The farm is quiet on the late February day we visit. Equipment and supplies are stored for the winter, glistening snow blankets the fields and ice fishermen are on the lake across the road. But farm work never stops. Winter is when grapevines are pruned, tractors are maintained and Beth Hubbard, owner of Corey Lake Orchards, grows tomato plants in the greenhouse.
“Seventy-five days right now to our first BLT. About May 15 is when we’ll be getting tomatoes out of here,” comments Beth. “Our own lettuce, our own tomatoes and pork from down the road. That’s when our asparagus comes in.” The season begins with asparagus and greenhouse tomatoes and ends with pumpkins, apples, grapes and root vegetables. And all summer long more varieties of produce than can easily be counted fill the market. “So we’re like a farmers market, but we do it all,” says Beth. An on-site bakery that bakes pies from scratch using the farm’s fruit and a distillery also made from the farm’s fruit are added bonuses.
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In early August we pay another visit to Corey Lake Orchards. This time business is in full swing. The sweet aroma of cantaloupe greets us as we browse the market’s bins of freshly picked peaches, blueberries, green beans and more than a dozen other fruits and vegetables. Pies go out the bakery door often still warm from the oven, and Becca, Beth’s niece, is manning the brandy tasting table.
Beth, who took over the reins of the family farm when her parents passed on, takes us on a tour of the farm. Blueberries, available for u-pick, as are several other several other items, are nearing the end of the season. The variety that remains is small but sweet, and there are still enough for people to pick.
We move on to the plum trees, brimming with fruit. “It’s not normal. What’s interesting is these are fairly young trees, and this is the first year they’ve really produced. I’m really pleased with them,” says Beth. They look ripe, but Beth says it’s deceiving. They aren’t quite ripe but will be ready soon. The plums aren’t usually available for u-pick, but since they’re so plentiful, Beth is considering it this year.
And on we go with peaches, apples—25 varieties of them—and concord grapes. Corey Lake Orchards has the only u-pick grapes available in the area, and people travel from at least three states to pick them to make jelly or juice.
We check out some of the vegetables ready or near-ready for harvest—zucchini, peppers and green beans among them. Tomatoes should be ready in a couple of weeks. Beth tells us that many local folks don’t bother to grow their own tomatoes anymore. Instead they come to the farm and pick a bushel or two for canning, saving the time and trouble of growing their own.
Onions, 45,000 sets of them planted this year, are beginning to harvest. Once harvested, they’re hung in the market and in the “onion barn” to dry and cure for about two weeks before they’re put into mesh bags for sale. Drying them extends the life to about four months.
A few years ago the bakery was added to the market. Beth’s daughter-in-law Michaela and Michaela’s mom Patty are the two full-time bakers, another works part-time and others are pulled in as needed. “Over a really busy weekend like the 4th of July, it’s nothing to go through a thousand pies in the weekend,” Michaela tells me. And it’s all done by hand in small batches, with oil-based dough that results in flaky, shortbread-like crust.
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The types of pie rotate by the season, starting with strawberry-rhubarb, one of their biggest sellers. They freeze in-season fruit to keep popular pies like blueberry and cherry available all season. Come fall, they bake pecan pie and pumpkin pie with fresh pumpkins that they roast themselves. Michaela tells us there are people who drive up from Georgia to buy their pecan pies, ten or fifteen of them at a time. “What makes your pecan pie special?” I ask. “Love, a whole lot of love,” replies Michaela. “It’s an old family recipe we use. We never change recipes. But the crust usually is what really sets our pies off.”
Spirits are another product produced on the farm. We’re visiting on a Saturday afternoon, so we take advantage of the tasting table. Skip has made his way there first and tells me I must try the Cherries Jubilee hard cider. The tart cherry flavor really comes through. Becca tells us the cherries are added at the end of the fermentation so the cherry flavor doesn’t ferment out.
We also sample an 80 percent alcohol-by-volume pear brandy, straight up, and it’s warm going down. But then, I usually drink hard liquor only in mixed drinks. Becca pours me a sample of rosemary lemonade made with apple brandy. The apple brandy, by far their most popular beverage, is aged for two years in whiskey barrels. Becca made the lemonade the night before, letting rosemary and sage sprigs flavor the light, refreshing beverage.
Besides the distillery, Becca also tends a u-pick herb garden. For a dollar a bag, customers can hand pick herbs. She has also started a natural garden. It isn’t certified organic, but she uses only natural methods to grow vegetables in her plot.
As busy as they are on our August visit, the busiest season for Corey Lake Orchards is the fall. Apple and grape picking is in full swing then. The pumpkin patch is dotted with orange pumpkins and specialty varieties like white Cinderella pumpkins. You can see fresh apple cider being pressed on hundred-year-old equipment and sample some for yourself. The bakery sells popular apple cider donuts and pumpkin donuts. 2015 will be the first year for a corn maze, too, making Corey Lake Orchards a complete fall destination adventure.
Corey Lake Orchards, located at 12147 Corey Lake Road in Three Rivers, Michigan, is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in season. Check the web site for regular blog updates as to what is available to buy, as well as u-pick options.
Disclosure: Our February visit to Corey Lake Orchards was hosted by the River Country Tourism Council of Greater St. Joseph County. However, all opinions in this article are my own.
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