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A great crop of apples one of many reasons to enjoy Apple Festival
In Gays Mills
Turkey Ridge Orchard 2022
TURKEY RIDGE Organic Apple Orchard ‘Pick-Your-Own’ option attracted this family from the Madison area. Out to enjoy the September sun and pick some delicious apples were, from left, Halee Wepking with her baby, John Wepking, Ariel Leon, Lyda Wepking (4), Henry Wepking (7), and Marion Wepking (5).

GAYS MILLS - “Great crop!” are the two words you hear at every Gays Mills orchard this year.

After some struggles with early and late frost affecting the crop for the previous two or three seasons, it’s a welcome relief to everyone involved that it’s a ‘great crop.’

All the orchards are reporting these huge, beautiful crops in almost every variety and that includes some highly sought after varieties like Honey Crisp.

Sunrise Honey Crisps
HARVESTING APPLES at Sunrise Orchard a few years back suited John Kiser just fine. Kiser hails from Atlantic City, New Jersey, and says the Gays Mills area reminds him of the town of 600 where he grew up in Iowa. Here, John is picking the coveted Honey Crisp.

The largest of the six local orchards is no exception. Sunrise Orchard also has a great crop, according to Allen Teach, the person in charge at the orchard.

When we finally caught up with Allen early in the morning before the sorting lines started, he was very enthusiastic about this year’s harvest.

Teach cited several factors that made the crop so great. He pointed out there was no frost damage this year. He also noted that the trees took a breather last year with lower yields.

“With no storm damage and no frost damage, we have an excellent crop this year,” Teach said. “It’s the natural ebb and flow of growing.”

Like almost everywhere in country, some of the orchards are struggling to find employees.

Sunrise feels good about the employment situation. They’re using a combination of local help, some South African H2A workers and a Spanish-speaking crew that has picked at the orchard for many years. 

Although shipping can be another trouble spot these days, Sunrise is doing pretty good in that regard, given its strong relationship with some local grocery stores and two distributors.

And, the Washington crop seems slightly down this year, according to Teach. 

There’s also a good Ever Crisp crop this year. This long-lasting, tasty apple was rolled out at Sunrise last year. The apples are harvested really late and won’t be available in the salesroom until early November. Ever Crisp will continue to be available until the salesroom closes in December.

One snag with the apple is its great benefit, it is picked late and keeps very well. So, it misses a prime fall apple-buying market. However, Sunrise is trying something different this year with the Ever Crisp. The orchard is offering an  ‘Ever Crisp subscription,’ and will send a box of 30 apples to the customer in each month of January, February and March. The idea is an apple a day for three months. Hmmmm!

However, it’s not just Honey Crisp and Ever Crisp at Sunrise Orchard, despite the popularity of both.

“We just try to grow a broad spectrum,” Teach said. Macintosh is big as well, and coming soon another favorite, Golden Supreme. Empires are a late apple and good keeper with outstanding flavor. A great crop of Empires is expected this year.

A new and very popular apple is Ambrosia. It is sold heavily at Kwik Trip convenience stores. 

Sunrise currently grows about 20 varieties. And, another five varieties are experimentally grown, yielding about 100 bushels per year

Things are pretty much the same in the salesroom this year, but the bakery may be the exception.

“After a long hiatus, the apple turnover is back,” Teach said.

Of course the boxes and boxes of apple cider donuts are still a favorite at the bakery. The rest of the salesroom including the cider and retail is doing well.

The Sunrise salesroom is open seven days per week 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Christmas. They have special hours every day from 8 to 9 a.m. reserved for senior citizen shopping. Oh yeah, they are closed on Thanksgiving Day. They remain open up until Christmas.

The Sunrise Orchard is located at 48340 State Highway 171 in Gays Mills.

One  improvement Sunrise has made this year won’t be noticed directly by the consumer. However, it’s making a big difference to the orchard’s operation. Sunrise installed cameras to the grading line-to improve it. The human eye of the employees is the final eye in grading, but the cameras will help the humans. 

Kickapoo Orchard Wolf River
TARA SHEEHY, left, and Stephanie Prescott took a moment to show off some of Kickapoo Orchard’s lovely Wolf River apples recently. All of the orchards are preparing for this weekend’s visitors for the 62nd Gays Mills Apple Festival.

Kickapoo Orchard

Like Sunrise, the Kickapoo Orchard is pretty happy with the way things have worked out this season.

However, owner Julie Meyer noted the crowds seemed down a bit over the last couple of years during the pandemic. She remembers opening the salesroom and being overrun with shoppers last year.

