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An apple a day: 101

Apple-picking time at
Minnetonka Orchard is a rite of autumn for families looking forward to a
weekend getaway from the 2.5 million residents who live and work nearby in
Minnesota’s Twin Cities.

“Young families are our
target market,” says Lowell Schaper. “One of our biggest perks is watching
families having fun here. People love to pick their own apples.”

Agriculture isn’t what
Lowell had in mind when he was growing up on a northwest Iowa farm. After
living and working on the West Coast for several years, he and his wife,
Phyllis, and their family of five settled near Minnetrista, 20 miles west of
the Twin Cities in 1974.

A short-lived experiment
with vegetables led to planting 600 apple trees on 40 acres. For a few years,
customers bought bagged apples at a lean-to fruit stand next to the road, and
they left their cash in a coffee can.

Now, 30 years later, Minnetonka Orchard has 4,000 apple trees that yield 13 varieties. The Apple Barn, built in 1978, serves apple doughnuts, a brown bag lunch, fresh local cheese, and baked goods. On weekends, families can enjoy grilled blue-ribbon cider brats and burgers.

By 1982, Lowell already was into agritourism. Today, the weekend admission includes hayrides, a petting barn, corn maze, hay mountain, kid s’ play area, and live entertainment. A corncrib has been converted into a three-story playhouse.

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In 2005, after 20 years in
engineering, their oldest son, Scott, joined the operation full time. Working
with his brother, Jay, Scott revamped their school tours with lesson activity
stations aligned with state educational standards. About 15,000 kids from
schools and day cares visit.

They added events like
weddings, family reunions, and company picnics. Scott handles the wedding
gazebo, a 5,000-square-foot reception tent, 15×15-foot oak dance floor, patio,
and fire pit. “We had 17 weddings this summer and a bar mitzvah,” he says.

Birthday parties were added
this fall, and they plan to resume booking in May.

Although their customers’
focus is fun, the Schapers admit to significant challenges. “The climate here
can be extreme,” Scott says. “This year’s frost on May 3 cut the crop by 70%.
The weather this fall was ideal for agritourism. We had an excellent crop in
2009, but it snowed in mid-October.”

Lowell adds, “Eventually we
want something going on here over nine months to spread risk. We also need to
expand for this to be a livelihood for several families.”

Son Craig and his wife,
Michele, live in Seattle. She is working at the Apple Barn this season; Craig
returns on weekends.

Agritourism requires a
constant flow of new ideas and events. “Dad’s a natural entrepreneur – an idea
guy,” Scott says. The Schapers attend the North American Farmers Direct Market
Association annual winter conference to glean new ideas.

Ongoing production decisions
focus on apple varieties. “Honeycrisp is without a doubt the most popular,”
Lowell says. “We’re phasing out older varieties like McIntosh, Paula Reds, and
Cortlands.”

Their most recent decision
is planting a cold-hardy grape variety, Marquette, developed at the University
of Minnesota. “There’s a potential market at the other end of the spectrum –
adults without kids, gardeners, and wine drinkers,” Scott says. “We could open
in spring and have a product to sell.”

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