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Published September 15, 2010, 07:44 AM

How do you like them apples?

Spring frost and summer hail decimated local crops, but orchards offer other attractions

By: Amber Kispert, South Washington County Bulletin

When fall rolls around, it brings with it cooler weather, changing leaves and fresh, crisp apples.

“When you bite into a fresh Minnesota apple, it doesn’t get much better than that,” said John McPherson, who is the orchard director at the Carpenter Nature Center in Hastings.

For many families, heading out to the apple orchard is a tradition, whether it’s to pick a few apples, drink some hot cider or maybe just go for a hayride.

“It’s a chance for some people to be outside,” said Alice McDougall, owner of McDougall’s Apple Junction in Denmark Township.

“So many people are from the city, so they don’t get to enjoy the country atmosphere,” said Cindy Femling, owner of Afton Apple in Denmark Township. “It’s great to be outside and enjoy some apples.”

Local apple orchards need more help now than ever since many of them were hit by frost and hail, particularly Afton Apple.

Afton Apple lost half of its crop in the spring to frost and then the rest of its crop to hail this summer.

“In 21 years, we’ve never lost the entire crop,” Femling said. “We’ve had hail before, but it usually only makes a little ding on the apple, but this year it sliced the apples open and split them in half.”

Afton Apple also lost its strawberry crop to frost.

“When you work with nature, sometimes it works along with you and sometimes it doesn’t,” said Randy Sambolt, who drives the hayride at Afton Apple.

Afton Apple is the largest orchard in the area, with 70 acres, that does “pick-your-own.”

Since Afton Apple has lost its entire crop, visitors cannot pick from the trees. The apples in the store are being brought in from other Minnesota orchards.

“‘Pick your own’ is a privilege,” Femling said. “People don’t know how lucky they’ve been to be able to pick their own all these years.

“We really need their support this year to keep us going for next year.”

A rough year

for everyone

Other apple orchards in the area fell victim to Minnesota weather as well, but not quite to the extent of Afton Apple.

“It was just a fluke that we got hit so bad,” Femling said.

Over at Whistling Well Farms, which is just down the street from Afton Apple, they lost about 80 percent of their apples, owner Charlie Johnson said.

“It’s going to be a difficult year,” he said. “But, there are still some nice apples.”

Even though people are still able to go out and pick their own, Johnson said Whistling Well isn’t known for their ‘pick-your-own.’”

At McDougall’s Apple Junction, only a small percentage of apples were lost to the May frost.

“We feel very blessed that we were able to get through this season without really bad weather,” McDougall said. “We are OK, but there are so many orchards that have been hit — it’s so unfortunate.”

McDougall said visitors are still able to pick in the orchard.

Kay Leadholm, who owns Fischer’s Croix Farm Orchard, said she is very grateful that her orchard didn’t get hit this year, since her orchard fell victim to hail last year.

“It seems like somebody suffers every year,” she said. “I hope all of us do well and attract people this year.”

Fischer’s Croix Farm Orchard primarily sells pre-picked apples.

Still open for business

Even though Afton Apple lost all of its apples, Femling said there’s still plenty to do at the orchard.

“Please still come visit,” she said. “We’re doing everything else we normally do, and we need people this year more than ever.”

Other activities that Afton Apple offers families include hayrides through the orchard, a playground, a petting zoo, “pick-your-own” pumpkins, “pick-your-own” fall raspberries, a corn maze and of course apples, apple cider and apple baked treats for sale in the store.

“We’re doing everything the same so we can still give everyone a good time,” Femling said. “Everything we have is the same, you just can’t pick apples.”

Afton Apple will also host its annual Apple Festival the first weekends in October.

“It’s so much fun to go to the orchard, apples or no apples,” said Jennifer Krueger, who visited Afton Apple with the Hudson Moms Groups on Sept. 10.

Femling said the apple trees and the strawberry bushes will hopefully be back in full force for next year. Some of the apple trees received damage to the trunks as well.

Some of the strawberry bushes and trees are already getting a few buds.

“It’s hard enough getting out of bed in the morning and putting one foot in front of another when you’ve lost such a major thing, but you just have to be optimistic,” Femling said.

Femling said there is nothing the orchard can do to prevent another year like this one.

“When those storms come in, you just cringe and hope it goes by you without damage,” she said. “You just have to pray a lot.

Femling said she is hopeful that the customers who have made Afton Apple a tradition and who have dozens of wonderful memories, still come out and help the orchard at a time when they need it most.

“We’ve had some people tell us they’re still going to come out and support us,” she said. “I’m optimistic, but there’s a reality there too because things just aren’t the same.”

For more information, contact the following local orchards.

- Afton Apple, www.aftonapple.com

- McDougall’s Apple Junction, www.apple-junction.com

- Whistling Well Farm, www.whistlingwellfarm.com

- Fischer’s Croix Farm Orchard, fisherscroixfarmorchard.com

- Carpenter Nature Center Apple Orchard, www.carpenternaturecenter.org

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