Meyer believes the orchards provided an outlet for people, when there was nowhere else to go during the pandemic.

While Meyer said there was not enough labor available this year, she noted the labor on hand was exceptionally good – praising among others the work of the twins, Tara and  Traci.

Another bright spot in the employment picture is an Amish gentlemen.

“He out picks everyone out there, and doesn’t press on the apples and bruise them,” Meyer said of the new addition to the picking crew.

The orchard owner believes the higher gas prices and inflation may be cutting the apple tourist flow just a bit this year. 

However, it was the great crop that Meyer could not stop gushing about

“We definitely have Honey Crisp and they look so beautiful,” Meyer said. “It’s by far our best crop of Honey Crisp in three years.”

While there are plenty of other varieties already available, the popular Jonamacs and Cortlands are taking their time this year. 

For instance there’s Zestar, a good keeper, and Kickapoo Spice, which Meyer called “our apple.”

The late orchardist Bill Meyer, Julie’s father-in-law, saved the Kickapoo Spice with some cuttings he got from Frank’s Orchard after the fire. 

“We don’t know the parentage, but they’re crisp and slightly sweet,” Julie said.

Some of the other varieties available include Burgundy, Crimson Crisp, described as an early Honey Crisp, and Sansa.

And there’s more, the orchard is offering apple and apple/cherry cider. Both are customer favorites. The venerable Kickapoo Orchard bakery is offering their popular Apple Pizza, an apple caramel concoction topping the doughy crust. And, there are plenty of pies and turnovers available.

 At Kickapoo you can enjoy the outdoors with a walk through the large sunflower & corn maze.

The Kickapoo Orchard is located at 46490 State Highway 171 in Gays Mils, just down the road from Sunrise. The salesroom is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until the day before Thanksgiving. Apples are two for one after November 1, and retail merchandise is 20 percent off. 

“We have plenty of apple pies, apple pizza, turnovers and lots donuts available,” Meyer said as we turned to go.

Fleming Orchard
IT'S APPLE SEASON in Gays Mills, and that means a lot of local folks are hard at work picking apples, or working in the sheds and salesrooms. At the Fleming Orchard last Sunday, Hunter Hatlan and Stephanie Prescott took a quick break to pose with some of the orchard's beautiful apples.

Fleming Orchard

We met another happy orchard owner at the Fleming Orchard.

“Compared to some of the previous season, everything is just great,” Jim Fleming said. 

Like some of the other orchards, Fleming found it rather difficult to get help this year. Although it was tough finding the employees needed, things seem to be fine at the Fleming Orchard. And, the employees are working out well.

One popular and constantly growing part of the business is the pick-your-own opportunity.

“The U-Pick really caught on after COVID arrived,” Fleming said. “People wanted to stay away from being near other people and stay outside, and at the U-Pick you can do both.”

As we watched, a man left the u-Pick with a bushel of apples on his shoulder.

“Beautiful” is the word that Fleming used to describe this year’s Honey Crisp crop. He also noted the orchard has a great crop of Macs and Galas. The Fleming Orchard is located at 45846 State Highway 171 in Gays Mills.

Fleming’s is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week until November 1.

“We have lots of apples,” Jim Fleming said with a broad smile flashing across his face.

Hillcrest Orchard

The smiles continued down the road at the Hillcrest Orchard.

“The crop is huge,” said Terre Van Haren, the Hillcrest Orchard manager. “Some varieties are taking their time ripening.”

Among those ripening a little slower than usual this year are the popular Cortlands, but they are coming along.

“The Honey Crisp is just delicious this year and the Mac crop is good,” according to Van Haren. 

Ginger Golds, a new variety introduced last year, is about to be harvested and there will be a big Empire crop and Harrelsons soon as well.

Hilcrest has a large amount of homegrown pumpkins this year, and lots of pie pumpkins and squash as well. Hillcrest is open every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.  until the first weekend in November. The orchard will then be closed until they re-open with Christmas trees and more on November 25. Hillcrest Orchard is located at 16602 US Highway 61 in Gays Mills.

Hillcrest also has Paula Red, Red Free, Gala and Dandee Red in addition to the varieties already mentioned.

The labor situation looks pretty good at Hillcrest with most of the crew returning from last year. 

