GAYS MILLS - The bright September sunshine combined with the cool crisp air can’t help but make a person think of bright red, crunchy, sweet or tart, juicy apples!
And it’s a great year for apples in Gays Mills, just in time for a favorite tradition, the Gays Mills Apple Festival.
The growing season for the local orchards was very favorable, with no late frost or hail to knock the harvest back, and lots of rain early.
“It was just about perfect,” said Gaylon O’Neal, owner of West Ridge Orchard. “We could use a little rain now to help some of the later ripening varieties finish, but generally it was a phenomenal growing season.”
Faye Belongia-Welsh, co-owner of Turkey Ridge Organic Orchard, agreed with O’Neal’s assessment of the year.
“I haven’t seen such a perfect year for apples in quite some time,” Welsh said. “That last little bout of cooler temperatures slowed things down a little, but we should finish up just fine.”
“We have an outstanding crop,” said Julie Meyer of Kickapoo Orchard. “The cold slowed things down a little, but we’re already catching up and we should have all the apples anyone could want for Apple Festival weekend.”
“It’s really nice overall,” said Jim Fleming, owner of Fleming’s Orchard. “All varieties are good. Everything is better than the average, as far as the crop looks.”
Neighbors less fortunate
The orchards in neighboring Minnesota and Michigan haven’t fared as well. Minnesota had an unusually warm March followed by several consecutive nights of below freezing weather in April. This was all capped off by summer storms, which did considerable, hail damage to the fruit on the trees.
“This year's conditions were unprecedented,” According to David Bedford, research scientist and apple breeder at the University of Minnesota. "We rarely have spring freezes during apple bloom in Minnesota. Our normal spring is late and fast, and then we're on to summer."
In Michigan, the early onset of warm weather in March has also wreaked havoc. According to the Michigan State University Extension, a typical apple bloom is two to five days, and this year the bloom lasted for three weeks. A summer drought compounded the industry’s challenges, and the result is the harvest is coming in early and smaller than usual.
It’s still easy to get to the Gays Mills Orchards, but a little heads up about some of the road construction projects in the area that will make getting to your favorite orchard a snap.
Highway 61 is undergoing construction just north of the bridge across the Wisconsin River. To avoid the construction, consider taking Highway 27 north out of Prairie du Chien. To most easily access the orchards, take Highway 171 east out of Mt. Sterling.
If you’re coming from the north or the west, you can get onto a construction-free stretch of Highway 61 going south from Readstown until you reach Highway 171 and can go west from there.
You can start your journey through the Gays Mills Apple Orchards at Hillcrest Orchards, located at the intersection of Highway 61 and Highway 171 in Rolling Ground. The orchard’s address is 16602 U.S. Hwy. 61. It is the eastern most of the orchards. If you’re coming from the west, you could reverse the order of orchards presented here and you would end at Hillcrest Orchard, which is open every day during the growing season from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Hillcrest Orchard manager Terre Van Harren is very pleased with the orchard’s apple crop, as well as their many vegetable crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, onions, squash and gourds.
“We had just about the perfect year for growing, and everything is coming along just as it should be,” Van Harren said.
Van Harren manages the orchard for Bob Zimpel, who has owned the orchard since 1985.
For the Apple Festival go’er, the orchard will have a bountiful supply of Honey Crisp, Gala, McIntosh, Cortland and Golden Supreme apples. The orchard also has a “bumper crop” of tomatoes available, along with bags of potatoes and onions, and bins of squash.
The orchard’s salesroom is fully stocked with gifts, jams, jellies, honey, candies, popcorn and all manner of goodies.
Apple’licious Pie Depot
The Apple‘licious Pie Depot is a beloved stop on the tour of the Gays Mills orchard ridge. They offer a vast array of delicious backed goods. Their variety of fresh baked pies includes apple, blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, triple berry, strawberry rhubarb, rhubarb peach and more. To order pies to go, call one day in advance at 608-624-3783. They will also have turnovers, cinnamon rolls, apple crisp, caramel apple pizza, and apple muffins and cookies.
Some years are better than others in the world of growing and this would be one of the better ones, according to Jim Fleming, owner of Flemings Orchard on Highway 171.
Jim is a-second generation owner. He took over from his father and mother, James and Ruth Fleming, decades ago. However, Ruth Fleming remains a fixture in the salesroom. Other fixtures include lots of vintage horse-drawn sleighs and carriages mounted from the ceiling and walls.
Jim Fleming explained the growing year was good because it started with a lack of frost, provided ample moisture in late spring and early summer and continued from there with moderate temperatures. The result was a fine crop of apples.
Fleming’s currently has Cortland, McIntosh, Northwestern Greening, Wealthy, Fuji, Honey Crisp, Bailey Sweet and Golden Supreme. These varieties are considered mid-season apples.
Of course, Honey Crisp is the current popular apple with consumers and usually the most expensive. Flavor and its hard texture are it selling points. Macs are a well-known standby with a distinctive flavor. Fuji is a sweet apple developed in Japan.
