Marco Antonio Durón harvested apples at Southwind Orchards outside Dakota.
Greg Tompkins checked out a load of Pazazz apples.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Marco Antonio Durón backed the tractor up next to the packing house. When he pulled forward, a half-dozen bins, each holding 20 bushels of apples, slid gently off the end of the trailer and onto the ground. Then he motored away, back to the field where he and a crew of 12 others worked quietly, picking thousands of apples last Thursday.
Southwind Orchards General Manager Greg Tompkins is pretty pleased about how this growing season turned out. “Very good. The quality is really good,” he said. The quantity of apples Southwind’s trees are producing is down a bit this year from its normal 20,000 bushels, but that is alright with Tompkins. “I’ll take it,” he stated. There is a lot to be thankful for. There was major flooding around the region this fall and a tornado mangled trees north of Rushford last month, but Southwind’s valley orchard outside Dakota was relatively safe. “There’s been hail around us, but we haven’t gotten any. We got lucky this year,” Tompkins said. A dry spell in August burned up some local corn crops, but Tompkins’ deep-rooted apple trees were unfazed and actually benefited from decreased disease pressure, he reported.
Picking apples is labor-intensive work, and while employers across many industries have reported difficulty getting enough job applicants in recent years, the problem of finding enough help is an old one for Tompkins. The field crews Southwind Orchards employs consist of migrant workers from Mexico here on H-2A visas — a U.S. visa program that allows foreign workers to come to the U.S. for seasonal agricultural employment when there is a shortage of American workers willing to do the job. “That solves that problem because I just cannot get local help,” Tompkins stated. “It’s that hard of work.” He added, “It’s skilled work, too. In order to get an apple off the tree and into that box without bruising it, there’s a skill involved.”
The apples Durón and his co-workers were picking on Thursday afternoon were a relatively new variety, Pazazz. Nearly softball-sized with a warm red hue dappled by chartreuse, Pazazz apples are a Honeycrisp cross created and patented by the Elgin, Minn.,-based fruit company Honeybear Brands. Last year, Tompkins also planted another new, Honeycrisp-based varietal, First Kiss. He pointed out a line of the young trees as he drove through the orchard. They will start producing serious fruit in two more years, he said.
Although different apple varietals have a multiplicity of flavors, disease and pest resistance, and growing schedules, Tompkins said the number-one characteristic he considers when selecting new varietals is what price they will fetch. There is a big difference between what old-school apple varietals sell for and what price new varieties bring. A bushel of Honeycrisp may sell for two or three times as much as a bushel of Jonathan apples. “Once you start raising ‘money apples,’ you start to ask yourself why we’re raising any other kind,” Tompkins said.
Like many local orchards up and down the river, Southwind Orchards has an on-farm store with everything from apple butter to hats that look like apples, but the bulk of its business is wholesale. Unlike local crop farmers and even dairy farmers, the Midwest apple industry is less subject to the ups and downs of international trade. Nearly all the apples the orchard grows are sold domestically.
Southwind Orchards provides on-farm housing for the H-2A workers, and Tompkins’ own house is a few steps away from the packing house. The commute is terrible, he deadpanned.