“Come and sees us,” Terre said. “We have a good crop of squash and pumpkins in addition to this huge crop of apples.”
Turkey Ridge at Village Greenhouse
THE VILLAGE GREENHOUSE is a great stop in downtown Gays Mills, as you are making your way between the apple orchards to the east of Gays Mills and those on the west ridge. Turkey Ridge Organic Orchard apples, cider, jams and jellies are available at the retail, along with chrysanthemums, pumpkins and more!

Turkey Ridge Organic  Apple Orchard

The Turkey Ridge Organic Apple Orchard is one of the two apple orchards located on a ridge on the west side of the Kickapoo River. The orchard is the only organic orchard in the Gays Mills family of apple orchards.

According to orchard owner Faye Welsh, the orchard had a tremendous crop this year, with just the right amount of everything needed for a successful growing season.

“It is a great relief after three very difficult years to have an excellent apple crop,” Welsh said. “We had a large amount of first quality apples and our pick-your-own’ apple program is very popular and is happening now.”

Welsh discussed the difficulties the orchard had experienced in the last three years, which she said had the orchard hovering on the brink of financial ruin.  In 2019, due to a catastrophic late-season frost, the orchard was only able to harvest 200 bushels of apples. In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, wholesale sales virtually disappeared for the orchard, and retail sales also dropped sharply due to consumers choosing not to shop in-person. In 2021, the orchard like many others in the area, experienced a 70 percent late season freeze, which was compounded by a severe labor shortage.

“Thank goodness for our retail outlet in Gays Mills – the Village Greenhouse,” Welsh said. “If we hadn’t added that diversity to our portfolio, along with accessing some unique markets for our agricultural produce in those years, it’s not clear that we would have survived to have this wonderful crop in 2022.”

Turkey Ridge’s organic products are available for sale both in the sales room at the orchard, as well as at the Village Greenhouse in downtown Gays Mills. The orchard is located at 50350 Turkey Ridge Road, Gays Mills, WI 54631.

Products available from the orchard include apples, apple cider, jams and jellies, apple butter and their trademark apple cider vinegar for human consumption. The orchard also produces grass-fed pork.

Organic apple varieties available for pick-your-own include Liberty, Priscilla and Enterprise. Liberty is a keeper apple, which can be used for pies, canning and eating, and starts tart and becomes sweet. Priscilla is a super sweet apple that is good for saucing and eating. Enterprise is an apple that starts tart and becomes sweet, stores for six-to-eight months, and is a good, all-purpose apple.

West Ridge Orchard
A FAMILY browses the extensive squash, pumpking and decorative gourd selection at West Ridge Orchard. The orchard offers a full selection of apples, as well as a broad selection of fruits and vegetables, and a ‘cut-your-own’ sunflower patch, new this year.

West Ridge Orchard

TheWest Ridge Orchard is located to the west of Gays Mills, on the ridge, at 52132 State Highway 171. The orchard is owned and operated by Gaylen O’Neal, who grew up in the fruit industry in Michigan, and has been involved with many of the orchards in the Gays Mills area over the years.

“It was a very good year for growing apples, and a little bit better than the last few years,” O’Neal said. “We had the right temperatures, the right amount of rain, and no untimely frosts – now I am looking forward to the cooler temperatures in the forecast to get some of our varieties to develop their color.

O’Neal said that, like many other businesses, the orchard had experienced challenges in recruiting enough staff to get the harvest completed. He said they had been blessed by having a family that worked for them, and had proceeded with the harvest by alternating picking and bagging operations.

The orchard is really a farmers market, offering a wide selection of fruits and vegetables beyond the outstanding apples, apple cider and apple baked goods available. Shoppers can also browse the selection of fruits like pears and peaches, pumpkins, squash and gourds, peppers, tomatoes, sweet corn, onions, potatoes, decorative corn, sweet potatoes and more.

In past years, the orchard had become known for a unique variety they had developed – Firecracker. Due to a snafu with trademarking the name, that variety remains available at the orchard, and is now known as ‘No Name’ apple.

“The person we were working with on trademarking the apple had a health emergency in the middle of the work that delayed our application,” O’Neal said. “In the meantime, Cornell University was able to file a successful trademark application, so they own the ‘Firecracker’ name now.”

O’Neal said that new for the 2022 season is their ‘cut-your-own’ sunflower patch. The orchard also offers a corn maze for the adventurous shopper.

O’Neal, who is retirement age, says that West Ridge Orchard remains ‘for sale.’ 

“The orchard is a golden opportunity for the right person – if I was 20 years younger, I wouldn’t even think of selling it,” O’Neal said. “But now that I’m getting older, I am ready to hand the operation off to the right person.”

2022 Apple Festival Schedule