It was either going to be a Christmas tree farm or an apple orchard.
After hearing from fellow farmers that Christmas trees were a prickly business, Mike Dekarski and his father-in-law planted 250 apples trees on the family-owned farm on the banks of the Crow River, near Delano, in 1983. Mike kept his day job selling electronics. He and his wife, Kit, managed the orchard on the side, while raising two children.
As those trees grew, so did the rise of the designer apple and the demand for the family you-pick, day-on-the farm experience. Thirty years later, their little Delano hobby farm has blossomed into Apple Jack Orchards, with 10,000 apples on 90 acres and thousands of visitors each harvest season. It’s now prime picking seasoning, with Honeycrisps ready for harvest, two weeks later than usual this year after the unseasonably cool spring.
“We had absolutely no idea it would grow into this,” said Mike Dekarski, 63.
The Dekarskis still help manage the day-to-day operations of the orchard but have sold it to a new family, Mary and Mike Kahler, of Minnetonka, and their three children.
“I know it’s a romantic idea,” said Mary Kahler, 41, about their decision to buy the orchard. “But someone could come in and develop this. I hope that never happens.”
On a cool, sun-dappled morning, the Dekarskis and Mary Kahler talked about how the business sprouted from a small roadside stand to a full “agritainment” experience, with apple and raspberry picking, hayrides, farm animals, corn maze, kiddie rides, pick-your-own pumpkin patch, bakery, cafe and gift shop.
Kit Dekarski’s father originally owned the farm land that included a century-old barn. The decidedly suburban couple from St. Louis Park had no real farm experience, but Mike Dekarski, a sales guys, knew the soil was just right for apples.
“It’s good because we are 20 minutes from 2 million people,” he said.
Still, the locally grown movement hadn’t yet taken root, and agritourism hadn’t taken off.
“Going to an apple orchard wasn’t a big deal at the time,” said Kit Dekarski.
The first trees were planted by hand, and people did come to pick apples, but they wanted more.
“People would be calling asking, ‘What do you have for my kids to do?’ ” Mike Dekarski said.“If someone is asking for something, you gotta give it to them.”
So they started adding small attractions like a kiddie corn pit, pony rides and an apple cannon. They attended national conferences through the Networking Association for Farm Direct Marketing and Agritourism.
And the young families who visited the orchard ate it up.
Another secret to success, they learned, was to cater to foodies. Hot dogs on the grill evolved into brats with homemade apple relish, nachos with apple salsa, applesauce doughnuts and other apple sweets. They added indoor and outdoor patio seating overlooking the Crow River.
They hire 100 seasonal workers, from local high school kids to stay-at-home moms, to tend to guests.
Honeycrisp and more
The Dekarskis also kept up on the latest and greatest new apple varieties coming out of the University of Minnesota. Nearly 80 percent of the orchard trees are Honeycrisp.
“That’s been kind of a game changer,” Mike Dekarski said. “You can’t run the business without Honeycrisp.”
Still, they grow 30 varieties, adding new types every year including some of the up and comers: Zestar! and SweeTango.
The Kahlers heard the Dekarskis were interested in selling and bought the orchard in 2011.
“I never knew I would be in the apple business,” Mary Kahler said as she toured the orchard in a golf cart. She stopped to check the ripeness of a row of tree, pulling a knife out of her pocket, slicing an apple open and examining the seeds.
Kahler, a ski instructor and mother turned farmer, is developing a finely honed palate for apple varieties. She describes the allure of the Honeycrisp: “It’s sweet and tart and firm, and it crunches in your mouth. It’s wonderful.”