By Clay Riness  

Our culture is certainly rich with apple references. Who is the apple of your eye? Does an apple a day keep the doctor away? What’s more American than apple pie? Does one bad apple spoil the whole bunch?

Apple trivia: Although no specific fruit is divulged in the Old Testament, apples are commonly regarded as the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Related to this, an “Adam’s apple,” the protuberance on a man´s throat, was said to exist because a piece of forbidden apple from the Tree of Knowledge lodged in Adam’s throat. 

Another fun fact: The game of bobbing for apples began as a Celtic New Year tradition for trying to determine one’s future spouse. Now, it’s a fun game for Halloween.

To be fair, it’s not just us. Apples are grown, cultivated and loved all over the globe. They’ve been grown in Europe and Asia for thousands of years. They were brought to America by European colonists, although the crabapple tree is native to North America. Today, there are more than 7500 known cultivars (a plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding) of apples, most for eating raw, some for cooking and cider production, and the list is growing.

Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station—University of Minnesota

According to the University of Minnesota website, the quest for a hardy apple started soon after the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station was created in 1887. Favorite trees from “back East” often suffered severe winter injury or failed to ripen before a killing autumn frost. Crossing them with apples brought in from colder climates eventually led to the enduring favorites, Haralson and Beacon. 

Over many decades, the MAES has been, among its many missions, on the cutting edge of the development of new apple cultivars, including the SweeTango, Zestar!, Red Baron, Honeycrisp, Honeygold, Frostbite, SnowSweet and many others. The university’s newest cultivar, due to hit markets this fall, is a cross between the well-loved Honeycrisp and the MonArk, an early season variety from the University of Arkansas. The result is a crisp, flavorful apple ready to harvest and sell in mid-to-late August. It will be marketed under the names First Kiss and Rave, depending on the grower’s location.

Jim Luby, professor of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, claims the program is a “dating and mating service for apple trees.” 

Jim Luby University of Minnesota“We take a very traditional approach. We select two specific parent trees, essentially a mother and a father,” he explains. “We cover their unopened blossoms with plastic bags to prevent insect pollination, and then later hand-pollinate the mother with pollen from the father. We then collect the seeds from the fruit and germinate them. This produces about 11,000 seedlings per year. Only about one-half of 1 percent are then chosen for grafting and cloning.”

Luby adds that each chosen seedling is cloned so there are three or four copies of it genetically, and that with today’s advancements in DNA testing, they can easily verify that the hybrid seedlings are truly from the aforementioned parents and that no rogue, pollinating insect “snuck in and made merry” while their backs were turned.

It’s also interesting to note that apple trees grow large if grown from seed. Generally, apple cultivars are propagated by grafting onto root stocks, which controls the size of the resulting tree.

Bringing It Local

MAES, using its highly controlled methods, isn’t the only one creating new apple variations in our area. Doug Shefelbine is a second-generation orchardist who has created a few. He is old school and hands-on when it comes to his orchards near Holmen. Referring to him as a “dirt farmer” would likely be taken as a compliment of the highest order. He claims he’s pushing 80, but you’d be hard-pressed to know it.

“We came from Sparta country in 1942; I was about 3 years old,” he explains. “We found a place down here in the hills. We milked cows and had pigs and chickens and beef cattle. Then we bought the chunk of land on the ridge top and it had an acre of apple trees on it; that’s how we got started. We continued planting until about 1970, and then I bought the farm from my dad.” 

The Shefelbine farm is currently around 300 acres in size, with about 15 acres in commercial apple production. At one time, nearly 120 acres were in production. “We were growing Fireside, Jersey Macs, Regents … these trees that the Honeycrisps are sitting on right now have a Regent trunk underneath them. We grafted about a 5-inch piece of wood onto each stump and that made the whole new top. For a long time we picked for other growers and sold to them because many didn’t have Honeycrisp at that time. The last few years we’ve gone to a ‘pick-your-own’ operation.”

Doug ShefelbineAlong the way, he became interested in new apple varieties to see if he could discover something better than what they were growing. He dedicates some acreage to what he calls “experimental trees.” 

“You’ve heard of Johnny Appleseed … I try to do like him. Over the past 26 years I’ve planted 50,000 apple seeds. We’ve got about 20,000 trees left that we’re looking at for new varieties. That’s how we came up with the Pazazz. If you want a new apple, you can do it, but you need a lot of patience and a lot of time. I tried some hand-pollinating but didn’t get anything that amounted to much. So, I just started planting seeds out of open-pollinated Honeycrisp and a few other varieties, and now I’m planting seeds out of the second and third generation. So, I really don’t know what the parents of the Pazazz are. There are one or two varieties I have that I know are half Honeycrisp. But anyway, my job in the fall is to come through here for three hours a day tasting apples.”

For clarity, his experimental trees are a search for new varieties, but once a promising new apple is discovered, new trees of that variety are propagated in the traditional fashion. “You have to take cuttings,” Shefelbine explains. “All apple trees are grafted, either bud-grafted or a little piece of wood that you put on. A few years back we started to hear this word ‘cloning’ … well, we’ve been cloning apple trees for thousands of years.”

Another apple that Shefelbine owns a patent on is the Riverbelle, an early season variety which he says is an excellent apple that people just love, but probably won’t go far commercially because it tends to develop some odd shapes. Like the Pazazz, he has no clue what its parent varieties are.

Market-Driven Madness?

