I LOVE APPLE SEASON here in Minnesota. Stopping at a local apple orchard for recently-harvested apples or picking my own (especially with the grandkids) gives me joy.
That joy comes in supporting locally-grown, in the experience and in that first bite into a crisp, fresh apple. I love the crunch, the tang, the juiciness. An apple tastes of sun and rain, summer and autumn… so much goodness inside.
I live in a state known for developing apples through a breeding program started at the University of Minnesota in 1878. The U has released 28 apple varieties like Haralson (released in 1922), Keepsake (1978), Honeycrisp (1991), Frostbite (2008), SweeTango (2008) and First Kiss (2017). My favorites are Honeycrisp and First Kiss.
Beyond apples, some orchards in my area also offer freshly-pressed cider, apple crisps, apple pies, caramel apples and my must-have, sugary apple cider mini donuts hot out of the grease. Yum.
Many other non-apple goods are also often available such as local honey and maple syrup, pumpkins, squash, fudge, crafts and more.
More and more apple orchards are offering experiences to draw in young families or anyone really who is looking for something to do in the Minnesota countryside on a beautiful autumn day. There are corn mazes and apple tosses, photo ops, wagon rides through the orchard… It’s all about creating experiences and memories.
Tucked into my memory is an apple orchard outing with my eldest daughter and her family and our son-in-law’s family a few weeks back. Our group of 10 aimed for the apple trees, 3-year-old Isaac bumping along in an oversized wagon pulled by his mom under a cloudless sky. A lovely morning with an edge of cool. As the crew gathered apples, I mostly watched, taking in this precious time together—how Isaac thrilled in twisting an apple from its stem. How Isabelle, 6, raced ahead. How our bags filled with apples. How we later shared a bag of apple cider donuts, sugar coating our greasy fingers, as love filled our hearts.
TELL ME: Have you visited an apple orchard this fall? I’d love to hear about your experience.
THIS TIME OF YEAR, I see, hear, feel autumn on Minnesota’s doorstep.
Already the next-door-neighbor’s maple is turning color, red leaves spiraling into my yard. Goldenrod flag the landscape. Crickets chirp, their incessant chorus singing a refrain of autumn’s approach. Mornings feel pull-on-the-jeans-and-sweatshirt crisp until sunshine warms the day.
And apple season time is underway with area orchards opening, complete with apple picking, hay rides, corn mazes and other activities to draw in customers.
This weekend Montgomery Orchard, located a mile east of the intersections of Minnesota state highways 13 and 99 in Montgomery Township, opens for the 2022 season. Now I could write about many other orchards opening, too, but chose this one to highlight because of a unique program there on Saturday, September 3. The Minnesota Dragonfly Society will present information on dragonflies at 11 am and again at 1 pm with dragonfly catching after each presentation.
Now, I’ve never heard of the Dragonfly Society whose mission is “ensuring the conservation of Minnesota’s dragonflies and damselflies through research and education.” I appreciate that as I find dragonflies fascinating.
The Dragonfly Band has also been booked for the Saturday event at the orchard.
Montgomery Orchard is going all out with the dragonfly theme this year. The six-acre Be-A-Mazed corn maze is shaped like a dragonfly with interactive trivia about the insect posted throughout the cornfield. Two maze options are offered with a shorter half-hour route geared toward families with young children and a second longer route.
I last visited this orchard 12 years ago, not long after it opened. The business has grown substantially since then, now spreading over 105 rural acres. The Cider Haus is open Saturdays and Sundays, serving five in-house made hard ciders, like Northern Trek and Prairie Harvest, and wine, like the award-winning Plum Crazy and The Full Monty.
Apples, in nearly a dozen varieties, are grown and sold here throughout the apple season. Currently ready for picking and/or purchase are Zestar and SweeTango.
In Minnesota, visiting an orchard has developed into an experience, exactly as Montgomery Orchard promotes with its tag, “where friends, family and nature come together.” Hikes and hayrides are also part of the offerings here.
And on Saturday, popular Montgomery-based Pizzeria 201 will be at the orchard vending pizza from its mobile wood-fired pizza oven. Visitors can also purchase caramel apples, jellies, jams and more from the orchard store.
