Many Kansas apple orchards still do business the same way they’ve done it for decades, and in one case, for more than a century. They sell apples by the bushel and by the peck.
Rees Fruit Farm in Topeka started its orchard in 1901. Rex Rees is a fourth-generation orchard grower. Like many other orchards, Rees Fruit Farm has peach trees and grows other fruits and vegetables.
Having grown up on or near a farm, for Donnie and Mike Gerhardt, farming came naturally. But in 1983, by planting an orchard, Pome on the Range Orchard and Winery near Ottawa, the couple started a new endeavor. Now in their late 60s, the two still love the business but wouldn’t mind slowing down just a little.
Down in Rose Hill, Meadowlark Farm Orchard & Cidery in Rose Hill began differently. After working across the globe in Pakistan, Tom and Gina Brown came home to Kansas and decided to fulfill Tom’s dream of planting an orchard.
All three orchards sell freshly picked apples, but Pome on the Range and Meadowlark also let customers pick their own fruit. For Rees Fruit Farm, this is not an option as much of its land is spread out.
All three farms have seen an uptick in customers this year. They say customers want to know where their food comes from.
"Retail-wise it’s been a tremendous year," Rees said. "We’re probably up at least 60, 70 percent."
Rees said his sales at the farmers markets are up more than 100%. Tom Brown and Donnie Gerhardt said they have seen similar increases.
But as autumn approaches, because of COVID-19, the school buses won’t visit, and the orchards won’t be able to give hayrides to their pumpkin patches.
Customers are a blessing
Each grower said the work is difficult, like any other farm work, but the rewards are plentiful. Rees and Gerhardt have watched generations grow up.
"The customers say, ’Thank you for having this orchard,’ " Brown said. "I didn’t expect to be in love with the customers. The people that come here are a tremendous blessing to me."
According to Rees, the apple industry dramatically changed during the 1970s when a certain type of refrigeration for apples was invented. That is when Australia and New Zealand became able to ship apples overseas.
In addition to modifying the shipping of apples, the trees and varieties produced also have changed. Instead of the 20-foot apple tree, which can last at least 50 years, u-pick orchards are now using dwarf trees, which reach no more than 6 feet. This way, customers can reach all the apples without a ladder.
"They (dwarf trees) can last maybe 15 to 20 years," Gerhardt said.
Rees still uses ladders. Some of his trees date back half a century.
Each of these three groves grow at least 16 varieties of apples. Each variety blooms at a different time of year, so each grove has apples available throughout most of the year.
When there are no apples, there are pumpkins or popcorn and some kind of apple drink. Rees Fruit Farm produces a nonalcoholic apple cider and a special apple slush during the summer, Meadowlark manufactures a hard apple cider and Pome on the Range makes apple- and other fruit-flavored wines. Both Rees and Meadowlark press their apples on the premises.
Due to frost, drought and winds, Kansas isn’t the ideal place to grow apples. But each of these growers loves their customers, their farms and one another. Gerhardt looks at the other growers as a fraternity. Brown said both Gerhardt and Rees helped him get started, and Rees grew up picking apples. He loves the business and loves to share his knowledge.
"You don’t do it for the money — you do it for the love of growing things and the relationships," Donnie Gerhardt said. "It’s just so much fun to see third generations come. It’s wonderful."