LAKE CITY, Minnesota — Orchards in southeast Minnesota had their typical charm this fall, but longtime growers said 2021 was a miserable year to grow apples.
Chuck Bremer said that apple orchards, which rely heavily on other area growers to keep stock of high-demand varieties, are now scrambling to do so.
Bremer, who owns Bridal Rock Orchard near Lake City, was at Apples R Us Orchard & Distillery in northeast Rochester on a recent Monday afternoon. It was the first of two trips that day he'd make to the farm in Rochester, to bring and get apples of various varieties.
Tammy Soma Clark and her husband, Jay, own and operate Apples R Us, an orchard and distillery located on rolling hills in the northeast corner of Rochester. They've gotten support from Bremer and other longtime growers for the decade they've spent in the apple industry.
Jay Clark and Bremer settled up on on Oct. 18, and commiserated briefly how the customer base contributing to the rush at area orchards every fall was more likely to ask when farms would have a certain variety in, instead of where those apples would come from.
"Even I'm still learning," Bremer said of running an orchard.
He was a dairy farmer until he got into the apple business in 1983. This year he deems as "probably the worst year ever" for growing apples. Clark said it was the same story for them, aside from the hail that hit Bridal Rock Orchard more than trees at Apples R Us.
"The polar vortex killed most of our flowers, then some people got spring frost on top of that," said Bremer. "Then hail came on top of that."
Clark said the Honeycrip crop at Apples R Us was about 30% what it normally was. But their Pazazz apples — a flavor descendant to Honeycrisp, had a good year. Pazazz was developed in Minnesota and has been described as the "jolly rancher" of apples. The trees just looked different this year, he said.
"Our Honeycrisp bloom has always been beautiful, and the orchards turn white," said Clark. "I could hardly see it this year, or just see a bloom on a branch here or branch there, but we had apples — they just bloomed inside the tree."
Bremer said the last really bad year for apples was 2012, when most orchards in southern Minnesota lost crop to spring frost. 2021 has been hard as far as growing conditions, said Bremer, but also from the business that Bridal Rock Orchard does with other orchards.
"We're supplying a lot of other growers," he said.
His orchard is more than double the size of Apples R Us, and overlooks Lake Pepin. He can turn to the neighboring orchard, his brother, Rick, but most of the time a longer trip — or two was required
Some varieties in high demand right now are Haralson, which Bremer said is nearly impossible to find currently in southeast Minnesota.
People want certain varieties not so much for taste, said Bremer, but because that's what they grew up eating
"It's because grandma always cooked with Haralson," said Bremer. "One fall years ago it was Wealthy, which I never planted, until people started coming and saying 'you got any Wealthy apples, my grandma always used Wealthys.'"
Clark said another "grandma favorite" variety to cook with is McIntosh. Having those varieties when people want them means growers making trips often and longer than normal.
"I got a guy by Worthington, who has come over to Lake City three times just to get Honeycrisp because he didn't have any," said Bremer.
Clark said an orchard owner from Owatonna recently came to Apples R Us in Rochester to pick through their overlooked apples, not retail quality for them.
"He left here with 500 bucks worth of apples," said Clark.
'Never make it on apples alone'
Building a productive apple orchard in Minnesota just takes time, said Tammy Soma Clark. But she said as trees began to mature at their orchard and they started taking more apples to the packhouse, the payback wasn't cutting it.
"It all just changed over time as trees came to maturity and we had more apples to harvest," said Soma Clark on a weekday this October, when Apples R Us is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. "We learned that apple prices were kind of like corn and soybean prices, so we had to do something about it."
They expanded their operation at first by buying their own pack line. On Oct. 18, Soma Clark shared time between ringing up customers in the retail store and manning the pack line. The sorting apparatus at Apples R Us features a screen that displays 15 apples at a time, which she can examine before they get sorted for retail sale.
The few employees the orchard has on staff this time of year work mostly in the fields. Varieties such as First Kiss, Honeycrisp, McIntosh, RiverBelle, SweeTango and Zestar grow on trees supported by trellises at Apples R Us, and are picked not by customers but a mechanical picker that Jay Clark imported from Holland.
Another expansion to the business began in 2017 when Soma Clark got a distillery license at the federal level. She worked with a distiller in Florida to learn the ropes, then became a licensed distiller in the state in 2018. Currently the orchard is the only licensed distillery in Olmsted County.
Once the distilling process was learned, Soma Clark said the orchard could take advantage of the entire apple.
"From waste, to juice — everything, we can turn it into something," she said. "Even the pulp left over goes to the neighbors to feed his cows, so it's really an all-around no waste operation."
Now the majority of their apple production goes into their apple rum and brandy — a drink that requires around 5,000 pounds of apples for a 40-gallon batch. Their second ever batch of brandy is now fermenting.
Apples R Us has an aged rum coming out in three years, said Soma Clark, and a "true apple brandy" in two years. Brandy has to be barreled for two years, she said.
"As far as any other products at this point, I'm not sure what I'm going to create yet," said Soma Clark.
She said if they didn't add a distillery they probably wouldn't have stayed in the apple business, where the payoff wasn't worth it.
"I would never make it on the apples alone," she said. "It's definitely the alcohol that has changed the course of our business."