Growing through challenges
by Sally Colby
As a fourth-generation orchardist, Paul Rasch has seen just about every stumbling block that can happen throughout the year – but he wasn’t prepared for the destruction caused by the derecho that ripped through portions of the Midwest earlier this year.
Although Rasch had singled out his favorite rootstocks, including Geneva 11 and Geneva 41, surveying the storm damage made him rethink his choices. “The derecho sheared off a lot of trees on Geneva rootstock right at the graft – even trees that were very well-trellised,” he said. “But we like everything else about Geneva – fire blight resistance, replant resistance and size of the fruit.” Of his 23,000 trees, 500 were a total loss. He estimated that he lost about 30% of this year’s crop to drop.
Rasch, who is originally from the fruit-growing area near Grand Rapids MI, explained how he ended up owning an orchard in Iowa City, Iowa. “We were overseas for a while,” he said, “and when we came back, we bought a farm in Iowa and eventually acquired Wilson’s Orchard as well.” A now-retired couple started the 88-acre Wilson’s Orchard as a U-pick enterprise with about 35 acres of apples. Rasch has since made changes to the plantings, removing older trees and adding new stock.
When the Wilson family started the orchard, they established a test orchard with more than 100 apple varieties. Rasch said Chug Wilson, the original owner, started growing Honeycrisp when it was still a numbered variety. “He took one bite and knew it was a winner,” said Rasch. “They selected from that orchard based on what they liked and didn’t replant anything they didn’t like. We’ve added varieties, but the ones they planted are to this day among the most popular eating apples. We have to produce what consumers want – there are about 10 to 12 varieties we know people will come back for year after year.”
Rasch said most trees are on semi-dwarf rootstock, and for the last eight years, he has been planting all varieties on dwarfing rootstock for a tall spindle system. In addition to Geneva rootstock, he has trees on Bud 9, but said it been troublesome. “It can’t handle wet conditions,” he said. “It’s good for fire blight resistance but that’s about it.”
Since the orchard was established as U-pick by the original owners, Rasch continues that sales model. “We’ve added more options for customers,” he said. “Some is sorted and washed to sell at the farm market, and some is used for cider.”
Rasch is a strong believer in introducing new apple varieties to customers. “Everyone wants Honeycrisp,” he said. “People tend to buy large quantities of those compared to other varieties. But because we grow so many varieties, we focus on sampling – customers sample apples before they go out to the orchard. It’s good for them, and also good for us because it’s direct feedback that helps guide planting decisions and has helped us identify varieties we may have overlooked.”
Many who come to the orchard aren’t accustomed to picking fruit at peak of flavor, so Rasch and his crew are ready to provide guidance. “We focus on picking ripe fruit,” he said. “It’s different from going to the grocery store. One reason is that the outdoor experience is particularly important in a year like this, and also because people can taste varieties of apples they’ve never tried.”
To aid those who pick their own apples, every row is marked with variety information and picking dates. “We flag rows that are ripe,” said Rasch. “This year there will be people in the orchard to guide consumers to the ripe fruit.” He said most consumers don’t know that apple varieties ripen sequentially throughout the season, and many discover that familiar varieties taste different when they’re fully tree-ripened.
Rasch believes U-pick orchards are seeing a spike in popularity right now because people want to get outside. “People are almost desperate for outdoor, safe activities, and nothing is better than a U-pick orchard,” he said. “That results in fresh fruit for them, and it’s even more important while we’re dealing with a pandemic.”
Wilson’s Orchard has been pressing sweet cider since 2010, and Rasch said it’s a perennial favorite. Sweet cider is flash pasteurized and sold directly from the farm and through several wholesale outlets in the area.
“We started pressing bulk cider for one of the local hard cider companies, then cooperated with them in making our own hard cider,” said Rasch. “Eventually our own hard cider became quite popular and we bought the other one out.” Wilson’s Orchard is currently producing two brands of hard cider and developing a good following.
Rasch maintains a five-acre dedicated hard cider orchard which includes a number of varieties suitable for both fresh eating and cider. Some of his favorites for hard cider include GoldRush, Dabinett and Yarlington Mill. “A lot of the French and English varieties make great cider, but they’re difficult to grow,” he said. “They get fire blight easily because they bloom late and tend to be biannual bearers.” Rasch also likes some of the older russet varieties including Golden Russet and Roxbury Russet.
As is the case with any horticultural enterprise, Rasch said his biggest challenge is the weather. “We don’t have moderation from the lake,” he said. “We can’t successfully grow commercial stone fruit like sweet cherries, peaches or apricots. We can’t always keep tender apple varieties alive through winter. It isn’t that the minimum temperatures are cold – it’s the big swings. Last year we went from 60º at the end of October to single digits the first week of November. It’s hard on trees.”
The majority of business for any U-pick orchard takes place on weekends, and a successful season is heavily reliant on weather. Rasch said 14 days in autumn determine two-thirds of his sales, and last year, more than half of those days were rainy. This encouraged Rasch to further diversify the enterprise, which he started four years ago by reconstructing old barns to house the farm’s full-service restaurant and event venue. Wilson’s Orchard also features a bakery, which was recently expanded.
Rasch’s children are involved in the business, and he credits them with cajoling him into trying new things. Daughter Katie Doering manages the foodservice aspect of the business and graphic design for marketing. Son Jacob Doering is in charge of marketing, including retail and wholesale sales.
“Having a diversity of opinions helps make the business better,” said Rasch. “It keeps us active and thinking fresh.”