This wasn’t just about picking up a bag of apples and then leaving. This was about lingering and engaging in a festive setting. This was about chatting with co-owner Tami Theis, who welcomed us with warmth. I felt like more than just a customer. I felt valued. Appreciated. As if I was talking to a friend. And that gives me reason to return (beyond just apples).
Tami and her husband, Kevin, are new owners of the orchard purchased from Dan Ableman. During this visit and a previous one, Tami expressed her appreciation for Dan’s knowledge and help as they learn the ins and outs of operating an orchard.
But the couple is also infusing new ideas into a family-owned and operated agri-entertainment business. Wagon rides. Apple slinging. A corn maze. Photo props. All were a part of their fall offerings. And now they’ve transitioned to Christmas.
As we entered the farmyard, I noticed immediately the Christmas trees fronting the poleshed style store. I had no idea Apple Creek sold trees. They do—Canadian fir at $10/foot—plus seasonal pots, wreaths and garlands.
And inside the boutique, which, yes, includes refrigeration units filled with bagged apples, there’s more. Clothing. Seasonal décor. Honey, Maple syrup. Gift boxes of local goods. And, on this Saturday, the fused glass art of Northfield artist Geralyn Thelen, who set up shop for the day. (She’s hosting a holiday open house from 10 am – 4 pm December 3-5 at her home studio, 2001 Lincoln Street South, Northfield. Guests are required to wear face masks. If you can’t attend, you are welcome to schedule an appointment. Call 507.581.1239.)
A life-sized animated Santa, standing near a Christmas tree and against a sleigh backdrop, adds to the holiday setting. The real Santa visits the orchard on Saturday, December 11, in a “Cocoa with Santa” by appointment event from 10 am – 4 pm. The cost is $20 for a 15-minute visit and photo with Santa. (Register on the website.)
Tami set up a Hot Cocoa Bar inside the store, with offerings of not only cocoa, but also coffee and homemade apple cider. I highly-recommend the cider. I stepped outside to sip my beverage while perusing the trees corralled in portable fencing and seasonal décor staged among straw bales. The cider, hand-pressed at the orchard and made with Tami’s special recipe (cinnamon, nutmeg and oranges), was probably the best I’ve ever tasted. I stepped back inside to tell her that. Eventually, the Theises will sell their cider with Tami’s recipe included.
And come June 2022, if all goes as planned with contractors, the couple will open The Blossom event venue. A place for gatherings—wedding receptions, holiday parties, corporate events, graduation parties (two Theis kids will be the first) and other celebrations.
In keeping with their agri-entertainment goals, the Theises are also adding a wiffle ball field, which Tami says her husband is especially excited about. They’ll also offer homemade pizza, donuts, caramels and that cider I savored so much. I look forward to trying some or all. I fully expect the Theis family to succeed in their endeavor. They are a team. Committed. Enthusiastic. Hard-working. Friendly. They bring something new to the Faribault area. Already, Apple Creek Orchard is drawing customers from all over, including the metro. The Theis family is providing experiences, which create memories and bond families. All in a beautiful rural setting.
MORE AND MORE, MINNESOTA apple orchards are growing more than just apples. They are growing memories, meeting public demand for experiences.
Apple Creek Orchard, located in the countryside just northwest of Faribault at 5524 185th Street, is among those producers embracing that trend. Here, in this rural setting, visitors can find not only 21 pre-picked apple varieties—including popular choices like Honeycrisp, Haralson, Zestar, SweeTango, Cortland and the new First Kiss—but also Halloween Town.
That October attraction includes a Haunted Trail Wagon Ride (Friday-Sunday), Haunted Corn Maze and apple slinging.
Last Sunday afternoon, Randy and I popped in for a bag of apples while on a country drive to view the fall colors. We had no idea the orchard had evolved into more than a place to buy local apples…until we pulled into the farmyard. There, next to the aged mammoth barn with fieldstone foundation, I spotted a seasonal display of pumpkins and other décor staged on/aside straw bales. Plus a photo prop.
Rounding the end of the barn, I saw more. Vehicles lined along lawn’s edge near the barn and the multi-purpose poleshed housing Apple Creek Boutique. And up the hill, additional photo staging.
On this glorious autumn afternoon in rural Minnesota, folks clearly arrived here not only for the apples, but also for the experiences. Young families. Grandparents. Couples. Many boarded the Fun Country wagon for a ride through the property. Former orchard owner Dan Abelman steered the Kubota M5-111 tractor pulling the wagon. We chatted with him briefly afterwards. He sold the orchard to Tami and Kevin Theis late this summer and continues to help with the transition. He’s supportive and enthusiastic about the changes the couple has made. And ready, too, to be moving into retirement.