If it seems like the Honeycrisp changed things in the apple industry, that’s probably because it did, sort of. It raised the bar. “It did change things. Now everyone wants every apple to be that good. It’s the texture; that’s why people are loving it,” Shefelbine opines. “The Honeycrisp is a great apple, and it’s being overplanted right now. It gets to the point that there are so many bushels of them … and they’re still selling them in late July. It’s a very difficult apple to grow and to store, but I say, if it’s six months old it should not be sold.”

In fact, he says apples that are picked green and stored for up to a year just don’t taste as good. No surprise there. “What people like is to come out here and get a ripe apple right off the tree.”

And, that would be true. During the season on weekends, 200-300 people a day visit Shefelbine’s orchard. They’re hauled by tractor and wagon to the trees where they can handpick and sample as much as they want, and Doug Shefelbine is mighty thankful for that.

The Beloved Honeycrisp

The Honeycrisp apple is the most widely known Minnesota apple, appreciated for its distinctive taste and texture. The development of this treasured cultivar is recognized as one of the top 25 innovations of the decade by the 2006 Better World Report. This report, by the Association of University Technology Managers, recognizes significant academic research and technology transfer that has made the world a better place. Since Honeycrisp trees were introduced in 1991, millions have been planted, producing excellent fruit that is enjoyed by consumers all over the U.S.

The Other Side of the Apple Cart

Another family operation that centers around the apple is Ecker’s Apple Farm north of Trempealeau and just west of Centerville. Three remarkable women work the farm, Mary Ecker and her two daughters, Jess and Sara. An ever-evolving business, over the past decade the Eckers have taken a successful turn into agro-tourism. 

Sara and Jess are the fourth generation on the farm, which was long ago little more than a hobby farm. Their dad and grandfather were responsible for planting some apple trees. When their parents married in the 70’s, they decided to give a go at making the orchard a business. Today, the farm maintains about 40 acres of apple trees that produce about 10,000 bushels per season.

Unlike some orchards, Ecker’s doesn’t routinely propagate its own trees. Rather, they purchase grafted trees from nurseries. “We’re not in the ‘develop new varieties’ business either,” says Jess. “Creating new varieties is kind of big business. There’s now ownership and royalties and it’s very complicated. So, we buy our trees from the proper channels. But if we do have to take out a row, we’ll cut the tree off at about knee height and graft onto that, but that is not typically how we grow our crop.”

Expanding Appeal

While the business rotates around the orchard and its success, its appeal to agro-tourists is multifaceted. Eckers offers homemade caramel from a family recipe to go with its apples. It offers specialty foods, an outdoor beer garden, a bake shop, live music, an annual musical event called the Honeycrisp Hootenanny, and more. The facility can be booked for weddings (four per year) and other events.

Mary bakes about 700 pies a week during the harvest season with the help of outside staff. “They’re kind of local grandmothers and they work really hard, and we still run out of pies every single day,” explains Jess. “But, we’re not going to work them any harder. We’re gonna continue to run out of pie.”

One thing that was instantly embraced by customers was the beer garden. Mary admits, “In 2013, when these two came to me and said, ‘Mom, we’re going to put in a beer garden’ … I said, uh, I don’t think that’s going to go over very well.’ Then it happened, and it’s been an amazing boost to the business.”

There is also a train to ride, a John Deere tractor train made by Mary’s late husband, Peter. “People can grab a beer and go ride the train or go pick apples. It’s free to ride and can seat 27. People love it,” says Sara.

This year’s Hootenanny will be held on Oct. 13, 10 a.m.-10 p.m., and will feature Them Coulee Boys. If you go, you’ll need a ticket.

What’s the Buzz?

Sara holds the title of orchard manager. She’s also the resident beekeeper. The hives are kept to help pollinate the orchards and also produce a sizable amount of honey annually, which, of course, is made available for sale. “I love beekeeping. It’s a great hobby,” says Sara. “The community of beekeepers is also very cool. And then, there’s that little aspect of … you might get stung. Danger!”

“When we kept our bees on-site all winter, they died. They can’t take minus 20 degrees,” says Mary. “I have a friend who takes his bees to Texas, so we sent our bees with him this year. We got them all back, every one. Oh, and we love the thousand pounds of honey that we get every year.”

Sara reminds us of something her father often said. “You don’t have to grow apples, but they’re not making more land,” she quotes. “So the real goal is to hold on to this farm for the next generation and the generation after.”

“And to keep the family here,” adds Mary. “I’m so blessed that these two agree with that.”

To that end, it seems that future generations of Eckers will have plenty of apples in their lives.

Area Orchards

Sacia Orchards
W19461 US Hwy 53/54/93
Galesville, WI (608) 582-2119

Ferguson’s Orchards
N17543 Grover Lane, Galesville, WI
(608) 539-4239

Ecker’s Apple Farm
W27062 WI-54, Trempealeau, WI
(608) 539-2652

Shefelbine Orchard
Shefelbine Rd., Holmen, WI
(608) 526-3495 

Hoch Orchard
32553 Forster Rd., La Crescent, MN
(507) 643-6329

Van Lin Orchards
4002 T-258, La Crescent, MN
(507) 895-4492

Southwind Orchards
45440 Co. Rd. 12, Dakota, MN
(507) 643-6255

Maple Ridge Orchard
6675 Maple Ave., Cashton WI
(608) 654-5151

Sunrise Orchards
48340 WI-171, Gays Mills, WI
(608) 735-4645

Kickapoo Orchard
46490 WI-171, Gays Mills, WI
(608) 735-4637

Fleming Orchards
46054 WI-171, Gays Mills, WI
(608) 735-4625