by Sally Colby
When the Hottenroth family bought an orchard, no one knew how to grow fruit. The family purchased the Sheboygan Falls, WI, orchard in 2018 after daughter Miranda suggested it would be a good retirement project for her parents Machelle (Shelly) and Tony.
“We figured we could work there in fall, and after we did some pruning we could take off and rest for a while,” said Tony, who added he soon realized that wasn’t how orchards operated. But after a lot of hard work, persistence and learning how to grow fruit, Gibbsville Orchard is thriving and attracting customers who enjoy the orchard’s U-pick aspect as well as the activities held throughout the season.
The orchard was established in 1945 with a selection of apple varieties popular at the time. It features popular varieties as well as some lesser-known selections such as Macoun, Golden Spur, Milton, Wolf River, Sour Fireside and Beacon.
Tony said one variety that’s especially popular among customers is Yellow Transparent. “They’re ready at the end of August,” he said. “It’s the apple people like for making applesauce. Macintosh and Cortland are also good for applesauce.
The Hottenroths grow Bing and Montmorency cherries, available as either U-pick or ready to purchase in the farm store. Pears include Bartlett, Spartlett, Tyson and Lincoln. This season will mark the second year the family has planted pumpkins, which have become an integral part of autumn activities. The farm store also offers seasonal fresh vegetables, small fruit and seasonal items selected by Shelly. Using a selection of the most suitable apples, Gibbsville Orchard makes cider on site. Unpasteurized cider is sold in the store and to a winery for winemaking.
Tony and Shelly’s son Troy talked about how the family learned to manage an orchard. “When we bought it, the trees hadn’t been properly pruned for several years,” he said. “The first two years of pruning took all winter. Now we’ve got it down to about a month and a half, and the trees are back to where they should be.”
In addition to keeping the farm store well-stocked, Shelly bakes a variety of fruit-based treats and desserts in the on-farm kitchen. The caramel apples, apple nachos and apple pie tacos are popular among customers. “We make the apple pie tacos right in front of people,” said Troy. “We deep fry a tortilla shell, cover the shell with cinnamon sugar, then fill it with apple pie filling and put whipped cream and caramel on top.” Visitors are pleasantly surprised to find many of their favorite Gibbsville Orchard treats at the Sheboygan Fair.
Troy handles the farm’s activities and has been busy since January planning events and booking entertainment for the season. “I love music,” he said. “I also like events, and as a kid I liked going to orchards that had games and things to do, so I keep that in mind for what I’d want or what kids would want. It’s all about the experience – we don’t want people to just buy apples and go home. We want them to spend time with their families and make memories here.” Troy said offering U-pick helps bring in customers that tend to spend more time at Gibbsville Orchard. Last season, the orchard was able to continue operating as usual because people could come for U-pick.
As the Hottenroth family worked on a plan for managing their annual events, they decided to not require a cover fee. Instead, guests are welcome to visit and enjoy the attractions and music. “People pay only for what they do once they’re here,” said Troy. “If they just want to come here to sit and watch, there’s no charge.” Without having to pay a cover fee, visitors will visit the store and spend the money they saved there.
Troy has found that one of the keys to hosting successful events is paying attention to guests of all ages. “We don’t just focus on kids,” he said. “We focus on adults too, because when they get bored, they leave. Adults don’t care about the games – they want to take a break and listen to the bands.” Another draw for adults throughout the season is a variety of local food trucks Troy brings in for weekends.
It’s important to have the appropriate venue for hosting bands. “When we purchased the farm, the stage and pavilion were already here,” said Troy. “The previous owners had started to hold events, and we went bigger.”
Part of “bigger” includes creating an experience for guests. Troy doesn’t just book musicians to fill the calendar – his familiarity with what local bands play is an integral part of selecting bands for various events. “When I book bands, I try to plan around what’s happening at that event,” he said. “For the craft vendor fair, we’ll probably have an older crowd in the morning and early afternoon, so I’ll try to get a band that plays softer oldies and country – maybe a one-person band that’s simple and not overpowering. Then in the evening, when people come out for the corn roast, we’ll have a bigger country band or a rock band in the evening.”
Troy also considers customer requests when he’s planning the schedule. “This year people really like the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s rocker bands,” he said. “We have them during the day, and we might have polka music at other events. We do soft bluegrass with one- or two-person bands, and bands that are big enough to have their own CDs.”
Gibbsville Orchard hosts a Fall Fest, a Harvest Fest and their own unique Hallow-Apple-Ween Fest. “Those are more for kids, so I’ll try to get bands that do things with the kids,” said Troy. “Some of the bands will give the kids shakers to make music along with them.”
By the end of summer, the Hottenroths are busy juicing apples for several wineries. After the U-pick apple season is over, people can come and pick up fallen apples for deer, and a wood artist is on-site to do chainsaw carvings.
Gibbsville Orchard holds a liquor license, so Troy created a mixed drink using their own apple cider with bourbon and lemon juice, served with an apple slice. “For kids, we have plain cider on ice and also make cider popsicles,” he said. “The latest apple treat creation is apple eggrolls. We try to make food ahead of time and freeze it so it’s ready for a festival. Then we’re ahead and people don’t have to wait in long lines.”
Visit Gibbsville Orchard online at www.GibbsvilleOrchard.com.