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Apples made for Minnesota

Fruit Acres orchard

Fruit Acres Orchard, just outside of La Crescent, Minnesota, endured two hail storms this summer—one in June and one in July. The two storms damaged the young fruit on the branches. Fruit Acres is owned by the Archie Skemp family and the Ralph Yates family. The Yates family has managed the orchard over the years. Ralph Yates reckons the loss to be 78 to 88%, depending on the area. The apples may still come to fruition, but they’ll be marked and dinged by the hail impact—not market quality.

“So we’ve had to pull in our horns a bit this year,” Ralph says. He’s driving us over the ridge of the orchard, pointing out damage as we go. “We’re taking care of as many customers as possible. We’re checking every apple for damage as we pick. It’s a difficult harvest for us.”

Fruit Acres has been an orchard since 1910, and it’s been in Ralph’s family for 64 years. It has supplied People’s Food Co-op since 2002. The orchard grows over 30 varieties of apples on its 200-acre farm.

It’s a drizzly, cool autumn day. Ralph gets out of the truck to open the fence to the orchard nursery. “We have 40 to 60 deer on the farm. We need fencing to start new trees.”

“We’re strictly wholesale. The co-op is on the side of the grower. We move through the varieties as they ripen. So many times you’ll see retailers put out apples early. We never pick an apple before its time and PFC has been good about that. They don’t want to jump the gun either.”

Fruit Acres is not certified organic. The farm practices integrated pest management (IPM) and hasn’t used herbicides since 2012, or synthetic fertilizer since 2010. “We could go organic if we wanted,” Ralph says. “We had 12 inches over normal precipitation this year. It’s very challenging controlling disease. To succeed in this climate, I need to reserve the right to apply herbicide—if it comes to that.”

They do not wax their apples. “You can wax your car, or your floor, but don’t wax your fruit,” Ralph laughs. “The big wholesalers won’t take your apples if they’re not waxed. The co-op’s fine with ours.”

The money in the juice market won’t cover the cost of picking damaged fruit. Usually the orchard will keep 6 to 12 pickers busy through the harvest, but this year they have only three pickers.

“The trees aren’t damaged. The first hailstorm had pea-sized hail that dented the fruit; the second one was bigger and tore the fruit.”

Gordon and Ralph Yates of Fruit Acres.


Something new from Minnesota

There are still reasons for optimism. Ralph is excited about the new varieties of apples that the University of Minnesota has been breeding. These are apples that are bred to be grown in the upper Midwest. “We grow the best Honeycrisp apples in the nation,” Ralph says. And he looks for the Sweet Tango and Zestar to do well, too. “Honeycrisp saved the apple business. If you hadn’t had an apple like that come along, a lot of growers wouldn’t have survived.”

Ralph parks the truck to unlock another deer gate and points to an adjacent ridge that’s covered in corn plantings. “That used to be an orchard. Farmers are ageing out of orchard work. Their kids don’t want to do it and the new folks that move in don’t stick it out; so it’ll go to corn and beans—or McMansions.”

Despite all the rain, Ralph doesn’t see much erosion on the property. “An orchard is almost like a big compost pile,” he explains. “And the soil in the La Crescent region is rich in limestone from the bluffs. “That’s why the apples here taste so great. That taste is something special.”

“I’m not a scientist,” the orchardist says, “but anecdotally, weather seems to be more volatile lately. The orchard went 26 years with only one episode of hail, and we’ve had four since 2011. It doesn’t get any easier. You’d like to say, after 45 years you’ve seen it all, but...”

I get in my car to leave. On my way down the drive, a startled deer grudglingly stops grazing the apples to move off the drive.