Apple Nation Rises


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“Fresh” is an ongoing obsession for foodies, and when it comes to apples, there’s nothing fresher than right off the branch.

Wilson’s Orchard, 2924 Orchard Lane N.E., has thousands of branches to choose from, which are home to 130 different varieties of apples. The orchard’s staff members work to offer patrons an organic experience as well as produce.

“At the grocery store, you just have the same apples, such as Red Delicious, all year long,” said Wilson retail manager Barb Schintler. “Here, apples have their season. It’s a real learning experience for customers to see just how different apples can taste.”

With rolling green hills lined with apple trees, pumpkin patches, and creeks, “take a walk, eat an apple” has been a fitting mantra for the orchard through much of its 33-year history. And in recent years, the staff members have worked to elaborate on this mission with events, products, and education initiatives for school-age kids to nursing-home residents.

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“There’s always something interesting to look at,” said Jean Davidson, who visits Wilson’s once a month during its Aug. 1 to Oct. 31 season. “They have so many different items brought in, like these baskets from Ghana for instance. And if these pies and turnovers aren’t tempting, I don’t know what is.”

Wilson’s events include a Friday Family Night every Friday in September, with grilled food, tractor rides, and activities from 5 to 7 p.m.

This Saturday also kicks off Honeycrisp Weekend, celebrating the ripening of Wilson’s most popular apple variety, and Doughnut Wednesdays each week to promote the orchard’s apple-cider doughnuts.

Wilson’s will also celebrate Johnny Appleseed’s birthday on Sept. 21 and 22 with music, storytelling, and a balloon artist.

In addition, the orchard provides educational activities such as group tours, orchard trivia games, and scavenger hunts, and hosts local music acts including the Awful Purdies on Sept. 11 and Dave Zollo, who performed there on Aug. 22.

“It’s a gorgeous part of the world with rolling hills. That puts it a step higher than your average bar,” Zollo said. “You’ll see three generations from the same family who all come out.”

Schintler said the orchard welcomes many college-age visitors as well as families.

“[Most of] the events start at dusk, so you’re watching the Sun go down, the leaves changing, the geese flying,” Schintler said. “You can enjoy a turnover, just relax, and unplug from technology … it’s a cheap date.”

It is this simple “essence” that owner Paul Rasch said they hope to maintain over the years, which can be an ongoing challenge — especially last year, when a late frost devastated the apple crop.

But Schintler said this year’s harvest is probably the largest she’s seen since the orchard opened in 1980, which has increased activity to the orchard, even in the slower pre-fall part of the season.

“A lot of people don’t think about apples until the weather’s cooler, [but] there are so many varieties that the season has extended,” said Schintler, citing late-summer apple varieties such as Jonathan and Yellow Delicious. “People will come out and say, ‘I never knew these apples were out here.’ It’s a matter of education.”

The word reached Amy and Phil Gorham, who spent Labor Day picking apples and drinking apple-cider slushies with their young children.

“It’s a nice way to enjoy the weather and gets the kids excited to eat fruit,” Amy Gorham said. “It’s different from the typical playground.”

University of Iowa graduate students Laura Kuhlman and Michael Ratter [can’t find him in the directory] said they also found the orchard to be a refreshing summer date spot and a source for apple-pie ingredients.

“It’s something new and kind of apart from downtown, which can be stressful,” Ratter said.

Though Wilson’s apples are sold by local retailers such as New Pioneer Co-op and now Hy-Vee, orchard employee and marketer Katie Goering said there are perks to purchasing the product at its source, and not just because the orchard offers a whopping 10 varieties of apples per week and a plethora of activities.

“It’s about wanting their kids to know where the food comes from,” she said.

And though Wilson’s programming goes beyond just picking an apple off a tree, Schintler said, the orchard attracts thousands every weekend with the simple allure of a local, fresh experience.

“Iowa’s a state with a history of farming. There’s an emphasis on agriculture, and many of the older people identify with childhood memories of the farm,” she said. “It’s a way to get away from town and back to nature.”

Spotlight on Honeycrisp

Fans of this crispy apple will flock to Wilson’s on Saturday for Honeycrisp Weekend. Here’s some facts about the orchard’s most popular apple.

• Honeycrisp was developed at the University of Minnesota in the 1960s.
• It is bred from the Keepsake apple, a juicy, yellowish variety.
• They ripen in early September and keep for five to six months.
• Honeycrisp are sweet, firm, and tart, making them ideal for eating raw.
• They are also used in apple pies, turnovers, and cider.
• At Wilson’s Orchard, there are more than 600 Honeycrisp trees.

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