GAYS MILLS - Well Apple Fest may have been cancelled, but the Gays Mills Orchards are going strong with plenty of apples and lots of happy customers–at least that’s the way it looked last weekend.
A tour of the orchards and a chat with the owners painted a pretty positive picture of the 2020 season. Most orchards reported their harvests are reaching the halfway point. The apple crop itself is reported as good to very good, and there are lots of smiling faces about that news.So, this year we’ll start our tour in the east and move west.
Hillcrest Orchard is located in Rolling Ground at the intersection of Highways 61 and 171. It is owned by Bob Zimpel, who purchased it in 1985.
The orchard features 20 acres of apples along with three or four acres of pumpkins and squash. Hillcrest is also known for its fresh garden vegetables, some of which remain available in the salesroom on Highway 61. In season, Hilcrest offers pick-your-own strawberries and asparagus. There are currently tomatoes by the bushel for canning.
As for the nice crop of apples, Hillcrest manager Terre Van Haren can only smile as she points out this year’s Honey Crisp apple crop is really beautiful.
Van Haren is looking forward to a good crop of Snow Sweets, which she described as a really yummy newer apple with a pink blush and juicy white flesh, and a mellow flavor. The Hilcrest manager is also pretty excited about a fine crop of Galas this year, which she believes is a super under-rated apple.
“It’s time to get to know your Gala,” Van Haren said.
Hillcrest also has lots of modestly priced potatoes and onions on hand and a nice selection of pumpkins, specialty pumpkins and goofy gourds.
Van Haren feels very fortunate when it comes to labor. The orchard has lots of local help returning from last year.
“Every year, we have willing and able people from the community available to work here,” the manager noted.
Like the other orchards Hillcrest has taken some steps to deal with the COVID pandemic reality, like putting up shields and wearing masks. Van Haren reported the public is generally wearing masks and trying to maintain distances.
Just west of Hillcrest on Highway 171 is Fleming’s Orchard. Owner Jim Fleming’s grandfather, James Fleming, got into the orchard business in 1937.
Jim like the other orchard owners estimated the harvest is about half complete at this point. He rated the crop as good, and noted the weather provided a good growing season.
Like Hillcrest, Fleming’s has a very nice crop of Honey Crisp apples. Jim also likes the Macintosh crop this season.
The veteran orchardist said the heirloom varieties are off a bit this year, particularly the large Wolf River apples and the Russets, although there are some available. He said a cold night on May 9 probably affected those varieties.Fleming’s has completed the Honey Crisp harvest and is currently working on the Cortlands. In two weeks, they should be harvesting the Empire and Delicious crops.
Jim is happy with the labor situation this year.
“It just always seems to work out, Fleming said of the apple pickers and shed help. “A lot of the people work for us every year.”
Fleming said the public is being very co-operative about dealing with the COVID pandemic and there are lots of customers.
Fleming’s U-Pick is having a huge response this year.
“Our parking lot is full and there’s hardly anyone in the shed. They’re all out picking their own in an area behind the shed,” Fleming said. “It’s just going nuts. I think people just want to get out and do something. It’s interesting you can see people picking, staying apart and spreading out to keep the social distancing.”
Jim indicated that the orchard seems busier than usual this year and feels that people don’t have anything to do because of cancellations caused by the pandemic.
“Our numbers are up especially on the weekdays,” Jim said.
Moving west on 171 from Fleming’s brings us to the Kickapoo Orchard, owned by Andy, Julie and Marlene Meyer. The late Bill Meyer bought the orchard from Harold Schubert in 1964. The Schuberts started the orchard in 1914.
Kickapoo currently has 50 acres of apples under cultivation. Like most of the area orchards, Andy Meyer estimated about half the crop has been harvested at this point.
The veteran orchardist likes the crop and is happy that a frosty night in May during the bloom didn’t cause more damage than it did.
“There are plenty of apples and it’s a very nice looing crop,” Andy said of this year’s harvest
Kickapoo needs a little more help picking apples this year, and is putting out a call for pickers to help with the remainder of the crop.
Kickapoo has Honey Crisp on hand along with JonaMacs, Cortland and more. The most recent variety to arrive in the salesroom are the Spartans.
Andy is expecting to harvest Crestons soon.
The Kickapoo bakery is rolling this year and is producing donuts in addition to their apple pizza, a sweet caramel-nuts-and-apple piece of bakery.
“We’re very busy up here,” Andy said with a smile. Both Andy and Julie have been impressed with the increase in weekday customers.
“It has been a good crowd for us this year right from the start,” Andy said.
