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An apple a day: 101

CHERYL TEVIS 12/15/2010 @ 9:33am Cheryl has been an editor at Successful Farming since 1979.

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.

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.”

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