GAYS MILLS - If there ever was a good day for a tour of the Gays Mills apple orchards, last Sunday would surely be it—a sunny day with temperatures in the upper 60s had the customers, the workers and yes even the owners smiling. It was going to be good year for apples–you could feel it.
With the picking season in full swing, everyone seems pleased with the results. Yes, there was a lot of rain in the early season, then a dry spell and now lots more rain. However, the apples look great and except for knocking the pickers out of the orchards for a few days, the rains that brought devastating floods to the valleys did little to affect the apple harvest on the hills above.
There are six commercial orchards in the Gays Mills area and five of them are located on Highway 171. The other is just miles from the highway.
So let’s start in the west and move east along Highway 171. Just east of the Village of Mt. Sterling on the Highway 171 is the West Ridge Orchard.
“There was a lot of water this year–early and late,” acknowledged Gaylon O’Neal, owner of West Ridge Orchard. “But, it was a decent growing season.”
West Ridge is having a good year and an interesting year. Recently, the orchard decided to remove some varieties and get the ground ready to plant some newer varieties on dwarf tree stock. Increasingly, the orchards are replacing the standard trees, and the ladders necessary to pick them, with the dwarf varieties that can be picked from the ground.
O’Neal explained the orchard is now in a period of rotation on that cleared ground and is using it to grow more pumpkins and squash. The veteran orchardist explained that land taken out of apple production should be given three or four years before it is replanted to apples.
The orchard still is waiting for some of the late and mid-season apples to be harvested, including Ambrosia and Fireside. O’Neal believes the Ambrosia may be harvested by Apple Fest. He describes the Ambrosia as a really good hard sweet apple that is among the more popular varieties with customers. Fireside is an heirloom apple from Minnesota that is a good keeper apple.
“When we’ve run out of Honey Crisp, Fireside is often bought as a replacement,” O’Neal explained. “The older customers remember Fireside. The younger ones want Honey Crisp.
“There’s an apple we’re working on,” O’Neal said. “Dick Heal (the former owner) had this hobby of grafting unique varieties to see how they’d turn out. Well, we found this limb we really liked.
“No one knows what it is,” O’Neal noted. “So, we started propagating it and growing it.”
The variety was known as ‘No Name’ for a while and it was very popular with people who tried it. Recently, West Ridge filed for a trademark name and it is now called ‘Firecracker.’
“It’s very crispy, very sweet and has great flavor,” O’Neal said.
West Ridge is working with International Plant Management to develop the variety. The company is growing it at test sites in Michigan to see if it is worth doing something with commercially. While O’Neal waits for the final word from International Plant Management, Firecracker already has its followers at West Ridge.
“We sold out this year,” O’Neal said. “It just explodes with flavor and crispness. That’s why it has the name Firecracker.”
The limb that was the origin of the Firecracker was among about two-dozen trees that had three or four varieties grafted onto each tree.
“Some were good and some were not so good,” O’Neal said. “This limb stood out from the rest.”
The selection was made about five years ago and O’Neal started propagating it. Today, there are 150 trees in production and another 200 that were planted last year.
“This will be a good thing for us, even though there may not be a commercial market,” Neal explained. “Even if it doesn’t catch on in the Midwest or nationally, there will be a market here.”
West Ridge also has some other attractions for the orchard customers. The orchard makes unique apple crisp donuts fresh daily.
And, like a couple of the other orchards the weather this year has been great for corn and the West Ridge Corn Maze is more than ready for those who want to give it a try.
At the nearby Turkey Ridge Orchard, co-owner Faye Belongia-Welsh, was about as upbeat on the harvest as O’Neal.
“The rains resulted in a couple days off for the crew, but that’s about it,” Welsh said. “Of course the rainy weather made everyone a little gloomy, but that passed.”
Faye said the pollinators, including some honeybees that arrive from somewhere else, produced an amazing fruit set this season. The orchard has perennial flowerbeds that promote the presence of 156 different bugs to help with the pollination. It’s a big crop this year. Faye believes it’s probably bigger than 2001 crop.
Lots of that crop will wind up as certified organic animal-grade apple cider vinegar. Lots of that comes from 40,000 bushels of apples that hit the ground.
The apple cider vinegar is sold to farmers by the orchard and also Organic Valley. OV’s veterinarian Dr. Detloff has recipes for using the vinegar on livestock, according to Faye.
Apple cider vinegar lowers the somatic cell count, helps with mastitis, scours and other animal ailments.
“It’s a wholesome, pure product,” Faye said.
Selling the certified organic animal-grade apple cider vinegar produces stable income for the orchard and means the pickers are paid well.
“The farmer gets a certified organic product and we sell it alive with living microorganisms,” Faye said.
The orchard is also selling their certified-organic unpasteurized apple cider with prominently displayed expiration dates. And, they will have it on tap soon. Organic apples for sale right now include Liberty, Priscilla, Red-Free and the mysterious Anonymous variety.
Turkey Ridge is open seven days per week during the apple harvest season. To reach Turkey Ridge go down Highway 171 from West Ridge and turn left (west) on Stevenson Road. There is a sign directing you to the Turkey Ridge Orchard. Follow Stevenson to Turkey Ridge Road and turn right. There’s also a sign directing you at this intersection.
