Sara Ecker packed apples bound for school lunches at Ecker’s Apple Farm yesterday. She said it was a good growing season for the Centerville, Wis., orchard.
by CHRIS ROGERS
The apples are in, and at Ecker’s Apple Farm outside Centerville, Wis., workers were busy packaging apples, fixing pies, and preparing for this weekend’s big shindig at the orchard.
“It is one of our highest quality crops,” Sara Ecker said of this season’s harvest as she loaded up bags of miniature Honeycrisp apples bound for local school cafeterias. While it was a remarkably wet year, Ecker reported that the farm’s apple trees didn’t suffer too much disease pressure in the spring and the farm crews were able to work around wet weather during last month’s harvest.
“We try not to pick apples when they’re wet because they bruise easily. Getting the harvest schedule figured out was a little difficult,” she said. Overall, there was a lot to be thankful for: “No late frost, plenty of rain, and not much hail at all, which is good.” The Eckers’ trees were spared from this summer’s tornados, too — whew.
Sara’s sister, Jess, was racing around the farm preparing for this Saturday’s Honeycrisp Hootenanny, when the orchard will host live music, food trucks, games, train rides, special releases from breweries and cideries, and nearly every apple-related treat imaginable. “A hootenanny is a heck of a good time, and we use it to celebrate Honeycrisp apples and bluegrass music — and craft beer and hard cider,” Sara said. The annual event is the biggest hoopla of the year at a farm that has made drawing people in for direct retail and events a big part of its business.
Last year’s hootenanny enabled the farm to buy a drip irrigation system to keep the trees well-watered even in dry years, and the Eckers have also been able to invest in hail netting and frost fans that protect apple blossoms from late-spring frosts by drawing in warmer air.
“The value-added products are the backbone of why we’re here,” Sara stated, nodding to a commercial kitchen where her mother and numerous workers prepared pies and caramel. After her father passed away several years ago, the family had to adapt to keep the business going, she explained. “For the first several years, it was just survival mode,” Sara said. “Now we’re transitioning into what’s sustainable for us and the land.”
For the Eckers, that has meant switching to a high-density orchard system, in which trees are planted close together and trellised. According to researchers, the orchard system produces higher yields with lower input costs and less labor, since the shorter trellised trees can be quickly picked without ladders. “It’s just more sustainable for everything,” Sara said. “More sustainable for the environment. It’s easier on the labor you have. It’s just so much easier to work on a smaller tree.”
More information on Ecker’s Apple Farm and the Honeycrisp Hootenanny is available at www.eckersapplefarm.com.