Although Apple Fest was cancelled this year, traffic at Kickapoo was very heavy last weekend.
Kickapoo is in full production on cider, and is even shipping some to the Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac, where it is being made into apple brandy.
The Kickapoo Corn and Sunflower Maze is in full bloom at the moment and everyone is enjoying the experience it seems.
All Kickapoo employees are wearing masks to protect themselves and others against the COVID pandemic. Almost every customer is also wearing a mask, and they are attempting to social distance as well, according to Andy.
Applelicious Pie Depot up on Gays Mills Orchard Ridge is celebrating 25 years of delighting people’s tastebuds with scrumptious pies and baked goods!
Available at the Pie Depot are Apple, Blackberry, Blueberry, Cherry, Peach, Pecan, Raspberry Rhubarb, Strawberry Rhubarb, Triple Berry, Caramel Crumb-Top Apple, Crumb-Top Apple, Sugar Free Apple, Sugar Free Peach.
They also have Caramel Apple Pizza, which is their homemade pie crust with a layer of apple, and a crumbly topping, then drizzled with caramel.Their bakery items: Apple or Cherry Turnovers, Apple Fritters, Monster Cookies, Chocolate Chip Cookies, Cinnamon Rolls, Apple Cider Donuts, Apple Crisp, Rhubarb Cake, Brownies, and Muffins. They also have homemade Salsa and Peanut Brittle.
Directly west of Kickapoo is Sunrise Orchard, the largest of the orchards in the Gays Mills area. Owner Allen Teach is the third generation of the Teach family to run the orchard.
The large orchard operation keeps Teach extremely busy this time of year, but he stopped long enough to talk about the season.
“There’s a lot of moving parts,” Allen acknowledged as he walked away from the orchard’s advanced packing line. “There’s what’s happening here on the packing line. What’s going on in the salesroom and what’s going on in the orchard. There’s just a lot of activity this time of year.”
The night before, Allen had worked all through the night to solve a grading line problem including an extended session with people in Holland. The problem was resolved at 6 a.m. just in the nick of time for the arrival of the large crew at 6:30 a.m.
Sunrise has 200 acres of apples planted and 180 of those acres are bearing apples.
Allen explained it’s time to look for new blood in the Sunrise Orchard. That means three nephews of Allen Teach.
“We’re doing everything we can to bring on the next generation,” Allen said. Teach owns the orchard along with his parents Maynard and Janet.
The orchard was started in the early 1900s and Allen’s grandfather Ellery Teach bought it from a retired doctor.
The Sunrise owner rated this year’s crop as excellent despite a little moment with a freeze just prior to the bloom. It was unlike the hard freeze of 2016, which caused some losses.
There was no significant storm damage this summer and in the dry weather, Sunrise used its irrigation system for the first time in several years.
When it comes to planting, Sunrise is continuing to replace its Honey Crisp plantings and has a test orchard with five new varieties being trialed.
Their latest new variety now in production is Ever Crisp. It is a very late variety that will be harvested a week or more after the last apples are picked. Ever Crisp has great flavor that improves with age, according to Teach.
The best flavor from Ever Crisp is probably in January, Allen noted. Sunrise has made a commitment to more Ever Crisp plantings.
With an excellent Honey Crisp crop being harvested now, Teach is looking forward to Ambrosia, a newer crop that will be harvested soon. Sunrise still will harvest Macs, Cortlands and Empires.
With a combination of South African workers, Hispanic migrant workers, and local residents, Teach said there are 35 people working on the harvest this year.
Sunrise has seen increased customer traffic like the other orchards.
“People are looking for a day trip,” Teach said. “And, we’re trying to give them the most pleasant and safe experience possible,”
Sunrise workers are wearing masks and customers are required to wear masks as well.
Another concession to the COVID pandemic is new ways to buy apples at the orchard.
Sunrise is offering home delivery of apples through the season. The orchard also has prearranged curbside pickup and an order form online. Finally, there’s a tent outside to cut down on the congestion in the salesroom and allow people to buy apples outside.
People wishing to order apples or get more information are encouraged to visit the Sunrise website at www.sunriseapples.comor call 608-735-4645.Sunrise is open every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. until December 16. They will be closed on Thanksgiving.
Turkey Ridge Orchard
Coming down the orchard hill on Highway 171 takes us to the Turkey Ridge Orchard–well actually it takes us to the Village Greenhouse at 215 Main Street in Gays Mills, which is now paired with the Turkey Ridge Orchard. The orchard itself is located off Stevenson Road, which runs off Highway 171 west of the Kickapoo River. The orchard’s address is 50350 Turkey Ridge Road.
