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Apples are part of Wisconsin's ag history

Nov. 8, 2012 | 0 comments

"An apple a day keeps the doctor away; An apple for the teacher: Apple of my eye: Apple polisher" are just a few of the many dozens of "apple sayings" that we grew up with.

Chances are we never gave a second thought to where they came from or why the apple is so common in our language or why we don't give much thought to apples other than we eat and enjoy them regularly.

This year many people actually did think about apples because of the higher price and because their annual trip to a Wisconsin apple orchard to pick and or just buy apples might not have happened.

It was all about the weather.

The warm, early spring that brought the apple blossoms into bloom was followed by killing frosts that disrupted the pollination process. The result was a poor apple yield pretty much across the state, and some of the favorite varieties were in short supply. Many orchards closed their apple stores by Nov. 1 and prices were higher in grocery stores.

The early season and short apple supply prompted me to think back to my days on the farm as a youngster. Like most farms of the day, we had a few apple trees in the backyard.

Take a look at some of the long vacant farmsteads along rural roads, you can probably still see the remnants of an old, untended, long abandoned orchard.

The problem was that, although we eagerly awaited the new apples each fall, the worms usually got there before we did and we had to be very careful when taking a bite of that new apple. Our eternal hope was to find a worm-free apple that we could really enjoy - something that seldom happened.


Apple orchards

Apples were first raised in Wisconsin over 200 years ago when settlers brought seeds with them and most every farm had an orchard for family use. It wasn't until the mid-1800s when the first commercial apple orchards were planted in Wisconsin.

With its short growing season and severe winters, only the most hardy apples could be grown successfully in Wisconsin.

In 1890, the Wisconsin State Horticultural Society, a forerunner of the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association, established trial orchards in many parts of the state. Many of these orchards were failures, but the project supplied information that was critical for successful commercial apple production in Wisconsin.

One of the early sites, where apples had been grown successfully for many years, was on the hillsides along the Kickapoo River just east of Gays Mills.

In 1905 two local men collected apples from 8-10 apple growers in the area and exhibited them with an assortment of other produce at the Wisconsin State Fair, where the exhibit won first place. The apples were then loaned to the Wisconsin State Horticultural Society, which exhibited them at a national apple show in New York, and they again they won the blue ribbon.

That success in raising quality apples led to the Horticultural Society (in 1908) encouraging one of the men, John Hayes, along with Ben Twining, another Gays Mills business man, and banker Orin Sherwood, to establish a five-acre orchard that was known as State Trial Orchard Number 8.

By 1911, the trial orchard was doing so well that the Kickapoo Development Company was formed to promote the further formation of commercial orchards.

In 1912, a Madison man, J.S. Harley, became associated with the company and over the next several years helped start about a dozen area orchards including the Kickapoo and Sunrise Orchards, which still are among Wisconsin's leading orchards.

Interestingly, most of the financing to get new orchards up and running came from outside the Gays MIlls Area. The Kickapoo Orchard owners were from Madison, Hillside Orchard investors were from Monroe, Sunrise Orchard owners were from Madison and Fort Atkinson and Summit Orchard investors were from Beloit.

Over the next dozen year or so, "The History of Gays Mills Orchards," compiled by Bill Meyer, who purchased the Kickapoo Orchard in 1964, says "these pioneering organizations were probably responsible for the first planting of 75 percent of the land later devoted to apple orchards.

Ownership has changed on many of the orchards and some no longer exist, but apple production has continued to increase and prosper, as has the fame of Gays Mills apples.

It has not been easy as changing economics (including The Great Depression), weather leading to crop failures and orchard pests offered challenges.

The Crawford County Historical Society in its publication, "The Gays Mills Orchards" says that "the apple has as many, if not more, enemies than any other fruit grown ... at the Kickapoo orchards there is continuous war to wipe out or keep these enemies in check."

According to Rebecca Harbut, UW-Madison Extension horticultural specialist, Wisconsin's commercial growers normally produce 35-40 million pounds of apples with a value of $15-$20 million from family owned operations.

Kickapoo Orchard dates to 1913 when it was a part of the early efforts to promote apple growing in the Gays Mills area.

Bill and Marlene Meyer, who bought the orchard from the Shubert estate of Madison, the original owners, in 1964, are still active in orchard operations. In 1982, their son Andy and his wife, Julie, joined the family operation full-time and now manage the orchard, store and sales.

Some 45-50 varieties of apples from their 120 acres of bearing trees are raised annually with two-thirds sold wholesale to stores in the Twin Cities and Kenosha area and the rest through their store located on Highway 171 east of Gays Mills.

Andy Meyer explains that dwarf and semi-dwarf trees are becoming more popular, meaning more trees per acre and easier picking. Kickapoo Orchard does not offer you-pick apples, but do raise two acres of tart cherries that visitors can pick.

Apple shortage

Although most of Wisconsin apple yields are much less than normal this year due to the strange weather, Andy and Bill Meyer agree that their yield was about three-quarters of normal which is great, considering the year.

"Normally I call the wholesale buyers," Andy says. "This year they were calling us for an apple supply very early and, of course, the price was much better due to the shortage of apples."

By Nov. 1, many of the Wisconsin orchards were closed because the apples were all gone. So, if you plan to visit your favorite orchard, call ahead.

"We are about out of everything (on Nov. 3)," Andy says. "The season began about a month early and we'll close a month early."

Of the dozens of apple orchards that once existed on Wisconsin 171 east of Gays MIlls, only about a half a dozen still are in business. Those that remain are family owned and operated, are bigger and more efficient and will be around for a long time.

The same goes for the other big apple areas in the state: Door County, Bayfield, Trempleau County and near Milwaukee.

No fear, the apple that has been grown for thousands of years will continue to provide the "crunch" from that first bite and the apple pie (with cheese) we all love so well.


John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or email him at jfodairy@chorus.net.

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