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Take a bite out of Autumn at area orchards
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The air is getting crisper. The sumac leaves have turned red. And if you drive past any of the area’s apple orchards and fruit farms, you’ll see the trees laden with red and golden fruit.

Farming is historically a family business. That is as true for fruit producers as for anyone raising corn or cattle. In fact, an orchard needs many more hands when it’s time to harvest.

Fourth generation orchardist Steve Louis of Oakwood Fruit Farm in Richland Center counts on his extended family. His parents, John and Bonnie, sister Judy Alvin, brother in-law Greg Alvin, son Kyle, daughter Erin, nephew Nathan and niece Sara can be found working throughout the apple season. Sister Lisa and her husband Mike Stafford and daughters Katie and Emily are frequently on hand during the weekends.

“We have a really nice crop this year,” Louis said. “There was a little hail in July, but we also had good rain throughout the season.”

A visit to their salesroom set in the midst of 180+ acres of apples at 31128 Apple Ridge Road, Richland Center, is an autumn treat.

Through September, the orchard offers pick-your-own Concord grapes in addition to bagged apples. Heading into the end of the month, you can expect to find Honeycrisp, Gala, Cortland, MacIntosh, and Fuji bagged and ready to take home, according to Louis. The salesroom also offers ciders, baked goods, six varieties of caramel apple, maple syrup, sorghum, jams, jellies, and much more.

The Oakwood Fruit Farm showroom stays open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., until the end of October. Hours are scaled back to 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. from Nov. 1 until they close in mid to late December. Shipping is available for those who would like to order from outside the area or who want to send a gift. The showroom can be reached at 608-585-2701.

Or perhaps you would like to co-ordinate your apple expedition with a trip to the Mississippi River. In which case, you can head to Prairie du Chien. Shihata’s Orchard, located on the north end of town at 61543 Limery Road, offers all their apples, squash and gourds bagged. You can also head out into the orchard and fields to pick-your-own for the experience and savings.

“You can get Honeycrisp, Gala, Cortland, MacIntosh, Jonathans, and Regents now,” said owner Linda Shihata. “And later in the season, we’ll have some of our later, sweeter varieties coming in. We have five acres of pumpkins and gourds, and this year added a very pretty white pumpkin.”

Shihata began the orchard in 1968 with her husband and father-in-law as a hobby. Now, she calls it a “hobby out of control.”

“It’s a beautiful crop, though,” Shihata said. “Apples may show some superficial imperfections where some of the apples scarred from that July hail storm, but the quality is still really good.”

In addition to the fruit and squash, the orchard salesroom, open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week through Oct. 31, offers a variety Apple-licious Cider donuts, apple turnovers, various cookies along with delicious pies.  The pies can be purchased frozen whole, baked whole or by the slice.  Apple will be available each day but other flavors will change throughout the season.

If you visit on Oct. 3rd and 4th, you can catch the action of Shihata’s Orchard Festival. Kids can try out the apple slingshot and other kids games. There will be a Country Fun Park with animal display and a giant spider web, glitter tattoos and face painting. The Shihatas will also have product sampling to give attendees a chance to sample the various treats before they buy. And, as long as the weather cooperates, there will be live music.

For more information, Shihata’s Orchard can be reached at 608-326-2786.

More than apples

Perhaps it’s the season and the visit to a working farm that appeals to you and not the apples. In which case, load up your car and head south to Vesperman Farms in Lancaster.

Located at 8149 Stage Road, the farm offers an impressive 5-acre corn maze that is changed every year. Add in hayrides, pumpkin catapulting, pumpkin checkers, petting zoo and other ‘barnyard’ activities for a day of family fun.

Kyle Vesperman is the fourth generation of the family to run the farm.

“It’s a beautiful time of year to visit,” Vesperman said. “And there is plenty to entertain the kids. We also have food available. There are caramel apples and cider donuts, but there are also burger and fries and other foods.”

The farm stays open to the public Monday through Friday from noon until 6 p.m., Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.

Visiting the shop and food stand is free, though the farm does charge for the hayrides and other activities.

Farm admission is $7 per person for ages 5 and up, with under 5 being free. They also offer season passes for $15. 

You can reach the farm for more information at 608-723-2542.

Apple Fest!

And then of course, given the time of year, there is the Gays Mills Apple Festival this weekend, Sept. 25-27. The Apple Capital of Wisconsin, Gays Mills hosts the largest concentration of commercial orchards in the state. The orchards lie along an east-west route on a ridge above the village along Highway 171.

Starting at the junction of Highway 171 and Highway 61, you find Hillcrest Orchard. Head west and the next orchard stop is Fleming Orchard followed by Starry Ridge (turn on De La Mater Road), Kickapoo Orchard, Richard’s Orchard, and Sunrise Orchard. Next, head down the orchard hill and drive through town. Just outside of town on west Hwy. 171, you can turn north on Stevenson Road and then right on Turkey Ridge Road to find the only certified organic orchard in the area, Turkey Ridge Orchard. Or stay on Highway 171 headed west, and when you reach the top of the hill you will find West Ridge Orchard.

Every orchard has something unique to their operation, making them well worth the visit. There are many varieties of apple available you will also find specialty foods, wines, gifts, and various entertainments.

Also located on the east orchard hill are Apple’licious Pie Depot and Norskhaven Gift & Coffee Shop. People drive from outside the area to visit these two shops for a reason. They make your mouth happy!

While Apple Fest is obviously about the apples, there is far more to do than visit orchards. There is a huge flea market held at the Crawford County Fairgrounds on the south end of town, just off Highway 131. Food vendors are scattered throughout the village and fairgrounds, offering up a wide variety of edible treats and meals, several of which help fund civic groups and churches.

There are arts and crafts for sale at Riverside Park, along Main Street, and at the County Shop. There is also a carnival, complete with a kiddie coaster and other rides, also set up at Riverside Park.

There are horse tournaments, a 2K/5K walk-run, sawdust hunt, book sale, music, and more held throughout the weekend.

And of course, one of the main attractions, the Apple Fest Parade is held downtown on Sunday at 1:30 p.m.