GAYS MIILLS - You could feel it in the air on Monday–the season had changed. Fall officially arrived at 2:59 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 23.
It was a gorgeous day, the temperature peaked in the low 70s and by 8:30 p.m. it was 58 degrees. It felt like fall and in Gays Mills, fall means apples.
A brief tour of the five orchards with 2019 crops over the weekend affirmed it was a pretty good year for growing apples in Gays Mills.
This year, we started at Sunrise, the first orchard uphill on Highway 171 from the Village of Gays Mills.
We were lucky to catch one of the owners, Alan Teach, in the packing shed and he agreed to talk apples with us.
Teach’s family has owned the orchard for several generations at this point and it has expanded and modernized greatly over the years. Sunrise is the area’s largest orchard.
Last year, the Sunrise Orchard expanded the salesroom by 3,000 square feet. They also modernized the grading line, which moved along in the background with workers filling boxes with apples, as Alan talked about the season with us.
“There are lots and lots of apples,” Teach said matter-of-factly, trying to hide a growing smile.
The experienced orchardist explained that although ‘full bloom’ came 10 days later than it had in 2018, the apples were ripening at about the same dates as the previous year.
Teach said the wet spring and early summer had not created any problems. However, the orchard had not run their irrigation system the whole summer except for one day to test it.
The apples themselves had grown well and it was a moderate to heavy harvest with no storm damage to the fruit as of now.
The extremely cold winter featuring the ‘Polar Vortex’ in January had little effect on the Sunrise trees.
The orchard’s biggest change remains using the vastly expanded retail space, while perfecting operations on the grading line. Another big change that arrived last year was installation of equipment to pasteurize and bottle the cider. It's in its second year now and that process is going well, according to Teach.
Sunrise also updated the website this year to provide more information, and to make it more user friendly.
Teach said the orchard added a dog walking area at the far end of the building in memory of all the dogs they have had over the years.
Unlike other businesses, Sunrise is doing well with labor this year. The orchard employs about 125 people during the course of the season and the group is a mix of local people, migrant pickers and others.
About three years ago, Sunrise went through a process to hire South African workers on H2A agricultural work visas and have been very pleased with those workers. This year, there are about 15 South Africans employed at Sunrise. While the South Africans work mainly in the packing shed, Sunrise has full crew picking apples as well.
“Thank God, people still enjoy picking apples,” Teach said.
Sunrise has Macintosh, Cortlands, Galas and Honey Crisp available and will have Fuji and Golden Supremes shortly.
The Empire and Red Delicious crop might not be harvested by Apple Fest, but Teach is confident the consumers will have a great selection of fine apples.
“Not to fear, there are lots of apples in Gays Mills and the road is open,” Teach said. That was a reference to last year when a washout on the orchard hill shut down a lane of traffic. Those problems were resolved and things are back to normal on the hill.
The sales room has also expanded its ability to make apple cider donuts.
“We have three machines tested and ready to go,” Teach noted. “There should be no waiting this year.”
If you want quality apples you can’t go wrong at Sunrise–but that’s true of the other orchards as well.
Just up Highway 171 from Sunrise is the Kickapoo Orchard–owned by the Meyer family and managed by Andy and Julie Meyer.
Well, we finally did catch up with Andy, who had been out delivering apples when we arrived.
Andy agreed that as a growing season it had been decent, noting the late spring and the early rains.
“It’s not going too bad right now,” Meyer said. “But, we want the rain to stop. The recent rains have delayed our picking.”
Kickapoo has pretty much every variety they normally have at this point, despite the late start in spring. So, Kickapoo has Macs, Cortlands, Golden Supremes, Honey Crisp and a host of other varieties.
Another apple called Stanza is coming in greater volume this year. Meyer said Stanza is a sweet apple that wears a red blush, as the fruit ripens to yellow.
The picking crew is currently picking Honey Crisp and Cortlands.
“We’re making our own cider, but were having Sunrise bottle it for us,” Meyer explained.
Kickapoo’s bakery is going strong with donuts and the famous apple pizza made with apples, caramel and a crispy, flat crust.
