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Despite a trying year, orchards have apples
Welcome to Apple Festival
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Welcome to Apple Fest 2012. Visitors this year will find some things have changed quite a bit and others are very much the same. Here’s a review and update of the seven major orchards of the area.

While most of the orchards in the Gays Mills area are located to the east and south of the Kickapoo River, there are two that lie north and west of the river. The furthest west of all the orchards is appropriately named West Ridge Orchard.

West Ridge was planted in the early 60s by Dick and Amy Heal, who began harvesting apples in the mid-60s. In 2007, the Heals sold the orchard to Gaylon O’Neal, an experienced fruit grower.

The 40-acre West Ridge Orchard is one of the area’s smaller orchards. It has about 20 acres in apple production and the remainder in sweet corn, squash, plums and grapes. This year production on the 1.5 acres of Concord grapes was spectacular, according to O’Neal.

Unlike the apples, the grapes are a u-pick crop. Last week, O’Neal indicated that there were still grapes available, but continued availability would depend on the weather and demand.

In addition to most of the standard apple varieties like Macintosh, Cortland, Gala and the much-sought-after Honey Crisp, West Ridge also has some more obscure varieties like Winesap, Fireside and Snow. Additionally, the orchard still grows crab apples.

Like other local growers, O’Neal’s West Ridge Orchard came through a rough growing year with a good crop of apples. He noted that Michigan lost 80 to 90 percent of their apple crop and New York lost about 50 percent of their crop. The tug of supply and demand has increased the wholesale market price. While that’s nice, O’Neal explained that his orchard is oriented to the retail and local customers. So, he’s keeping plenty of apples for them.

“We don’t want to oversell in the wholesale market, when it’s the retail customers that are keeping us in business,” O’Neal said.

West Ridge introduced a new apple crisp donut this year, which includes small bits of apple. The donut is made with apple cider and very much represents an apple crisp in flavor and texture.

O’Neal pointed out the obvious when he said the orchard “is not a high volume outfit.” So, the donuts are hand-dropped and made fresh every day. The orchard also features jams and jellies, as well as local honey and local beef jerky.

Like other growers, O’Neal could only marvel at the growing year, which included frost, some hail and 100-degree temperatures all in one year with a drought on top of that. Despite all of the challenges, West Ridge like the other orchards reports a good crop of apples with some smaller fruit in certain varieties attributed to the lack of rain.

Like other orchards, West Ridge has some amusements for the kids. There are swing sets and teeter-totters, as well as a haunted tree and cemetery. Souvenir boards let kids, young and old, take some photos to remember the trip.

The other orchard located west of the Kickapoo River is Turkey Ridge Organic Orchard. Currently owned by Greg and Faye Welsh, the orchard was originally bought in 1987 by Richard Gainor. The trees were planted in 1988 through 1995.

The orchard was owned and run by the Bedessem family and Bob Johnson through most of the 90s. Greg Welsh took over the operation in 2001. In 2003, a co-operative was formed to run the orchard. Then, in 2009, Greg and Faye Welsh resumed being the owners. The orchard currently includes 5,600 trees on 50 acres of land. There are also an acre of strawberries, an acre of blackberries and plantings of other crops. The certified organic orchard is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day until Dec. 1.

Turkey Ridge features disease resistant apple varieties developed for organic growing. The varieties include Priscilla, Liberty, Anonymous and Enterprise.

The orchard has something special planned for this Saturday, Sept. 29, when they will be pressing sorghum all day. The public is welcome to taste the product and watch the process.

In addition to apples and cider, Turkey Ridge produces lots of cider vinegar.

A bakery at the orchard is producing pumpkin and apple cookies, as well as cakes and breads.

There are also locally created crafts including curly willow wreaths.

The diversified offering of the orchard is one reason they still offer apples at the same prices, according to Faye Welsh. That’s $3 per bag and $35 for a bushel.

