Going all in for apples: Love of apples prompted Twin Cities couple to create Country Blossom Farm
Alexandria is not necessarily a prime region for growing apples commercially.
It sits in Northern Zone 4, a zone with a short growing season, says Troy Heald of Country Blossom Farm. Apples can be grown in Zone 3, which is in the northern third of the state, but very few varieties are rated for that zone, he said.
All of which means that anyone who tries to make a go out of an apple orchard here had better be all in on the venture.
That is an apt description of Troy and Tracy Heald, who took the plunge in 2009 with their purchase of a 66-acre farm, for the sole purpose of having an apple orchard. The location was ideally suited because while it is out in the country, it is also not too far from town.
"I've always been intrigued with apples and wanted to grow a ton of them," said Heald. "One night, over a bottle of wine on the pontoon, we decided to buy the land and open an orchard."
The Healds, who lived in the Twin Cities metro area, built a house on Lake Reno as their retirement home, but ended up moving there permanently in 2005. Shortly after buying the farm they moved into the original farm house, which is more than 100 years old, and began renovating it.
They started planting trees in 2010. Once a tree is planted, Heald said it takes about three years to get a good crop. Then in 2014, brutal weather conditions caused them to lose about 2,000 trees.
"It was a really rough year," said Heald. "It hit most of our older trees and killed the roots."
He explained that there is one type of rootstock under each tree, but there are hundreds of different rootstocks to choose from. The trees are budded onto the rootstock.
Undeterred, the couple forged ahead. Last fall, they added an additional 33 acres, bringing their orchard and farm site up to 100 acres.
Cream of the crop
When choosing which apples to grow, Heald sought trees hardy enough for the area, and looked to the University of Minnesota, which is known for producing hardy apples.
The university has been breeding apples, along with berries, grapes, trees, flowers and shrubs, for more than 150 years. The Honeycrisp apple is the most widely-known Minnesota apple and was named the Minnesota state fruit in 2006. Other U of M apples include several that have been trademarked: Zestar, SnowSweet, SweeTango and the newest, Rave, which Minnesota growers will market as First Kiss.
"We really try to stick with apples from the U of M," said Heald. "When choosing apples, we look at what their purpose will be, whether it's for eating or making pies, but we rely on what the U of M has to say."
Apples start being harvested in late August, and the last picking usually takes place mid-October. All their apples are hand-picked, he said. During the peak of the season, the apple orchard employs about 50 people.
"Most of our apples this year, though, have already been picked," said Heald.
First-round picks are the best of the bunch and are not used for pies, crisps or other treats sold in their bakery. They only sell them for what they are — apples. The second-round picks are apples used in their bakery for pies, crisp or cookies or used for sauces, dried apples or frozen for the next year.
SweeTango apples are used a lot for baking, he said, and the Cortland variety are great for salads because they don't turn brown.
The newest U of M apple, First Kiss, fits into the same category as Honeycrisp and SweeTango, said Heald. The texture is similar to the Honeycrisp, but it's more tart and not as sweet. He described it as almost like eating apple cider.
Weather plays major role
In the apple orchard, a weather station sends information to Cornell University's Network for Environment and Weather Applications. The NEWA does forecast modeling, helping Heald determine when to spray and when not to spray.
It also provides information about different apple diseases, such as apple scab or fire blight, and information about different types of apple insects, such as the Codling Moth, about the only pest Heald sees around this area.
"We use the NEWA a lot," he said. "For us, it's always about weather, weather, weather. Bud damage can happen when there's frost. Hail can damage a crop, hot summers, cooler nights. It's all about the weather. Anyone can go on the NEWA website and look at the information. It's pretty neat."
As for their favorite apples, the Healds both chose SweeTango, although Troy said he also likes Kindercrisp and Fireside.
"I really like them all," he concluded.