Turkey Ridge owner Faye Welsh, working with Jessi Brandt, at the Village Greenhouse, has apples and more products at both locations now.
Faye became the owner of the orchard in 2009. The orchard was the first organic orchard in the state planted in 1988 by Richard Gainor. It came into production in 1993. The Bedessem family were the owners then. Along the way, the orchard was owned and run by Bob Johnson as well. Greg Welsh took over the orchard in 2000. From 2003-2008 it was run as the Midwest Co-op, and in 2009 Faye Welsh became the owner.
The orchard has 50 acres of apples and about 4.5 acres of berries, peaches, pears and mulberries.
The apple varieties grown at Turkey Ridge are specially bred apples for organic growing.
Last year, the orchard was devastated by frost and some other issues and picked just 273 bushels, according to Faye. This season they will pick 14,000 bushels and the owner estimates that’s just 15 to 20 percent of the crop. Next year, she hopes to get the production increased.
The unpicked apples this year will feed the pigs and chickens of Turkey Ridge, which are used for bug control in the orchard.
Both the Village Greenhouse and Turkey Ridge Orchard salesroom have apples, as well as cider, jam, jellies and apple butter all made by the orchard. The two major apple varieties being offered are Priscilla, a super-sweet, crisp apple, and Liberty, a crisp all-purpose keeper apple that can be used in pies as well as for eating.
At the orchard, customers can find Enterprise in a pick-your-own setting. Faye says the all-purpose keeper apple can last up to six months.
In addition to what’s available at the orchard and greenhouse. The orchard is selling gift boxes that include a bag of apples, a half-gallon of cider, a half-gallon of cider vinegar, and more.
Turkey Ridge also offers cases of jams with 12 different varieties in eight ounce jars for $65.
Customers can reach Turkey Ridge by calling the Village Greenhouse at 608-735-4853 or going to the Turkey Ridge Facebook page or the Village Greenhouse Facebook page.
Faye Welsh seems to have a solution to the labor situation this year. Welsh recruited rafting tour guides and ski jump guides currently in their off seasons.
The outdoor-oriented crew is used to hard labor and exercising.
In addition to the new labor, Tim Jenkins, an original apple picker at Turkey Ridge in 1993, has returned to pick some apples at the age of 75.
“I feel so lucky this year with labor we have,” Faye said.
Turkey Ridge is also offering frybread tacos at a booth next door to the Village Greenhouse in front of the Kickapoo Exchange Building on Main Street.The Turkey Ridge Orchard is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
West Ridge Orchard
The final orchard on the tour is West Ridge Orchard located on Highway 171, just east of Highway 27 and the Village of Mt. Sterling.
West Ridge is owned by Gaylon O’Neal, who bought it from Dick and Amy Heal in 2007. West Rdige is currently growing 25 acres of apples and some squash and pumpkins.
“We’ve got a big crop of all varieties, but I’m a little disappointed on the size of some of them,” Gaylon said of this year’s crop.
The orchardist attributed some of the smaller apples to the dry spell experienced this summer.
The harvest is going well for West Ridge and it’s about half done now.
While all the varieties are good for volume, some are smaller. However, the Honey Crisp crop is really good this year, reflecting a lot of time and effort put into it on the part of O’Neal and others.
A claim to fame for West Ridge is a unique apple variety they are propagating and have named Firecracker. As expected, they have sold out of Firecracker at this point.
Firecracker is being grown in several test plots in other parts of the country to determine its commercial viability, but it’s too early to get results.
“We haven’t heard anything from the testing,” O’Neal confirmed.
West Ridge has enough labor, but O’Neal could still use a couple of more people.
New to West Ridge this year was the peach crop. Tree-ripened peaches sold well, and the orchard still had some left.
West Ridge has full line of pumpkins and squash.
O’Neal reported that the orchard is following health department guidelines for COVID protection. A shield has been installed around the checkout area. There is a separate entrance and exit designated, and distance markings on the floor.
West Ridge is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day until they’re done, is the way O’Neal put it.
The orchard is also gaining a reputation for the apple cider donuts.
Due to the risks of COVID, West Ridge does not have its play area for the kids going this year, but hopes to bring it back next year.So, it’s a strange year in the orchards with COVID and the cancellation of Apple Fest, but it’s a busy year with lots of customers. The crop is rated good to very good and there are plenty of apples available. Enjoy Autumn! Visit the Gays Mills Orchards!