Despite all kinds of challenges with the weather and reduction in the crop of about 15 percent, Turkey Ridge was able to pick 4,000 bushels more this year. Faye attributed the increased production to a more organized picking effort this season.

“The crop was beautiful to us,” Faye said. Some frost hit trees further down hill, but most of the crop was not affected by the frost.

“It was like there was a big halo over all the orchards,” the orchard owner said. Turkey Ridge began picking on July 10 of this year.

Sunrise Orchard is the first orchard located east of the village of Gays Mills on Highway 171 on what is known locally as the orchard hill. Sunrise is the largest orchard operation in the Gays Mills area. The orchard grows 30 varieties of apples on 250 acres of trees. Sunrise has been in the Teach family for 75 years.

Allen Teach, one of the owners, acknowledged what the other growers were saying about the early season. The veteran orchardist estimated the season is about three weeks advanced over the average year. He said that picking should be wrapped up this week or next.

“The end is in sight,” the busy orchard owner said earlier this week. “It has been a very unusual season to say the least.”

Sunrise like other orchards received unusually warm weather starting on March 15, according to Teach. This caused an early bloom, which exposed the fruit to potential frost damage when temperatures began dropping in April. Somehow, the apples made it.

“It’s a decent crop,” Teach said. “We’re so fortunate to have an apple crop, when so many other folks lost theirs.”

Teach noted the massive losses of apple crops in Michigan and New York. He said that southwestern Wisconsin and Door County were some of the few good islands of apples between the Rocky Mountains and upstate New York.

While Sunrise has a slightly smaller crop than last year, it picked out above expectations, a happy Allen Teach reported. The orchard had an especially good Macintosh crop with plenty for retail and wholesale markets. Sunrise will have its retail store open until Christmas.

Teach acknowledged there was increased wholesale demand, but noted it seemed tempered by the fact that the state of Washington was harvesting the largest crop ever grown there.

While Sunrise’s biggest crop is still Macintosh, Honey Crisp is now the orchard’s second largest crop and account for about 20 percent of the apples produced. Cortlands are Sunrise’s third largest crop.

In addition to apples, the Sunrise salesroom has a wide variety of specialty foods and is known for a bakery that produces countless dozens of apple cider donuts.

How many donuts will Sunrise make for Apple Fest? Sunrise bakery manager Laurie Oppriecht estimates her crew of 10 will make about 7,500 dozen donuts this weekend-working 14 hours each day. The orchard’s bakery figures they will bake 42,000 dozen donuts this season—that’s over a half million donuts.

The next orchard east of Sunrise on 171 is the Kickapoo Orchard, another large established operation on the orchard hill.

Kickapoo Orchard was founded in 1913 by Harold Schubert and bought by Bill and Marlene Meyer in 1964. The Meyer family still owns and runs the orchard.

Kickapoo grows 40 varieties of apples on 100 acres of trees, according to Andy Meyer, the son of Bill and Marlene.

How is the crop at Kickapoo?

“Not too bad,” a pleased Andy Meyer responded. “We have two-thirds to three-quarters of what we’d expect in an average year.”

Meyer was quick to add that some of the decreased harvest was offset by higher than average prices in the wholesale market due to the lack of apples.

What kind of year was it?

Andy Meyer could only laugh in response.

“It was a challenging, pull-your-hair-out kind of year,” Meyer said. “We got a warm spring right off and then a month of cold weather. It’s hard to believe there are any apples.”

Meyer believes the altitude of the orchards on the hill that allows the frost to drain down to the valleys is what saved most of the crop. He noted that farther over the hill one goes the lighter the crop is.

Paula Reds were the most affected crop at Kickapoo.

Like the other orchards, Kickapoo has all kinds of apples available in good condition for sale in the salesroom.

“We have apples to sell,” Andy Meyer said.