From West Ridge and Turkey Ridge follow Highway 171 east across the Kickapoo River and into the Village of Gays Mills. The orchards are up a hill on Highway 171 behind the Royal Bank.
The first orchard at which you arrive once you’ve made it up the orchard hill is Sunrise Orchard. It is the largest orchard of the six in the Gays Mills area. The Teach family has owned the orchard for several generations. The orchard has not only been planting amazing amounts of new varieties on dwarf trees in recent years, they’ve been modernizing the packing line, the sales room and their marketing approach.
This year they had to take over the pasteurizing and bottling of their cider, when the company that had been bottling the cider in Madison went out of business. It was a scramble to install the equipment and get it running in time for the harvest season, but it happened.
If you love fresh cider, you need to try Sunrise cider–now pasteurized and bottled on site.
Sunrise also enlarged the salesroom by 3,000 square feet to accommodate all of their customers with space to shop. They’ve increased the retail selection concentrated on regionally produced food products.
“We needed to create more space for our guests, when they come to shop at the orchard,” Sunrise’s Sandy Jeffers explained. “We needed to make it more comfortable for them.”
In expanding the retail products available to shoppers, the orchard retained some real favorites, like the Sunrise corn salsa. Jeffers said people buy the corn salsa by the case. There’s also a lot of apple butter available.
“We’ve also expanded our gluten-free and sugar-free offerings,” Jeffers noted.
The Sunrise crews are picking mid-season apples now including Honey Crisp, Macintosh, Cortland, Golden Supreme and Jonamacs. From there, the crew will move on to picking the late season apples like Jonagolds, Delicious, Ambrosia and Empire.
Empire is known to be about the longest keeping apple of all. Jeffers said she took out the last Empires from her refrigerator in August and baked an Apple Dandy Cake, which she entered in the Crawford County Fair.
Like so many others, Jeffers had high praise for the flavor and crispness of Ambrosia.
As for the highway lane closure on Highway 171 caused by a slide, Jeffers could only smile and point out that all roads are open to Sunrise.
“Come up and enjoy some Gays Mills apples,” Jeffers said.
Just up Highway 171 from Sunrise is the Kickapoo Orchard, where Julie Meyer said they just can’t keep up with the demand for the apple donuts. Kickapoo started baking the donuts recently and demand is there.
Of course, the bakery continues to turn out its famous apple-and-caramel-covered apple pizza and the popular turnovers.
The orchard features wine tastings from locally made wines with lots of apple flavors featured, as well as grapes. Sugar Creek Winery from Feryville has tastings Friday through Sunday throughout the apple season and there are also tastings from local wineries, like Branches and Weggy.
Like West Ridge, Kickapoo has a well-grown corn maze on the hillside behind the salesroom.
Kickapoo has Honey Crisp apples available. There are also Macs, Jonagolds and so many more. The Kickapoo Orchard has some unique varieties that you may not find at other orchards.
Julie Meyer confirmed that the Independent-Scout favorite, the McCoun, should be available in the salesroom in the near future. We’ll be back.
Heading east on 171, you arrive at another family-owned orchard, Fleming’s. Like every orchard this year, the Flemings are enjoying a good growing season. Fleming’s is now the place to pick-your-own apples. You pay for the bag and then pick the apples you want to fill it. Fleming’s has 10 varieties on rows immediately behind the salesroom. There is also a nice area back there, away from the highway and parking lot for the kids to enjoy.
Jim Fleming said the popularity of the pick-your-own apples is definitely growing among the Fleming’s customers.
“It couldn’t be a better year,” Jim Fleming said of the growing season and harvest.
In addition to the pick-your-own feature and a large variety local, retail food products, Fleming’s has a display of horse-drawn sleighs and carriages.
New this year at Fleming’s are applesauce cookies made from Mrs. Finley’s original recipe formerly served at the old Red Apple Inn on Main Street in Gays Mills, according to Ruth Fleming.
The furthest east of all the orchards is the Hillcrest Orchard. Hillcrest is owned by Bob Zimpel and capably managed by Terre Van Harren. The orchard is located at the intersection of Highway 171 and 61 in Rolling Ground.
In addition to a full selection of apples, Hillcrest is known for growing strawberries, asparagus and much more during the growing season. So there’s plenty to buy in fresh, and some processed, vegetables. For instance, Van Harren believes Hillcrest will have sweet corn available for the next two weeks. This year, the usual plentiful assortment of squash seems bigger than ever–in both its variety and quantity.
In addition to the good selection of quality apples, Hillcrest has some awesome gourds this year and a host of local products including hazelnut oil and locally produced and bottled maple syrup.
Van Harren acknowledged the recent rainy weather had slowed down the harvest, but things are getting back on schedule now.
Hillcrest had a new variety this year, called Ginger Gold, but it is sold out for this year.
Van Harren expects to have Snow White in time for the Apple Fest. She described Snow White as a white-fleshed apple with an excellent sweet flavor and a crunchy yet juicy texture.
Hillcrest is selling Sunrise cider at this point.
Apples, cider, pumpkins, squash and so much more are waiting for you in the Gays Mills Orchards this year. Enjoy the fall fun with us!