamac, Honeycrisp, Golden Supreme, Empire, Jonathan and Lura Red available for the Gays Mills Apple Festival weekend. The orchard also plans on having plenty of Honeycrisp Cider available for customers.
The furthest west of all the orchards is appropriately named West Ridge Orchard. It is locate on Highway 171 just east of Highway 27 and the Village of Mt. Sterling.
West Ridge was planted in the early 60s by Dick and Amy Heal, who began harvesting apples in the mid-60s. In 2007, the Heals sold the orchard to Gaylon O’Neal, an experienced fruit grower.
O’Neal agreed with the others that overall it has turned out to be a pretty good season. However, the grower indicated the season is a bit later than what he’d like it to be. He did note the crowds were picking up in the salesroom.
“It’s by far the best Honeycrisp crop I’ve seen since I owned the orchard,” O’Neal said. “They’re a nice size with nice color.
West Ridge’s Honeycrisp, Gala, McIntosh and Cortland’s are exceptionally good this year, according to the orchardist.
The 40-acre West Ridge Orchard is one of the area’s smaller orchards. It has about 20 acres in apple production and the remainder in sweet corn, squash, plums and grapes.
The grapes are a popular pick-your-own operation The Fredonia grapes are ready and the Concord grapes are coming, according to O’Neal.
In addition to most of the standard apple varieties like Macintosh, Cortland, Gala and the much-sought-after Honeycrisp, West Ridge also has some more obscure varieties like Wolf River, Winesap, Melissa Sweet, Fireside and Snow.
West Ridge introduced a new apple crisp donut last year, which includes small bits of apple. The donut is made with apple cider and very much represents an apple crisp in flavor and texture. West Ridge also makes fresh caramel apples from their own apples.
O’Neal pointed out the obvious when he said the orchard “is not a high volume outfit.” So, the donuts are hand-dropped and made fresh every day. The orchard also features jams and jellies, as well as honey, cheese and beef jerky.
Like other orchards, West Ridge has some amusements for the kids. Souvenir boards let kids, young and old, take some photos to remember the trip.
West Ridge plans on selling from a booth on Main Street during the Gays Mills Apple Festival. The booth will feature donuts, Honeycrisp apples, cider and more.
The other orchard that is west of the Kickapoo River is Turkey Ridge Organic Orchard. It is located on Turkey Ridge Road off Stevenson Road, which runs off Highway 171. There are two large signs, one on Highway 171 and another on Stevenson Road, helping customers find their way to the organic orchard.
Currently owned by Greg and Faye Welsh, the orchard land was originally bought in 1987 by Richard Gainor. The trees were planted in 1988 through 1995.
The orchard was owned and run by the Bedessem family and Bob Johnson through most of the 90s. Greg Welsh took over the operation in 2001. In 2003, a co-operative was formed to run the orchard. Then, in 2009, Greg and Faye Welsh resumed being the owners. The orchard currently includes 5,600 trees on 50 acres of land. The certified organic orchard is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.
Turkey Ridge features disease-resistant apple varieties developed for organic growing. The varieties include Priscilla, Liberty, Williams Pride, Mac Free and Enterprise.
In addition to apples and cider, Turkey Ridge produces lots of apple cider vinegar.
Faye is excited over the quantity of this year’s harvest. She believes the harvest will be three times greater than any harvest in the last 10 years.
In addition to the organic apple cider and organic apple cider vinegar, the orchard has been selling organic apples for use in an organic dog food.
By saving money from the dog food revenue and money from federal agricultural grant, Turkey Ridge Orchard hopes to build a 48-inch fence around the orchard’s perimeter and return the animals it prefers to use for pest control. Once the fence is installed, pigs chickens, sheep and horses will be let loose in a controlled manner inside the orchard. Each species plays a specific role in pest control, Faye explained.
Faye described the function of each species in part of an overall plan that will control the plum curculio and other insect pests.
How about this year’s crop?
Faye noted the crop was large in quantity, but didn’t look as good overall, as it did when the animals were still in the orchard three year ago controlling pests. However, customers can still get good organic apples at the salesroom, in addition to cider and apple cider vinegar.
Next year with the animals in place, Turkey Ridge Orchard hopes to pack out 70-percent of the harvested crop to be sold as fresh organic apples. This year, only about five percent will packed out as fresh apples.
This year, 10,000 gallons of organic apple cider vinegar will be produced and sold, according to Faye. Much of it will be used by farmers as a livestock feed supplement to aid in the animals digestion. Some will be produced for human consumption as well.
The cider is pressed weekly and Faye estimates about 7,000 gallons will be produced. Despite the production, Faye noted that only half of the available apples will be harvested this year.
What’s it like living and working in the organic apple orchard?
“Life’s a lot of fun and we like doing it,” Faye said.
The smallest operation of all is Starry Ridge Orchard. It’s also the most hidden orchard of the bunch located on De La Mater Road west of Highway 171.
Starry Ridge is a pick-your-own operation owned by Bill Reinders. The orchard has many repeat customers, who enjoy picking their own fruit from the tree.
The orchard is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the picking season and Reinders plans to be open through the apple festival weekend with picking limited to Spartan apples.