The orchard has added a deck behind the salesroom, overlooking the corn maze and the orchard hills beyond it. So, stop by and get some apple pizza, donuts and cider with your apples.
Kickapoo also features Driftless Beer made right down the road in Soldiers Grove and Sugar Creek Wine made at a winery near Ferryville. They also sell two kinds of apple brandy made with Kickapoo Orchard cider. The brandies are made by Yahara Bay in Madison and Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac.
Meyer expects Apple Fest to be a real busy weekend.
“We’ve got plenty of apples and the gift shop is well stocked,” Andy Meyer said. “We’re ready to go.”
Heading east down 171 from Kickapoo, we arrived at Fleming Orchard, where owner Jim Fleming was just coming in from the orchard.
Fleming said he thought the crop was a little late this season. He noted the blossom was late and pollination was spotty at times.
However, like the other orchard owners, he noted the crop was getting closer to on schedule now. Fleming’s has a full array of Macs and Honey Crisp. They also have Cortlands, Russetts, JonaMacs and Fuji. Fleming’s also has some heirloom varieties–like Bailey Sweet, Tolman Sweet and Wolf River.
While Wolf Rivers still hadn’t been harvested as of last week, there were Baily Sweet, a sweet smaller antique apple with very firm texture and Tolman Sweet, a greenish apple with a nice sweet flavor.
“Everything looks good in all varieties this year,” Jim Fleming said.
Fleming Orchard started a pick-your-own area behind the salesroom with lots of the popular varieties.
“The pick-your-own is doing really well,” Fleming said. “We’re in our second year now and the word is getting out. All the varieties are doing well.”
The Fleming salesroom features include Bob’s Bitching Barbeque Sauce from Dodgeville in a variety of configurations. Like most of the orchards, Fleming’s has pumpkins, squash and more.
“Oh yeah, don’t forget the beef sticks,” Jim Fleming added as we headed out.
It was a great old-time orchard experience complete with the collection of carriages and sleighs hung from the ceiling. And, remember Fleming’s is the orchard for the pick-your-own experience.
Heading east from Fleming’s, we came to the intersection of 171 and Highway 61–also known as Rolling Ground, and across the highway the Hillcrest Orchard salesroom.
Orchard manager Terre Van Harren and her assistant Brenda were taking care of customers and putting in more apples. Hillcrest also is known for lots of produce other than apples. Some of it is grown at their nearby farm and more is brought in from central Wisconsin, where orchard owner Bob Zimpel lives.
Last week, the orchard featured lots of onions and potatoes in bags up to 50 pounds at bargain prices. And, there was still homegrown produce including tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn and much more. Outside, the orchard featured some colorful potted mums.
However, Hillcrest is an orchard and they have some good apples available and more on the way. Prominently featured are Macs, Honey Crisp and Ginger Gold–a new golden variety with big juicy sweet flavor, according to Van Harren.
The orchard manager said customer demand was starting off slow, but let’s face it the warmer weather just doesn't feel like apple weather. Business in the salesroom remained steady, while we chatted with Terre and Brenda. Both said they were looking forward to a good Apple Fest weekend.
Another popular apple at Hillcrest is Snow White.
“It’s white-fleshed, very juicy, blushy kind of apple,” Terre said. If we’re lucky it might be in for Apple Fest.
The orchard manager said that Golden Supremes should be ready for apple fest and Galas are already coming in. Hillcrest had some Zestar apples, but not a lot and they were selling out, according to Terre.
Besides the apples and the large variety of fresh produce, Hillcrest has plenty more in the salesroom. They feature cider, cheese, maple syrup, honey and popcorn–most all of it locally or regionally produced. There is also a full line of all things canned and pickled, as well as jams and jellies, produced by Wienke’s Market in Door County.
Well that’s four out of five of the operating Gays Mills orchards. However, by going east on Highway 171 and landing at Hillcrest Orchard in Rolling Ground, we had put ourselves a very long way from our last remaining stop at West Ridge Orchard.
