Scampering around the apple tree on a blustery Friday morning, Jayden Luikens picked two apples and gave them to his mother. Then he looked up.
"I can see the perfect one, but it's the one all the way up there," Jayden, 12, said, pointing to the top of the tree.
That perfect, unreachable apple -- still waiting to plucked -- is among the last crop at Minnesota Harvest.
The roughly 200-acre orchard outside Jordan, a place where locals, city dwellers and school groups have gone since the 1970s to enjoy a day filled with apples and fun on the farm, is closing at the end of this harvest.
The Sponsel family sold the land to a developer five years ago, and the lease that allows them to keep running the orchard is up this fall.
"It's the farewell season," said Sheila Mitchell, CEO of Minnesota Harvest. "It's very difficult."
What started as an apple orchard in 1971 grew to include 100 horses for trail rides, wagon rides, a petting zoo, a corn maze and live music. Cider and a host of bakery goods were made fresh on site daily, sometimes at the rate of 300 pies an hour.
Just last year, USA Today included it on its list of 10 great places to pick apples in the United States.
"Sponsel's [Minnesota Harvest] was kind of a groundbreaking operation in its time," said Ralph Yates, secretary of the Minnesota Apple Growers Association. "It's just kind of sad to see things change, but there's always change in agriculture."
Minnesota Harvest has already auctioned off most of the equipment and sold the trail horses. Trees will be sold at the end of this season for $100 each.
The main building, once a bustling shop with apple goodies and gifts, is largely empty now, except for apples and a cash register. The bakery is closed and outdoor displays are barren.
"It looked like a ghost town," Jason Sheeley said after a recent trip to Minnesota Harvest. "Our family has loved going here for years and I have many fond memories of driving down there as a child and now as an adult. It is sad that they will no longer be in business."
The orchard fell into debt in the 1990s, and the Sponsels sold to developer Dennis Backes of the Brooklyn Center-based Backes Co. in 2005.
Backes did not return a call for comment Friday.
John (Topper) Sponsel, the longtime owner of the orchard and son of the original landowner, died of a heart attack in 2006, just a few months after the sale, at age 53.
Mitchell, Sponsel's former wife, and their daughters have kept the orchard running during the five-year lease. She said the developers may try to find another operator for the orchard if they choose not to develop right away, but so far that hasn't happened.
Joe Wagner, a Scott County commissioner and co-owner of nearby Wagner Brothers Orchard, said all the nearby apple farmers have benefitted over the years from Minnesota Harvest's popularity.
"Minnesota Harvest has been very good to all of us down here," he said. "People would pack up for the Saturday or Sunday afternoon and start stopping at the retail orchards on their way down to them."
The orchard's 30,000 trees, spread over 200 acres, produced about 100,000 bushels of apples -- each weighing 42 pounds -- every year and attracted 250,000 people to pick them.
This year, Mitchell said, they hope at least that many people will come and pluck the apples from the trees' already heavy branches.
"It's one of our biggest, finest, best, most amazing crops of all time," Mitchell said. "We need people to come out and pick them."
Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056