We didn’t go on the Haunted Trail Ride on a wagon named Josephine (my maternal grandmother’s name), but we roamed the grounds. There I found more photo props. Randy prompted me to sit on Hank the Unicorn so he could take, and text, a photo to our 5-year-old granddaughter. Already I was thinking, we need to bring Isabelle and Isaac here next fall.
While they may be a bit young for the 3-acre Haunted Corn Maze, I know they would enjoy the pumpkins, the autumn displays, the photo props…the experience…the time together as a family.
I got sidetracked also by a field of sunflowers, past their prime, but still a visual delight.
Inside the on-site store, tagged Apple Creek Boutique because you’ll find more than fresh apples here, I poked around. There you’ll find local honey, apple juice-infused meat snack sticks and sausage from Odenthal Meats of New Prague, caramel apples, cider, Grandma Eileen’s homemade apple pies, mugs, seasonal décor and much more. But we came for the apples, stashed in a cooler. I opted for a bag of my favorite, Honeycrisp.
In the future, Apple Creek Orchard hopes to offer pick-your-own apples. There are more plans in the works, too. Co-owner Tami Theis, a certified wedding planner, shared that a section of the poleshed will be converted in to an event venue, The Blossom. Also coming in 2022 are homemade pizzas, donuts and cider, plus a wiffle ball field.
I left feeling excited about this new local option for families, and others, to enjoy in rural Rice County. To learn more about apples. And to create memories via the agri entertainment now offered at Apple Creek Orchard.
THE CARNIVAL SCENT of donuts permeated the autumn air as I stepped from the van in the gravel parking lot of Fireside Orchard & Gardens. For years I’ve wanted to visit this Northfield area orchard and try the fresh-from-the-fryer apple cinnamon donuts. Apples were secondary to this first-ever visit.
Numerous rose gardens grace the property.
While many of the roses were no longer blooming, I found enough to dip my nose into.
Walking toward the retail store, I spotted this sign.
After stopping to smell a few roses in the frontyard rose garden, I aimed straight for the retail store and the source of that sugary cinnamon scent. The place was busy with people buying bags of apples, cups of apple cider, fudge, caramel apples and those donuts that couldn’t come off the fryer conveyor fast enough. Fireside also offers a lot more foods, including bacon ketchup (not made on-site).
Most of the apple trees we saw, but not all, were picked clean of fruit.
I figured I better sample a few apples first. I tried SnowSweet and Sugar Bee, both new apples to me, and the familiar Honey Crisp. Hands down, Honey Crisp remains my favorite apple, developed right here in Minnesota.
There are lots of apple varieties filling these coolers.
I watched donuts roll off the fryer.
The hardworking young employee.
By the time I’d finished my third apple slice, Randy had already purchased a half dozen of those coveted donuts. We headed out the back door, right behind the kid pushing a cart holding a crate of apples. His job seemed that of keeping apples in stock as I watched him several times hustle between nearby storage building and retail store.
A pond centers the grounds.
Ornamental berries pop color into the landscape.
An overview of the pond looking toward the orchard.
This place was abuzz with people enjoying a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon in rural Minnesota. Fireside is a truly welcoming place with assorted sitting areas, yard games and property open to wandering—from orchard to rose gardens.
Pumpkins and gourds for sale add to the seasonal appeal.
I considered for a moment asking Randy to take a picture of me by the tractor.
Two parked vintage tractors present fun rural photo ops. This is just a relaxing family-friendly and dog-friendly place that is family-run.
The barn style building design is especially welcoming with covered open air spaces.
Within a half hour drive of the south metro, just 1.5 miles east of Interstate 35 along Minnesota State Highway 19, Fireside Orchard is conveniently-located, easy to find. A fun and beautiful place to visit.
A note posted inside the retail store from a grateful teacher.
As for those apple cinnamon donuts, they were a tad greasy, just as one would expect from a fair-type food. I’m certain I’ll return to Fireside. I love orchards like this that realize folks today want more than just a place to buy apples. They want an experience.
TELL ME: Do you have a favorite apple orchard? If yes, tell me why it’s your favorite.