In addition to apples, the Kickapoo Orchard salesroom has a large variety of other food and merchandise for sale. The orchard is probably best known for its ‘Apple Pizza,’ a caramel, apple and more concoction spread across a flaky dough. Kickapoo is also a major cider producer.

Located further east on Highway 171 from the Kickapoo Orchard is the Fleming Orchard.

The orchard was founded in 1937 by James Fleming, the grandfather of Jim Fleming, who runs the orchard today with is mother, Ruth Fleming.

Ruth Fleming feels the orchard still has the feel of an old-fashioned apple market. Fleming Orchard features plenty of old-fashioned varieties on 65 acres and still has the original building.

Fleming’s Dudleys and Wealthys are gone for the season, but the salesroom still has plenty of old varieties for sale including Snow Apples, Golden Russets, Tolman Sweet and Greenings, according to Ruth Fleming. The orchard is also selling a Crispin apple that is a good keeping, winter apple. Of course, Fleming’s has a large planting of Honey Crisp apples that did well this year.

How was the year?

“Extraordinary,” is all Ruth said. “It could be global warming, I don’t know. I don’t care to see apple blossoms in March though.”

The blossoms came in March and the frost came in April and somehow Fleming’s has a decent crop of apples.

Ruth Fleming noted that areas to the south were a little earlier and seemed to get hit harder by the frost. She also believes the location on top of the hill has something to do with getting this year’s crop through.

“It’s why we have orchards on the hill,” she said.

The veteran orchardist admitted the strange year made her “kind of nervous about the whole thing” and she’s glad that "it worked out.”

In addition to apples, Fleming’s is famous for an apple tree that has 28 varieties grafted to it. The orchard also has a nice collection of buggies.

For the adventurous, Jim Fleming’s homemade southwest chili will be served this weekend. The hot chili is made from a recipe Jim brought back from New Mexico, a few years back.

The orchard located the furthest east among the group is the Hillcrest Orchard. The salesroom is at the intersection of Highways 171 and 61 in Rolling Ground.

The orchard was originally a dairy farm that was converted to an orchard 50 years ago. It was purchased in 1984 by Bob Zimpel and Terre Van Herren took over as the retail manager from Alyce Salmon in 2006. Bob Johnson is the orchard manager at Hillcrest.

In addition to apples, Hillcrest grows lots of farm produce, as well as strawberries and Christmas trees.

How was the apple crop this year?

“It was a wild ride,” Van Herren said with a smile. The warm spring, followed by frost made Terre doubt they could escape it, but they did.

“It didn’t destroy the crop,” Van Herren said. “There were a number of things, timing, the was luck…mainly. I would say, it was luck.”

Van Herren said the drought didn’t affect the larger trees with deeper root systems, as much as the smaller dwarf trees, which saw the production of some smaller apples.

In the end, Van Herren called it a “good fall with some nice picking days and some cool nights.”

The Hillcrest manager estimated the crews were half through with the harvest and will finish in the first part of October.

Hillcrest is heavily into the Cortland and Mac harvest now. The Honey Crisp is all picked and ready for sale in the salesroom. Late season apples left to be picked include Empire, Crispin and Harrelson.

Hillcrest’s salesroom is open every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. until the first weekend in November, when they will close until the weekend after Thanksgiving for Christmas tree sales. Hillcrest will continue to sell apples from the salesroom along with Christmas trees until the weekend before Christmas.

Fresh cranberries should be on hand this weekend as well, according to Van Herren.

The most hidden orchard of the bunch might be the Starry Ridge Orchard located on De La Mater Road west of Highway 171.

Starry Ridge is a pick-your-own operation owned by Bill and Dianne Reinders.

Dianne was concerned that with a smaller crop this season the orchard might not have enough of every variety. Nonetheless, she’s hoping for a big Apple Fest weekend.

The orchard has many repeat customers, who enjoy picking their own fruit from the tree.

Starry Ridge lost about 30 percent of the crop in some freezes this spring, according to Dianne.

The orchard is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the picking season.