As I toured Peake Orchards in Waukon, Iowa, I bit into a Honeycrisp apple. As fruit goes, apples have never been one of my favorites. But that Honeycrisp was true to its name—a crisp crunch followed by sweet flavor. I’d find out later why the apple tasted so good, but at the moment I was learning about all the work that goes into raising apples.
A family affair
Al Peake planted the orchard in 1979. “When we first started, there were no apple trees at all on this land,” Al told us. Hard to imagine, almost forty years later, as we pass row upon row of mature trees dotted with ripening fruit.
Al’s son Jeremy was born a year after he planted the trees, so Jeremy essentially has grown up with the trees. Today Al and Jeremy work the orchard together. In addition, Jeremy and his wife Jodi run an organic dairy farm on the property, with cows that are completely grass fed.
Of course you expect a dairy farm to be year round work, Maybe not so much with apple trees. But winter is when the trees need pruning. “That’s a huge thing in the winter,” Al told us. “You look at it now and you think we didn’t prune anything, but you’d be surprised how much they grow in just a season.” Pruning is needed for the sun to get through to all of the fruit, and also to allow breeze though. The breeze movement helps to keep the insects down.
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To spray or not to spray
“Nobody wants spray; everybody wants a perfect apple,” Al told us. “You can’t have it all, so we spray as minimally as we can.” They had last sprayed in June, and this was now September, three months later.
The biggest enemy at Peak Orchards is a fungus called apple scab, and the apple maggot fly is the biggest insect problem, especially with the Honeycrisp apples. “I think it’s because the [Honeycrisp] skin is so tender,” Al said. Instead of spraying additional pesticides to kill off the apple maggot flies, he sets traps for them. The female apple maggot fly lays eggs in the apples, and she looks for a red apple. So Al hangs bright red traps in the trees when the fruit is still green.
And while many apple orchards use herbicides to kill the grass around the trees, Peake Orchards mows instead.
When it’s time to pick and sort
Al and Jeremy do most of the apple picking themselves, especially the fruit higher in the trees. Al demonstrated the special bag/apron they wear when they pick the apples.
“We don’t pick every apple out there, so we get the good ones.” They skim the trees three times before getting all the apples, ensuring they’re picking only the nicest fruit. If an apple falls on the ground, they don’t pick it up because of disease risk.
When the apron is full, they transfer the apples to plastic bins, which they transport to the production building.
In the production building a machine washes the apples and sorts them according to size.
Locally grown versus grown elsewhere
Al explained that when fruit is going to be shipped, you have to pick it before it’s completely ripe. Otherwise, they’ll bruise. At Peake Orchards, they pick the fruit at the peak of ripeness, when it’s the most flavorful. That’s why my apple tasted so good.
If you visit Peake Orchards
Peake Orchards, located at 319 N Line Drive in Waukon, Iowa, is open Saturdays and Sundays from mid-September through October. You can purchase apples, as well as apple products.
They also off offer hayrides around the orchards on Sunday afternoons. If you time your visit right, you may also get to see how the apples are washed and sorted. Check the Peake Orchards Facebook page for exact dates and hours.
I stayed at the historic Hotel Winneshiek during my visit to the area. Check rates
Disclosure: My visit to Peake Orchards was part of a familiarization trip hosted by the Iowa Tourism Office. However, any opinions expressed in this post are my own.
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