The others are older varieties, which make them unique. Northwestern Greening is an antique apple known for canning, cooking and baking, according to Fleming. Wealthy is an older multi-purpose apple that in addition to eating and cooking is known as the best sauce apple. Bailey Sweet in an older crisp sweet apple and Golden Supreme is an earlier version of Golden Delicious.
Coming up in time for Apple Fest, Fleming expects to have JonaGolds available.
Fleming’s, located at 45846 State Highway 171, is open seven days per week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the harvest season. The orchard retains a lot of the feel of orchards from an earlier time. In addition to apples, the salesroom offers a large selection of produce and processed foods from Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest.
Increasingly popular, are the well-pruned and clearly marked pick-your-own rows directly behind the salesroom.
Kickapoo Orchard, owned and operated by Andy and Julie Meyer, is home to the famed apple pizza, along with other delectable baked goods, fresh fruit pies made with fruits and berries grown at the orchard, and of course, caramel apples.
Apple Cider is a perennial favorite produced by the orchard, and visitors can enjoy it, along with delicious apple or apple cherry slushies, made from the juice of fruit grown at the orchard. Over the Apple Festival weekend, there will also be samplings of wine and cheese, apples and more.
The orchard has been in the Meyer family for two generations, since 1964. Bill and Marlene Meyer handed off the major operation of the orchard to their son Andy, and Julie joined the operation in 1994.
But not to forget the apples. Kickapoo Orchard’s salesroom will be jammed packed with delicious apples for every palate, including the coveted Honey Crisp variety and Minnesota’s favorite apple, the Haralson.
The orchard features a corn and sunflower maze, which is the delight of visitors young and old every year.
The orchard’s attractive and spacious salesroom is home to a tantalizing selection of cheeses, sausages, condiments, jams, jellies and other local food products. The shelves are also packed with gift items, apparel, cookbooks, coffee mugs and lots of souvenirs.
Kickapoo also features an expansive selection of locally produced wines, hard ciders and other beverages. Many of the items in their selection, such as the Honey Crisp Brandy, Hard Honey Crisp Cider, and Honey Crisp Wine, are made with apples grown at the orchard.
Last, but not least, thinking ahead to the car ride home or the holidays, which will be here before you know it, the orchard offers fresh-baked pies made from apples and other berries grown at the orchard. With a 48-hour notice, the orchard can make specialty pies with combinations of fruits and berries and even sugar-free pies.
Custom pies can be requested by calling the orchard at 608-735-4637, or can be ordered off their web site at http://www.kickapoo-orchard.com/, or off of their Facebook page.
Starry Ridge Orchard
There’s a distinctly bittersweet feeling hanging about the Starry Ridge Orchard this year. Owner Bill Reinders has decided to make this his last year in business.
“This is the last year for me,” Reinders said last week. “After owning the property for 25 years and running the (pick-your-own) orchard for 17 years, I’m going to move to Appleton and be closer to the grandkids. This is the swan song.
“It’s been wonderful being here,” Reinders said. “I’ve met so many nice people-it’s hard to do.
“The orchard will not exist (going forward),” Reinders said. “The trees are well beyond where they should have been replaced. I just kept them alive.”
It may be that this is the last year for Starry Ridge Orchard, but make no doubt about it they have lots of pick your own apples in fine condition. The varieties include Cortland, Macs, Spartans, Empire, Honey Crisp, Galas and some Red Delicious.
Reinders also noted that he had one tree of a variety called Smokehouse and two Wealthy trees.
Then, there’s the Harrelson and Jonathan grafted to the same tree. It was done many years ago to help insure the necessary cross-pollination.
The Cortland trees at Starry Ridge are 90 years old, according to Reinders. They were part of Frank’s Orchard and before that Rosa Orchard.
“I’m gong to miss the friends we made here,” Reinders said. “We were fond of saying ‘we make friends, we don’t sell apples’.”
In addition to missing all of the friends, Reinders said he would miss the land as well.
P.J. Lomas was instrumental in helping Bill and Dianne Reinders get the pick-your-own orchard established from 1993 until 2000. P.J. passed away last year and now there’s a sign in front of the Starry Ridge stand out on Del La Mater Road that says ‘No parking reserved for friends of P.J. Lomas.’
P.J.’s brother Jake Lomas and Joe Faulkner also helped the Reinders get the Starry Ridge Orchard running in the 90s. Both men have since passed away.
Bill lost his wife, Dianne, in 2012 and has had to run the orchard on his own since then.
Bittersweet or not there are plenty of fine apples to be picked this year at the Starry Ridge Orchard, located at 46731 Del La Mater Road. It’s your last chance!
Sunrise Orchard’s Allen Teach was about as upbeat as everyone else when it came to discussing this year’s apple crop.
“It was nearly an ideal year for growing apples,” Teach said. “There was no spring frost, lots of moisture and no storms. It was pretty darn smooth sailing this year.”
Teach recalled the late spring freeze of 2016 and the damage done to certain varieties in the bud stage. There were some losses and some damaged apples—but that was last year.
Like other growers, Teach was very pleased with this season. He noted not only were the apples great, but that included all of the varieties.
