Apples and Honey: A Tale of Two Orchards

September 26, 2011 at 9:00 am

Editor’s Note: This is the apple-half of a two-part feature by Brad Moldofsky exploring local apples and honey, the symbolic foods of the Jewish new year. For the honey side of the story, visit “The Bee Gardner”

Studying a map of apple orchards in northern Illinois reveals that Cook County is missing them. In my youth (in the previous century), we took short jaunts to nearby pastoral settings where our food grew. We retrieved the red, green and golden jewels by climbing trees each fall. (No pun meant by putting “climb” and “fall” in the same sentence. Although that’s one reason why U-pick orchards breed dwarf trees that can be harvested from the ground.)

The sweet, juicy, tangy and tart flavors of apples meant that cooler weather was around the corner. And the orchards themselves were just up the road. Sad to say, but for more of us each year, only the first sentence remains true.

“Growing food is a slower way of marking time,” said Cathleen, the information lady at All Season Orchard in Woodstock. She ticks off events that mark the change of seasons: the first frog, the first firefly, and of course, the start of the apple harvest, which began earlier this year at All Season than at many other orchards.

The 10,000 trees that owners Jim and Sue say make up their property sit a hay wagon ride away from their nursery and landscaping business, a playground, gift shop, brick patio and reception hall (for weddings and parties), petting zoo and the nicest outdoor washrooms my family has ever seen. “It’s hard to compete with TV,” is how Cathleen put it. But All Season sure tries.

The vast property offers plenty for kids to do. In a happy coincidence, two carloads of friends showed up around the same time as us, so all the children palled around that morning. And in case they forgot, amidst the goat petting and donut tasting, that we’d driven 60 miles for apples, Jim offered a way to help recycle produce that might otherwise be lost: with artillery! Apples that hit the ground are collected in a bin from which kids can load and launch them in PVC tube cannons powered with compressed air. After an attendant releases the safety, they can aim them at haystack targets across a field. The boys happily paid $3 of their own funds to fire 10 juicy projectiles under 200 psi of pure fruit-shooting joy.


Compared to the price of a movie, Cathleen points out, spending a day at All Season is a more cost-effective day of fun. She grew up in the region, moved to the city, and returned to raise her daughter in a rural area. She observes that many urban kids don’t know where their food comes from. Their parents may not appreciate how northern Illinois’ combination of ancient glacial till, climate, wind and soil conspire to create ideal apple growing conditions. Visiting and picking apples can reconnect families with the land. And if hurling a volley of Galas is what inspires them, so be it.

A Contrasting Viewpoint

The owners of Woodstock Country Orchard a few minutes northwest of All Season, take the opposite approach. Al and Dorothy, originally from Mt. Prospect, decry “agritainment” and prefer the tranquility and peacefulness of a farm visited just for the produce. They offer raspberry picking, sell enormous garlic bulbs and grow their own watermelon and zucchini. While they have a portable toilet, they lack cannons, inflatable slides or a gift shop, which is just how Dorothy likes it.

“I hate a lot of noise and confusion,” she says. “I’d just like the kids to pick apples.”

Most of the noise that we heard came from my kids and their friends. Above the quiet chirping of crickets and the drone of a tractor two fields over, they shouted eagerly at us and each other. A sampling of quotes: “I just touched it and it fell off the tree!” “Oooh, I see a really good one!” “He’s not supposed to eat apples with his braces, but he can’t resist.” “I just picked the biggest apples in the orchard!”

How do you like them apples? Sara shows off the biggest from Woodstock Country Orchard.

Perhaps sated by the frolicking at All Season, the kids calmed down and enjoyed the adventure of foraging for fruit. We arrived the first day of the season, so the hunting was easy. WCO’s raspberry bushes and apple trees were absolutely pregnant with the red stuff and we excitedly filled our trays, bags and wagons. They charge $12 a peck with no minimum (more for Honeycrisp). All Season charges $10 per person for a combo wagon trip and half peck bag (about 7 lbs.).

Curious about the economics, I wondered how feasible U-pick orchards are. None of the owners I spoke with wants to sell to wholesalers. But Sue said her employees once warned not to watch guests pick from the trees. Observing how they waste good fruit and disrespect her trees would break her heart. A WCO driver patrolled the acorn-strewn lanes to observe the picking. Both orchards prefer to pre-pick Honeycrisps for their guests not only because the popular variety is more valuable, but the tender fruits are so delicate that picking one can cause several neighbors to drop from the branch.

Admittedly, my fond memories of orchard visits include chomping fresh apples and discarding the cores near the trunk, unpaid for, but thoroughly enjoyed. Like humans to The Giving Tree, our relationship to our arborial friends is all take (for an exception to this, see Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire). This is a risk U-pick farmers take to eliminate the middlemen and offer the crop straight to the consumers. The trees may suffer abuse from city bumpkins who don’t appreciate the enormous expense and effort required to grow beautiful fruit.

Fortunately, our kids had been to farms before and behaved themselves. Will the respect they show to their food source translate into a respect for Illinois’ long history of farming when they grow up? Jim notes that property taxes are high and that “it’s extremely hard to farm when someone wants to give you a huge check to develop the land . . . You have to have the passion for growing.”

So far, he’s resisted selling. Developing a farm is nearly irreversible. Suburban sprawl cannot easily be reclaimed into an orchard. Large-scale fertility is forever lost when the dozers and backhoes remove ancient soil to pour foundations. The drive north on Rte. 47 from I-90 bears witness to the farmers who gave up and watched homes and malls raised on their cropland. With each spurt of metropolitan expansion, the orchards creep another step away from Chicago. Can the demand for nearby agritainment compete with the demand for homes in the areas we once called “country?” How far will city and suburban folk be willing to travel before we quit and just let our efficient distribution system deliver us our food? When this happens, as well as missing out on some freshness, we lose something else.

“Even at a farmer’s market, you’re still buying from a stand,” worries Cathleen. “Here, you’re in front of a tree. It reminds you of the rural environment.” She notes that many non-rural kids she meets don’t know where their food comes from when they first reach the orchard, but then, “the kids just explode, squealing when they feel the first lurch of the tractor pulling them towards the apples.”

So that’s the situation with U-pick orchards on the borderline between Chicago’s expansion and the counties we still consider rural. Farmers are tempted by developers but some consumers are tempted by freshness. I recall that freshness from when I was a kid and I watch my sons relish the same sensation today, albeit twice as far from home as it once was. The long car ride stretches the definition of “local eating.” But the orchards still call loud and clear: the fruitful soil still remains and good eating can be found here.

From branch to stomach in under three yards