We are full swing into the apple season in Southwest Michigan, so we wanted to check in with some of our farm partners to see how the harvest is going.
Dutchman Orchards, South Haven, Michigan
"Spring was early so the apples are ready earlier this year," farmer Jim Raak of Dutchman Orchards explains. "Now that we're getting into picking, we're seeing that we have fewer apples than we thought. What looks like a lot on the tree isn't necessarily what you end up with. That's the thing with apples and fruit; it's always interesting to see what happens and how it's going to affect your harvest."
Raak's 300-acre operation of Dutchman Orchards include 250 acres dedicated to apples alone. These orchards are spread among a few parcels in Southwest Michigan, with one orchard right down the street from us in Fennville. When he and his family bought the first parcel of land 33 years ago, they replaced the previously existing apple and pear trees with corn and raised hogs and cows. "It seemed like every parcel has pears or apples on it. We had been pushing out those trees for other crops, but when corn prices got too low, we decided to go back to apples and pears."
Today Dutchman Orchards sells most of its fruit to fresh packers (which in turn become part of the eating apples with "Michigan Apples" stickers in the grocery store), some are processed into applesauce or other ingredients, and some come to cidermakers like Virtue.
What's one thing Raak can share about the apple harvest that people might not be aware of? "Everything's hand-picked. There aren't machines that do this."
Spirit Springs Farms: Marcellus, Michigan
Just south of the small town of Marcellus, Michigan, sits the family homestead of Spirit Springs Farm, so named for the natural spring that bubbles up in the very lowest parts of this six-acre orchard. The orchard began as a hobby by John and MaryAnn Claridge in the 1970s and became their family's legacy upon his passing a few years later. Today, Spirit Springs specializes in antique and heritage apples with more than 80 varieties on-site.
"It certainly wasn't a long-range plan," says MaryAnn, speaking of her late husband and Spirit Springs founder John," but when he had a new hobby, he would take it all the way." This lead the Crown Pointe, IN-native to set up an apple orchard in Marcellus. "We would look through the plant catalog and go, 'Oh, that looks tasty,' and 'that one looks good.' So we would plant two or three of one variety here, and a few of another there, and that's how it was set up."
Today, one of MaryAnn's three daughters and her husband, Al Sampsell, run Spirit Springs with help from their extended family during the apple harvest. Their wide array of heritage and antique apples make their way into many of our ciders each year.
Seedling Fruit: South Haven, Michigan
A longtime supplier to Chicago culinary partners, Seedling Farm hosts 18 acres of apples that include nearly two dozen varieties. On the day we visited, owner and farmer Pete Klein drove us through the rows of trees and explained how this fruit will be destined for whole fruit sales in farmers markets, processed into soft cider, or sold to cidermakers like us for pressing.
Klein points out a Golden Russet tree and pulls off a couple for us to try. They have a rough skin, a crisp crunch, a slightly starchy feel and a delicate sweetness to them. "Older varieties like this have a lot more flavor for cider," he says. ""Golden Russet is the sweetest apple we grow based on the sugar content, but it's also the driest, which cidermakers love to use."
We've used Seedling produce in many of our ciders, including a few that are part of our Orchard Series. Their apples are great, and we've also used their cherries and apricots in our ciders as well. Be on the lookout for a new variety that includes cherries from Seedling. You can find more than 20 of our ciders to try in our Tasting Room, which is open seven days a week. Stop by this Cider Season for some proper farmhouse cider.