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Published October 09, 2009, 09:23 AM

Picking time

Frank Femling was doing carpentry work when he came home one day in 1989 and asked his wife, Cindy, if she would like to own an apple orchard. She said she would and the couple bought a 119-acre orchard in Denmark Township that became Afton Apple.

By: Judy Spooner, The Hastings Star-Gazette

Frank Femling was doing carpentry work when he came home one day in 1989 and asked his wife, Cindy, if she would like to own an apple orchard. She said she would and the couple bought a 119-acre orchard in Denmark Township that became Afton Apple.

Their daughter, Sarah, 23, said she’s seen pictures of the orchard when her parents first bought it. It was run down and needed a lot of work, she said.

Twenty years, and with three kids, the orchard, one of six in the Lower St. Croix Valley, offers apples for picking.

Sarah has many childhood memories around the orchard. She drove a tractor at 8 years old. “We were always working or weeding, whatever would keep us out of their hair,” she said.

In spring, the kids helped people pick strawberries and take them to their cars. “We got tips and thought that was the best thing, ever,” Sarah said.

She also helped in the kitchen serving hot dogs, apple fritters and doughnuts or was at the sampling booth helping people decide which apples to pick.

Sarah was married at the orchard, in the off-season, of course, to Chad Parkos in 2007. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin at River Falls with degrees in Spanish and business management.

Her brother, Michael, has a degree in horticulture and is strawberry production manager. Her other brother, Mark, is apple production manager.

Being part of the business, she helped her parents select and set up a new accounting and cash register system and plans to continue her interest in the business while working 20 hours a week as a public health assistant for Dakota County.

This spring, she set up a concession booth at the strawberry patch and made a go of it selling strawberry smoothies and shakes.

Sarah is most proud of the surprise she sprung on her parents to celebrate 20 years in business.

The orchard hosts an annual party in March for employees and their families. It also honors 10-year employees with plaques stating: “You’re the core of our crew.”

While her parents were not home, she lifted enough old photos of the business and employees to put together a 45-minute video presentation. Sarah wrote a poem in their honor.

She found a copy of the original newspaper ad that led her parents to change the course of their lives.

Her parents got a specially engraved plaque with the same saying as 10-year employees. It’s hanging by the door to the shop where people pay for apples and other apple items for sale.

“My mom just lost it,” Sarah said.

In addition to apples, there are you-pick strawberries in the spring, and raspberries in the fall. In late spring, customers can order fresh cherries, blueberries and peaches from Michigan in advance.

There are also a variety of apples for sale that are already picked and hayrides into the orchard. There is a corn maze spelling out “Happy Anniversary,” and an expanded petting zoo and play structure.

Local orchards

• Afton Apple, (651) 436-8385, www.aftonapple.com

• Apple Junction, (651) 480-4701, www.apple-junction.com

• Whistling Well Farms, (651) 998-0301, www.whistlingwellfarm.com

• Fischer’s Croix Farm Orchard, (651) 437-7126, www.fischerscroixfarmorchard.com

• Grove Orchard, (651) 459-4752

• Carpenter Nature Center, (651) 437-4359, www.carpenternaturecenter.org

Harvest times

  • Paula Reds: Mid-August to mid-September. Tangy sweet flavor. Softens when cooked.

  • Zestar: Late August to late September. Tart flavor, light, crisp and juicy.

  • Red Baron: Early to late September. Rich distinctive flavor.

  • Estival: Early to late September. Sweet, juicy and crunchy.

  • McIntosh: Early to late September. Tart, rich flavor.

  • Sweet 16: Mid-September to late October. Very sweet and very crisp.

  • Cortland: Mid-September to mid-October. Holds well in salads.

  • Spartan: Late September to late October. Great for school lunches.

  • Haralson: Late September to late October. Great for cooking. Keeps well under refrigeration.

  • Honey Crisp: Crisp, juicy, sweet. Under refrigeration, keeps for several months.

  • Honey Gold: Late September to mid-October. Crisp, juicy with honey-like flavor. Keeps well but bruises easily.

  • Regent: Early to late October. Very natural flavor, crisp and juicy. Keeps well under refrigeration.

  • Connell Red (red fireside): Early to late October. Crisp texture and fine sweet flavor. Keeps well under refrigeration.

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