Getting to West Ridge required us to go back west on 171 past the three orchards we had already visited. We descended the orchard hill and headed down Main Street in Gays Mills. We crossed the Kickapoo River and took 171 uphill going west toward the Village of Mt. Sterling. There, about a mile east of Mount Sterling, is the West Ridge Orchard, owned by Gaylon O’Neal.
The hot story at West Ridge is about a new variety developed at the orchard and initially propagated by O’Neal. It should be noted that Gaylon O’Neal had an extensive fruit growing background in Michigan, as well as locally, before he purchased the orchard from Dick and Amy Heal.
It turns out that Dick Heal plays a major role in the story of the new variety. Heal was a classic orchardist–grafting, propagating and crossing varieties. He had done multiple grafts on a big standard apple tree. This tree was huge compared to the more commonly planted dwarf varieties that are used now.
O’Neal decided it was time to remove this block of standard trees and make the area ready for a new planting on dwarf rootstock. However, he remembered the grafts of this one tree and he also remembered how fond he was of apples produced on one of the branches. So, he saved the wood and did some grafting and propagating. Then, he sent the material to friend who started more trees.
They were planted and small amounts of fruit kept coming in and the volume grew. This year, he had three times the volume he had last year and in the week before Apple Fest he sold out.
For four years the new variety was sold as ‘no-name.’ Then, the past year O’Neal registered the trade name Firecracker. The variety is currently being grown and handled by International Plant Management.
The firm has multiple 10-tree plantings of Firecracker at sites across the United States to see how it will grow under different conditions. There are trial sites in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. It is also being trialed on the west coast in Oregon and northern California.
In the future, if the testing goes well, International Plant Management will take the variety though the licensing process and start growing it in nurseries.
Firecracker is often compared to the ever-popular Honey Crisp. O’Neal points out that Firecracker has a longer shelf life than Honey Crisp, while it shares the same sweet, but tart flavor.
Well, there’s plenty more going on at West Ridge than the excitement over Firecracker–it’s called the growing season.
O’Neal says the season was pretty good overall, but there was some winter injury to certain trees from the extreme cold of January when temperatures fell to 40 below.
Hardest hit by the cold temperatures were Galas, where the most trees were lost.
O’Neal reported that West Ridge had an excellent crop of Macs and the Cortlands had also done real well.
Because of the Heals, there’s a few heirlooms still around grown by O’Neal for that select group of customers looking for them.
One is Fireside, which is one of the last to ripen. Some years it has been substituted for Honey Crisp, when there were not enough of that popular variety around. O’Neal notes that in addition to good flavor, Fireside is hard crunchy apple the keeps well.
Like Fleming’s and Kickapoo, West Ridge still grows the massive Wolf River apples and sells them to a particular set of customers.
“A lot of people call and reserve them,” O’Neal said. “It’s pretty popular for us.”
Maybe so, but the interest now ranges toward the new variety West Ridge developed–Firecracker.
“Anybody who sampled that apple bought it,” O’Neal said.
How good is Firecracker?
Here’s what Independent-Scout office manager Sharon Sanders had to say, when we gave her sample:
“Oh that’s good,” Sanders cooed after the first bite. “It’s everything an apple should have. A little tart, a little sweet and crispy. I hate musty apples. I love it. It might be my next favorite apple.”
Watch out Gays Mills, there’s a Firecracker up there at West Ridge and it just might explode.
The Turkey Ridge Organic Orchard and the Village Greenhouse are working together to operate the Village Greenhouse space in Gays Mills for Apple Festival. They will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at 215 Main Street in Gays Mills.
Turkey Ridge will be selling their cider, jams and jellies, bakery goods and gift boxes in ‘ready to ship’ boxes. Animal-grade apple cider vinegar will also be available in half-gallon jugs.
Jessie Brandt will have her ‘Eco-Friendly’ products including make-up, dolls and toys–plus other things as well.
In addition, the annual Village Greenhouse tradition of chrysanthemums and pumpkins for sale will go on as usual. The back of the store will be full of treasures at their rummage sale.The Turkey Ridge Organic Orchard, the sixth Gays Mills orchard, suffered greatly from the winter cold and other factors. It lost most of its apple crop this year.