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SF Adapt: Family Orchard Keeps Up With the Times
Orchard production is constantly twisting and turning. New varieties and practices are always coming at growers, often at the whim of consumer preferences.
At Kickapoo Orchard, in the hills of southwest Wisconsin, owners Bill and Marlene Meyer and their family have been changing with the times for more than 50 years. Bill is cider manager; Marlene is communications/website administrator; son Andy is orchard manager and sunflower/corn maze master; and Andy’s wife, Julie, is retail manager. Son Mike works in Texas.
Switching to Dwarfs
A big change for the farm was switching from standard-size apple trees to dwarf rootstocks that allow for closer planting of rows and in-row spacing, says Marlene. The popularity of apple varieties is constantly changing, so new varieties are regularly introduced. About 500 new trees are planted each year throughout the 100-acre orchard.
About two thirds of Kickapoo’s apples are shipped to big warehouses in Minnesota’s Twin Cities and Kenosha, Wisconsin. The farm produces 80,000 gallons of cider a year. About a third is pasteurized and bottled in Hopkins, Minnesota. The rest is sold to vintners, distillers, and brewers for processing into wine, brandy, beer, and hard cider. Kickapoo purchases some of the resulting bottles for resale in its salesroom.
Early on, an old barn was used for packing apples in bushel baskets and for apple sales. Over the years, the farm added a retail salesroom, cold storage building, dry storage, freezer room, and a bakery.
Kickapoo’s apple prices are set by market prices based on the supply and demand of apples nationwide. Prices fluctuate with the amount of imported apples, weather conditions, and other factors, and they rarely are the same from year to year.
Early apples are usually priced lower, says Marlene. Some apple varieties, such as Honeycrisp, are higher priced. Other apple varieties include Ambrosia and Kickapoo Spice. Kickapoo Orchard tries to grow what the big box stores don’t sell, says Bill.
Besides apples and cider, other produce for sale at the orchard includes red tart cherries, raspberries, and Bluebell grapes.
In the fall, pumpkins and squash are available. There are also corn and sunflower mazes, a retail store, deli, and a bakery. The bakery is famous for an apple pizza consisting of a crust covered with a layer of apples and a layer of slivered almonds, sugar, and spices. It’s all topped off with soft caramel.
“It sells very well,” says Marlene. “It’s what we’re known for.”
Yearly Orchard Timetable
- Prespring: Tree-pruning debris is removed, the ground is prepared for planting, and disease and insect control begins using integrated pest management. An entomologist is hired to place pheromone insect traps, count trapped insects, and monitor the orchard for damage from insects and disease.
- Spring: In the first weeks of April, new trees are planted and existing trees are grafted to new varieties. The crop is thinned to maximize production.
- Summer: The orchard is mowed and weeded as needed. In July, cherry and raspberry harvest begins. The retail business opens. Preparations for apple harvest begin, including lining up picking bags, ladders, and pickers. Wholesale packing facilities and personnel are readied.
- Late Summer: In mid-August, early apples for retail and wholesale are harvested. Cider pressing starts.
- Fall: Apple Festival Weekend is the last full weekend in September. Harvest and sales peak in late October.
- Late Fall: Retail closes the day before Thanksgiving. Wholesale and cider pressing continues through mid-December.
- Winter: Crews are in the orchard pruning trees any day weather permits. Cold, rainy, or snowy days are used for repairing equipment and reviewing spray programs.
Corn and Sunflower Maze
The corn and sunflower maze, with free admission, is a popular Kickapoo Orchard feature. Maze master Andy started the project “scientifically,” he says, drawing the maze path in small scale on graph paper. That didn’t last long.
Now, he uses a lawn mower to arbitrarily create a pathway through the 2½-acre field when the corn and sunflower plants are small. He’s careful not to take the path too close to the edge of the plot. That way, maze walkers aren’t tempted to break out before the end.
“It’s fun,” Andy says of the process. When corn and sunflowers are fully grown, maze walkers can still see out over the plants into the beautiful valley, but they can’t see other nearby maze walkers.
Ag diversification adds profit today (ADAPT). Here are a few farmers who take advantage of consumer trends. Steal an idea or two: