By Judith Munson —
For the Ecker sisters of Trempealeau, preserving a life “at home” meant major life changes. In 2008, Jessica was living as an architect in New York City while Sara was working as a special education teacher in Anchorage, Alaska. When their dad, Peter Ecker, died in 2009, they moved hundreds of miles back home to the orchard of their youth. “We knew we had to do this,” says Jessica.
“We didn’t want to lose our home and all that Dad worked for, so we decided we had to give it a try.” Seeing the thriving blueberry bushes and rows upon rows of healthy apple trees now at Ecker’s Apple Farm, it’s clear they made the right move.
On a Mission
This story started in the late 1970s when Peter married his wife, Mary, and together they raised Jessica and Sara. They lived with Peter’s mother, Janet, on the farm where Janet was raised.
As art and PE teachers in Holmen, Peter and Mary dedicated their free time to planting 9,000 apple trees with a mission. “They wanted to create a place where people who don’t know farm life get a chance to experience the country,” says Jessica, who spent her childhood helping out with what was then just a simple roadside stand. “I learned how to run a register by age 10.”
Her mother and grandmother helped Peter build his hobby into the successful business that became his full-time job when he retired from teaching in 1986. Over the years, as Peter began growing the orchard business, Janet started baking her homemade pies and selling her caramel to the public. Their farm market was built in the mid-90s, complete with copper kettle candy equipment sized to handle Peter’s new and improved scratch caramel recipe.
“Always the teacher, Dad would invite people into his machine shop to explain the concept of his latest invention. He wanted to give each person a memorable and special experience,” says Jessica. With backgrounds in both art and mechanics, Peter was a natural inventor; his pressure-sensitive apple grader and his agave cactus planter were among his greatest achievements.
Continuing the Legacy
In the absence of her beloved dad, Sara took on the role of orchard manager. She oversees all pruning, thinning, maintenance and picking of the crop each year. While about 6 acres are reserved for the U-PICK operation, the remaining 34 acres produce around 10,000 bushels annually. Jessica is responsible for event coordination, marketing and public relations. She also manages 1,000 blueberry plants in the month of July. Mary shoulders the bookkeeping and the biggest undertaking of them all, baking the apple pies.
Three years ago, the family installed a new oven with a capacity of 30 pies per batch, yet Mary is still up at 1 a.m. to begin baking daily throughout the twelve-week apple season. At 700 pies per week, a 100-pie oven upgrade is in the near future. “Mom needs to get some sleep,” says Jessica.
And, of course, what are apples without caramel? Ecker’s makes roughly 30,000 hand-dipped caramel apples each season. The caramel apple pies are a delicacy, and the Queen’s Apple can be found at local fairs and festivals. The bulk of the caramel is sold in 18-ounce containers at the farm market and in area grocery stores from September through December.
The farm also brokers morel mushrooms in May. About 100 hunters and gatherers bring in paper sacks full of the elusive morels each spring. A lot of the mushroom hunters are locals; some take vacation from work to cash in on the morel crop. By the season’s end, the farm ships about 1,200 pounds of mushrooms to markets in Indiana and Chicago.
Ecker’s Apple Farm is also home to Hog’s Back Brew Farm, a beer garden open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., June through October. The nation’s best craft beers are on an ever-changing draft system set in the serenity of the apple orchard. In the fall, food trucks and live music complement the beers and hard ciders on tap. Future plans include the addition of a small, two-barrel brewery with a completion date slated for some time in 2018. The beer garden and brewery are the result of a meeting of the minds—and hearts—when an American crossed paths with an Australian in Croatia.
A Love for Family
Jess was on a solo tour of Europe when she stumbled into Simon DeGabriele, an Aussie working there in the hostel industry. After Jess returned home to Wisconsin, she and Simon began sending text messages, which blossomed into Simon’s first visit to the apple orchard. The couple married in May 2014. Ecker’s Apple Farm became an official wedding venue in 2015 and is already booking weddings into 2018.
The farm needed machine maintenance, and Simon was just the guy to fill that void. He titles himself “tractor implement changer,” though he is so much more. A skilled machinist and inventor like Jess’s father, Simon takes on a wide breadth of projects, like the apple peeler. “We bought an apple peeler that had been sitting, exposed to the elements, for decades. Simon took it apart, sandblasted and repainted each piece, and reassembled it for use in the pie kitchen last year,” says Jessica.
As a modest Simon tells it, “It’s still an all-female fun farm. I just work here.”
Just this summer, the Ecker family lost Janet, the family matriarch, at the age of 92. Janet was the face of Ecker’s Apple Farm for many years, and she cherished her life on the farm. She found beauty in nature and her orchard. She was a visionary who was integral in developing the concept of farm-based specialty foods through her work in the pie and caramel kitchens.
A Seasonal Celebration of Harvest
Soon the farm will be teaming with crowds seeking to lighten the loads of Honeycrisp apples from heavy-laden branches. Cortland, Fuji, Gala and Ginger Gold are among the list of other crowd favorites. The annual Honeycrisp Hootenanny will be held Oct. 15. A free, family event that features live bluegrass music, food trucks and an artisan fair, the Hootenanny is a celebration that marks the end of the year’s Honeycrisp harvest.
Farming full time is not for the faint of heart, and for Jessica and Sara to leave their established careers behind to take it on is a story of strong hearts—hearts connected to their dad’s passion and a commitment to keeping his legacy alive.
For more information on Ecker’s Apple Farm at W27062 Wisconsin 54 Trunk in Trempealeau, visit eckersapplefarm.com or call (608) 539-2652.