Minnesota orchards revel in apple-picking time

  • Article by: PETER COX , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 6, 2009 - 4:38 PM

Pick-your-own orchards are ready to give customers that fresh-picked, back-to-the-farm experience.

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Sheila Mitchell, CEO of Minnesota Harvest near Jordan, helped start the orchard 38 years ago. About a quarter-million customers will visit this fall.

Photo: Peter Cox, Star Tribune

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As Sheila Mitchell walked through her orchard last week, cars were bumper to bumper in the parking lot, tractors pulled wagons loaded with people along the orchard roads and parents snapped photos of their children among the apple trees.

For Mitchell and other Minnesota farmers, this time of year is when business rolls. This is high apple season.

"I love apples," she said, taking a bite out of a freshly picked Haralson. "How can you get sick of that?"

Mitchell runs Minnesota Harvest Orchard just outside of Jordan. Mitchell and her former husband, John (Topper) Sponsel, started the orchard 38 years ago. When Sponsel died in 2006, it was passed down to their two daughters. Mitchell continues to run the day-to-day operations.

In early September, USA Today named Minnesota Harvest one of the "10 great places to pick your own apples."

"Thirty-eight years of hard work and they named us one of the best in the country to visit," she said. "We were just beside ourselves."

These days, a-pick-your-own apple orchard is much more than rows of trees and a cash register.

At Minnesota Harvest there are horse rides, a petting zoo, a pumpkin patch, a barbecue shack, a caramel tub and a bakery. Between September and October, the orchard attracts a quarter million customers.

Ross Nelson, treasurer of the Minnesota Apple Grower's Association, has owned and operated Nelson's Apple Farm, an orchard just west of Elko, for 35 years.

He says during the past decade or so, larger grocery stores have started buying produce from the largest orchards. In turn, he said, many smaller growers have gone to a direct retail business model such as pick-your-own orchards.

"They're very popular, extremely popular," he said. "We do most of our business [with] pick-your-own."

Nationwide, pick-your-own apple orchards seem to be sprouting up everywhere, according to Todd Hulquist, spokesman for the U.S. Apple Association.

"It's very Americana," he said. "It's very much a part of the fall. It brings people back to the farm."

Combined with giving customers a rural experience, Mitchell says the "eat local" movement has also been a boon to business. During the past few years, apple sales at Minnesota Harvest have jumped 25 to 30 percent.

What is most fulfilling about having an orchard, both Mitchell and Nelson say, is building relationships with customers.

"We really enjoy having customers come year after year," Nelson said. "We have the children of children that visited us 30 years ago. That's fun to see."

Two Sundays ago, at Minnesota Orchard, Lynnea and Todd Fedyk of Glencoe picked apples with Todd's mother, Julie Fedyk.

For Lynnea Fedyk, 33, the annual trip to Minnesota Harvest is about more than apples.

"It's nostalgic. We've been coming here since I was 5 years old," she said. "It's just a tradition."

Peter Cox is a St. Paul freelance writer.

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    A sampling of pick-your-own orchards in the south metro area:

    APPLEWOOD ORCHARD

    22702 Hamburg Av., Lakeville, Minn.

    952-985-5425

    www.applewoodorchard. com/applewood1

    FIRESIDE ORCHARD

    2225 Lonsdale Blvd., Northfield, Minn.

    507-663-1376

    www.firesideorchard.com

    NELSON'S APPLE FARM

    3270 Douglas Av., Webster, Minn.

    952-461-3355

    www.nelsonsapplefarm.com

    EMMA KRUMBEE'S ORCHARD AND FARM & GREENHOUSE

    507 E. South St., Belle Plaine, Minn.

    952-873-3006

    www.emmakrumbees.com

    MINNESOTA HARVEST APPLE ORCHARD

    8251 Old Hwy. 169 Blvd., Jordan, Minn.

    952-492-7753.

    www.minnesotaharvest.net

    THOMPSON'S HILLCREST ORCHARD

    6271 250th St. E., Elko, Minn. 952-461-2055

    www.hillcrestorchard.org

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