It looks like another fine year in the Gays Mills orchards.
While there was a very small percentage of hail damage in the early season and a short dry spell later, the growers seem to be overwhelmingly happy with this year’s crop. From the Hillcrest Orchard in the east near Rolling Ground across the orchard ridge and all the way up to West Ridge Orchard near Mt. Sterling, there were plenty of smiles last week as growers showed off the apples and discussed the harvest.
The apples are large this year and everyone from the grower to the consumer seems to like large apples.
Hillcrest Orchard manager Terre Van Harren was happy as the rest when she talked with the Independent-Scout. Van Harren manages the orchard for Bob Zimpel, who has owned it since 1985.
“It’s a beautiful crop,” Van Harren said in describing this year’s harvest. “It was a good growing year. There was no hail or big storm. We had plenty of rain early on and no problem with frost.”
This weekend, Hillcrest will have an ample supply of Honey Crisp, Galas, Macintosh, Cortlands, Golden Supremes and a few other varieties. Despite the large supply, the manager estimated about half the crop remains to be picked.
Of all the orchards, Hillcrest is probably the most diversified in non-apple crops. Starting in spring with asparagus, then strawberries, followed by raspberries and more, the orchard features lots of garden vegetables as well. Right now, Hillcrest has tomatoes for sale among other things.
The orchard has some nice pears this season and some ground cherries, according to Van Harren.
The orchard is located at 16602 U.S. Highway 61 in Rolling Ground, near the intersection of Highways 61 and 171. Hillcrest is open every day during the season from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Heading east on Highway171 from Hillcrest one arrives at the Fleming Orchard. The family orchard is run by Ruth Fleming and her son Jim Fleming.
Ruth was as pleased with this year’s apple crop as Terre.
“It’s a nice crop and the apples are good size,” Ruth told the Independent-Scout. “There are a lot of them. It’s an abuåndant crop.”
This year, Fleming’s have expanded a pick-your-own operation geared toward the family-oriented activity. The orchard features a nice play area behind the shed and next to the pick-your-own area.
The famous Fleming Orchards tree with 24 varieties was reinvigorated this year with some new grafts put into place, according to Ruth.
Like most orchard’s these days, the “star” at Fleming’s is the Honey Crisp, which they have in good quality and quantity. They also have a “nice crop” of Macs and Cortlands, as well as a good crop of Galas. Additionally, the shopper can find Bailey’s Sweet and a few Russets, an antique variety.
There are a large variety of other foods and gifts in the salesroom. Everything is topped off by a nice collection of antique buggies and sleighs.
Just west of Fleming’s following Highway 171 on the orchard ridge is the Kickapoo Orchard. The Meyers, who own and run Kickapoo, have always been known for their apple cider. So, to accommodate an increase in production, the orchard has moved the cider press operation out of the retail area, across the highway to the packing shed. There, they have laid a new floor and installed a 6,000-gallon tank. They have plans to substantially increase their cider production, Julie Meyer told the Independent-Scout.
Julie believes the apples may be ripening a bit slower this year. In addition to Honey Crisps, Kickapoo will have Macs, Cortlands, Jona Macs and Empires available this weekend. They’re also offering Tsugaru, a sweet Japanese apple. Tsugaru means sugar in Japanese.
Kickapoo has some locally unique apples and some heirloom apples available for shoppers. For instance, there’s Dick’s Delicious, created in 1970s by the late Dick Gainor. It’s a delicious apple with a little different look and a different kind of flavor, according to Andy Meyer, another veteran orchardist and the son of Bill and Marlene Meyer.
One heirloom apple you’ll only find at Kickapoo is the Kickapoo Spice.
“It’s a very good balance of sweet and sour,” Andy said of the heirloom apple.
Other apples available this weekend at Kickapoo will include Galas, Golden Supremes, Spartans and Northwest Greenings. The orchard will also feature Ambrosia, a new apple breed.
In addition to the apples and cider, the Kickapoo Orchard is known for its bakery, which Julie said is “going full bore” right now. There are a variety of baked goods and donuts and the orchard’s signature Apple Pizza, a flaky-crusted-apple-and-caramel delight.
The Kickapoo Orchard also features wines and has a wine tasting every weekend. Some of the local wineries on hand for sampling are Weggie Winery, Sugar Creek Winery and Branches Winery.
The Kickapoo Orchard, located at 46490 State Highway 171, is open every day in the season from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The next major orchard headed west on Highway 171 along the orchard ridge is the largest—it’s Sunrise Orchard. However, before you see what the area's biggest orchard looks like you might want to see what the two smallest operations look like.
The Starry Ridge Pick-Your-Own Orchard is located at 46731 Del La Mater Road. You find Del La Mater Road running north off Highway 171 just east of the Kickapoo Orchard.
Starry Ridge is owned and managed by Bill Reinders. Created from land originally belonging to the former Frank’s Orchard, Starry Ridge grows six varieties on eight acres for their pick-your-own customers.
Reinders also has some apples picked for those who might have a hard time picking their own apples. The six varieties available include Cortland, Macintosh, Spartan, Empire, Harrelson and Sweet 16.
Starry Ridge Orchard has many repeat customers and is as much about the friendship and the experience of picking apples, as it is about the apples being picked.
“We don’t just sell apples, we make friends,” is the way Bill describes the Starry Ridge experience. And, he adds, they’ve been doing it that way for 15 years.
Heading west on Highway 171 from the Kickapoo Orchard brings one to Richard’s Orchard, the smallest operation on the orchard ridge.
Richard Wilson, the owner, is probably as well known for the pecans he brings from New Mexico, where he lives a large part of the year, as the apples and vegetables grown on the property.
Everything is grown according to organic principles, Wilson stated. Although there aren't many apples for sale this season, there are pecans, garden produce and an apple cider vinegar that has proved popular with customers.
Richard’s Orchard is located at 47222 State Highway 171.
From the smallest to the largest, not much further west on Highway 171 from Richard’s is Sunrise.
To see the Sunrise Orchard salesroom on a Saturday or Sunday during the season is something to behold. In addition to a very large number of apples placed strategically around a large open room, there’s a lot to see and do.
Of course, there are the ever-popular apple donuts made fresh daily and sold by the dozens and dozens. How many will be sold in a season? Over half million are expected to be sold this year.
There have been some changes at Sunrise this year, but one thing is on everyone’s mind.
Lynne Teach, the wife of Allen Teach and a driving force in the day-to-day management of the orchard, passed away earlier this summer. Besides the devastating emotional loss to family and friends, there is a giant gap in the operation of the orchard.
Filling that gap is requiring everyone to step up and they are, according to Allen Teach.
Operationally, the orchard has moved much of its field equipment to a new building down the road from the salesroom and packing shed. Getting the tractors and trucks away from the consumer traffic in the parking lot next to the building is seen as a big improvement.
Another improvement completed in the past year was deer fencing. The high fences and gates are definitely keeping deer and other wildlife out of the orchard. One advantage is a food safety concern as it removes deer droppings from the planting, Teach explained. However, the real advantage is limiting deer damage to trees in hard winters.
“There just seems to be more deer than there used to be,” Teach noted. “Maybe it’s because there’s less acres of orchards.”
Like the other orchardists interviewed this year by the Independent-Scout, Teach was very happy with growing year and the resulting harvest.
“It’s a real good crop,” Teach said. “There was no spring frost. We had good bloom time and adequate moisture all year.”
When there was a dry spell in July, Sunrise was able to use some drip irrigation.
Varieties doing particularly well for Sunrise are the Macintosh and Cortland being harvested now, according to Teach. He also noted the Honey Crisp apples are “exceptionally big in size” this year.
“Big apples trump small apples in retail sales,” Teach happily observed. While Sunrise may not have as many Honey Crisp apples as previous harvest, the number of bushels is about the same because of the increased size.
“It’s the meat of the harvest now,” Teach said. “The early apples are done. Two-thirds of the Honey Crisp are harvested, 40 percent of the Macs are harvested and 20 percent of the Cortlands are in.”