Sunrise started picking Paula Reds on August 18, a normal start date, and has been pretty much on schedule since then.
This week they headed into the mainline mid-season varieties like Macs, Cortlands and Honey Crisp. They began with a few Fujis the previous week.
The harvest will end with the late season crops, like Red Delicious and Empire.
As might be expected of the largest orchard in the area, Sunrise is heavily into Honey Crisp acres, a variety that “came on like gangbusters a few years ago,” according to Teach. The veteran orchardist acknowledged Honey Crisp stores real well and is a very sweet apple.
The apple generating some buzz reminiscent of what Honey Crisp did when it came onto the scene is Ambrosia, Teach explained.
“It’s exciting,” Teach said of Ambrosia. “It’s an incredibly beautiful apple. It’s sweet and like Honey Crisp, it’s its own unique animal.”
Teach doesn’t see the 2017 crop breaking records, but volume doesn’t seem to be the goal anymore either.
“We don’t need to break the record,” Teach said. “We need to operate as efficiently as possible. When you start to stretch storage and labor capabilities things can go wrong. We’re more interested in producing the highest quality.”
As for labor, Sunrise like many of the other orchards is doing okay, according to Teach.
“We have an excellent crew of returning people who have experience and know how to be efficient,” Teach said. “We do everything we can to improve efficiency. We planted small trees and added automation on the grading line. And, we have real good people working for us.”
Sunrise has excellent sales this year and even did well last year at the retail level, according to Teach.
Sunrise has a large salesroom with lots of options for apples and a huge amount of gifts and other food items. A big draw for the salesroom are the apple donuts. If you want to see a larger orchard in operation, visit Sunrise.
Larry Wilson, owner of Richard’s Orchard, offers his own apple cider vinegar, as well as pecans from his brother’s farm out west. During the growing season, he offers sweet corn, tomatoes, beets, young potatoes, radishes, and other veggies as they come in season. All produced grown at the orchard is produced using organic methods of production.
The orchard is located at 47222 State Highway 171.
Turkey Ridge Orchard
Turkey Ridge has the unique position of being the only exclusively certified organic orchard in the Gays Mills area. Orchard co-owner Greg Welsh has many years of experience in organic production, having been one of CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley’s first employees. His wife and co-owner Faye Belongia-Welsh, also works tirelessly in the orchard operation.
“Everthing is on time,” Belongia-Welsh said. “We’ve had a perfect growing season, the best we’ve had since 2000.”
The orchard is famed for their delicious organic apple cider, made from a blend of five apple varieties, and sold in retail locations throughout the Midwest.
For Apple Festival visitors, the orchard will have a bountiful supply of apples, including Liberty, Priscilla, Freedom, and Anonymous. The orchard also has a large selection of organic jams and jellies, made from fruit grown at the orchard. They also have ‘Smokin’ Apple Chips, applesauce, pies, squash and apple cider vinegar. Unique among local orchards, Turkey Ridge offers certified-organic, orchard-raised pork.
“We are proud of the fact that at our orchard, not only are our apples organically produced, but also produced without sprays approved for use in organic agriculture,” Belongia-Welsh explained. “Our happy population of horses, pigs and chickens control the insects in the orchard and keep the grass mowed for us.”
Turkey Ridge’s organic apple cider vinegar is a very special product, with a high concentration of live and active cultures, which make it both delicious and highly nutritious. The vinegar is sold both to humans, and also for use in the organic dairy industry. The apple cider vinegar is used as a health supplement allowing organic dairy producers to manage herd health without antibiotics or other substances that are prohibited in organic production.
“Our vinegar recently won a contest in California for effectiveness in use by organic dairy producers,” Belongia-Welsh said. “The vinegar has a pH of 6.2, which is optimal for containing beneficial live and active cultures, not 4.2 as is common in most commercial varieties.” Their human-grade vinegar has a pH of between 6.2 and 4.8. Even the best human-grade commercial apple cider vinegars have a pH of only 5.5.
Turkey Ridge Orchard is located at 50350 Turkey Ridge Road, which runs off Stevenson Road. You can find Stevenson Road off of Highway 171, just west of Gays Mills—a sign marks the turn.
West Ridge Orchard
Depending on which end of the orchard trail along Highway 171 you start your apple orchard adventure on, West Ridge Orchard will either be the first or the last orchard on the tour. The orchard is located at 52132 State Highway 171, just outside of the Village of Mt. Sterling.
Orchard owner Gaylon O’Neal is very happy with the 2017 growing season, which has produced a bumper crop of Honey Crisp, McIntosh, and Cortland apples, as well as a selection of heirloom varieties such as Wine Sap, Melissa Sweet and Wolf River.
As the sign out front suggests, O’Neal is very excited about a new addition in his sales room – Honey Crisp Apple Wine. The wine is locally produced in partnership with Sugar Creek Winery from apples grown at the orchard.
The orchard showroom also features a diverse selection of other crops such as stone fruits, potatoes, onions, pumpkins, squash and gourds.
And of course, no visit to an orchard is complete without the addition of tasty baked goods such as apple crisps, apple donuts, streusels and the classic favorite, caramel apples.