It's apple season!
Hillside Orchard has fresh apples, crisp and bursting with sweet juice, ready to pluck off any of the some 900 trees.
It doesn't get any fresher than this, and a bite wakes up the taste buds.
The phrase "An apple a day..." isn't difficult to comply with when there are fresh orchard apples available but the potato chip commercial which implies, "You can't eat just one," is more suitable out here. Nothing against those produce aisles, but this is an apple at its finest.
Located two miles south of Newell on M54, the orchard has been producing fruit for 20 years. Bill and Joanne Christiansen planted the orchard and lived there until last year when Bruce and Robin Nieland purchased the orchard and acreage.
The Nielands had patronized the orchard many times over the years but as far as knowing the business of raising apples, they were green to the core.
It has been a wonderful learning experience for the couple, who both have jobs in town. Robin operates a beauty shop and Bruce the meat locker. Getting outside, enjoying the fresh air at the orchard, is a benefit to owning the business.
When the couple came in during the middle of last season they removed several of the older trees and replanted 100 young trees which came from an orchard near Des Moines. This required Bruce digging up all the trees and transplanting them into their orchard. The growth rate was excellent - only one of the young trees did not survive and although small, several of the trees produced an apple or two this year.
Hillside Orchard features many varieties of apples including Red Delicious, Cortland, Sweet 16, Smoothie, Haraldson, Chieftain, Johnny Smith, Regent, Empire, Japanese and State Fair. Some of the newer varieties - Braeburn, Fuji, Jonathan, Wealthy, Mutsu, and Honey Crisp - are growing but won't have fruit available for about three years.
The work is nearly year-round at the orchard. Pruning of the trees is done in the winter months. Upon blossoming, the trees are sprayed every 10 days for four months. Then comes harvest time. The couple has family members and friends that help in this area. The apples are picked, run through the polisher and are bagged or boxed in half-pecks, pecks, half-bushels and bushels. They are then placed in a cooler until purchased.
For the adventurous, the couple allows them to pick their own. "It's a great family activity," Robin said.
The trees are dwarf size and therefore the apples are easy to pick.
This time of year, the orchard requires labor intensity. Robin and Bruce come home most noon hours to catch up on the harvesting. Weekends and evenings are also spent picking and sorting the apples.
The orchard is open on weekends and evenings but if you wish to purchase apples during the day, the Nielands have an honor system; just pick your bag of apples and leave your money in the padlocked container.
The varieties reach their peaks at different times - if your favorite variety isn't ready yet, try a different one and head back to the orchard when those are gone to check on another variety. (You could end up with a new favorite!)
The Red Delicious is the last apple to reach maturity, requiring a good hard frost to bring out the best flavor.
Many of the varieties are versatile and are good for eating as well as baking.
Hillside Orchard produced a great crop this year and Bruce and Robin are thankful as many orchards lost apples due to the May frost.
"You just can't get apples like this in the store," Robin concluded.