Seeing the Sunrise salesroom on the weekend is worth the effort. The apples are great, the cider and donuts are also and there’s a lot more in the large salesroom.
Teach said that the first pressing of pure Honey Crisp cider will be available this weekend as well.
The two remaining orchards are on the other side of Gays Mills. In fact, they are on the other side of the Kickapoo River.
The first is Turkey Ridge Organic Orchard located at 50350 Turkey Ridge Road. To reach the orchard one must take Highway 171 west from Gays Mills to Stevenson Road and then take a right on Stevenson Road and go for a few miles until you can take a right turn on Turkey Ridge Road.
The orchard offers a variety of organic apples including, Nova Mac, Nova Grow, Anonymous, Enterprise, New Yorker, Red Free, and Liberty, orchard owner Faye Welsh’s personal favorite.
“It’s a keeper apple, that keeps for four to six months and is a great all purpose apple that just gets sweeter with age,” Faye told the Independent-Scout.
With help from the farm animals and their ability to control pests, as well as some cooperative weather, the apple crop at Turkey Ridge is a keeper itself.
“The crop is great!” Faye Welsh said enthusiastically. “The animals were able to do 70-80 percent of our pest control, so the apples are bigger and just beautiful this year.”
In addition to the variety of apples at the orchard, organic unpasteurized cider is also available, in pint, half gallon and gallon sizes.
“It’s pretty much gourmet cider,” Welsh said. “We like to have diversity when we do cider, so we make it a six-apple blend and we make it our number one. Instead of it just being a byproduct, we put it right up front.”
Because Turkey Ridge blends its ciders with six different varieties of apples, it offers a slightly unique, but always pleasing, flavor. With no added sugar or water, the flavors of the apples are able to stand in the forefront of your pallet as you drink the cider.
In addition to apples and cider, the orchard produces jams and jellies, with berries that grow on the property and as Welsh noted are “often mostly picked by the owners.”
Also available are Donnie’s Garlic, apple smoke chips, Phyllis’ Kraut, applesauce and apple pie filling. There are also fresh apple pies, which use lard rendered from hogs raised right on the orchard. Pork raised on the orchard will also be available for sale along with maple syrup, and unique dresses made by Faye’s daughter.
With such variety everyone is sure to find something for themselves, when they stop at Turkey Ridge Organic Orchard.
The last orchard on the tour this year is the West Ridge Orchard. It is located at 52132 State Highway 171, just east of the Village of Mt. Sterling and the intersection of Highways 27 and 171. Although we arrive at West Ridge last this year, it was first on our tour last year when we went from west to east. In fact to the many apple tourist arriving from Iowa, West Ridge will probably be the first orchard they encounter.
Veteran orchardist Gaylon O’Neal has been operating the orchard for the past nine years since buying it from Dick and Amy Heal, who planted it in the 1960s.
In addition to growing 33 varieties of apples, West Ridge also grows grapes, strawberries and some garden vegetables. Everything is sold in the salesroom along with some other produce.
O’Neal is also particularly proud of the apple crisp donuts, which are baked fresh daily.
West Ridge, like so many of the other orchards, is also a family-oriented and kid-friendly environment. There’s a play area, a corn maze, a straw bale maze and a bouncy house to keep the younger set engaged.
If you’re looking for pumpkins, West Ridge has every size from mini to giant, according to O’Neal. The orchard is also selling five types of squash.
West Ridge has ‘a good assortment of apples” for sale this weekend.
Some of the varieties available include Honey Crisp, Macintosh, Cortland, and Golden Supreme with Jonathan coming soon.
West Ridge also has some heirloom and unusual varieties they keep going. Three that come up in conversation with O’Neal are Melissa Sweet, Wolf River and Fireside.
O’Neal has also planted some new Wisconsin-developed breeds including River Belle and Pizazz. On the order of Honey Crisp, these varieties have the sweetness, crunch and juiciness that the consumers want.
The salesroom also offers the largest selection of specialty items, according to O’Neal. West Ridge is open every day in the season from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.