U.S. apple production is expected to increase at least 10 per cent this year, thanks mainly to a bounce-back year in Washington. That’s making up for Michigan’s ho-hum production and declines in parts of the Midwest.
For example, in areas such as central Illinois, a troubling April frost took its toll on operations like the Curtis Orchard and Pumpkin Patch, a well-established family farm and storefront business on the outskirts of Champaign. Production will likely drop at this establishment by 10-15 per cent this year, says family member and beekeeper Rachel Coventry.
And that’s concerning for matters such as trying to forecast labour needs for the fall harvest, not to mention the management challenges that come with decreased revenue.
But if there’s one thing the Curtis family knows, it’s that their operation’s appeal is about much more than the orchard. Rather, it’s about being nimble, being present…and being diversified.
Apples are indeed a mainstay of Curtis Orchards’ output. Loyal customers take home bushel after bushel of apples – especially Golden Delicious, if they’re making apple sauce – either handpicked from the 25-acre orchard or supplied by other local growers to help meet demand.
However, apples are just part of the multi-faceted experience that draws a half-million visitors annually to the operation, from the third week in July until Christmas, and routinely causes traffic lineups on the otherwise quiet two-lane county road that passes by.
Being conveniently located within a stone’s throw of the twin cities of Champaign and Urbana (pop. 225,000) and the University of Illinois main campus definitely helps draw crowds.
But it’s the diversity that Rachel considers Curtis Orchard’s key overall feature, with everything from pick-your-own to pony rides.
“We offer many attractions,” she says. “People come to take it all in.”
That’s clear from the moment you pull into the orchard’s grassed and paved parking areas. A Wizard of Oz theme distinguishes many of the features; early on, Rachel’s father Randy thought a peaked, corrugated steel grain silo that was already onsite looked a bit like the classic movie’s Tin Man, and had it painted accordingly. Today, a wide brick pathway painted yellow (i.e., the Yellow Brick Road) passes by the bin, leading visitors to an expansive 20,000 square-foot country store where the operation’s storied apple cider doughnuts and Rachel’s orchard-produced, award-wining honey are popular.
There’s more. The retail outlet shares space with the Flying Monkey Café, which offers hot lunches (including pulled pork, Italian beef and bratwurst) from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. every day during harvest.
Access to these parts of the operation, along with a playground and petting zoo, is free. At harvest, visitors can pick their own apples and pumpkins. Who knew that Illinois produces more pumpkins than any other state?
Beyond the retail store, the operation earns additional income through ticketed features, including mini-golf, wagon rides, pony rides, a corn maze and a rope maze.
Curtis Orchard switched from staff-guided tours to self-guided tours after COVID, to spread out crowds and save on labour. Rachel says the transition has been successful; visitors report appreciating the opportunity to wander at their own pace, rather than being part of a regiment.
Diversification – along with hard work and commitment -- has long been a staple for the Curtis family, which traces its local roots back to 1873 when family members settled on 80 acres southwest of the city. Up until the 1950s, they grew corn, soybeans and hogs.
The family grew at the same time. But with relatively small acreage, and more mouths to feed, they knew something had to give. So in 1977, they started diversifying the operation by growing apples. They began with 700 trees on three acres, then added another 1,700 trees in 1978 (today, they have 2,000 trees on about 25 acres). Around 1990 they started making their orchard a public destination, and it’s blossomed from there.
Rachel’s interest in bees and honey production also lends itself well to the operation’s diversification. She has become an accomplished apiarist; last year, with the help of mild weather, tarps and straw bales for hive insulation and other wind reduction approaches, she was able to nurture her 14 hives through the winter with no losses (she usually experiences about a 30 per cent loss).
That success bodes well for orchard pollination, for supplying the operation’s steadily growing client base with award-winning honey…and for ensuring diversification helps fuel Curtis Orchard production for generations to come.
“We hope people will drop by for a visit if they’re ever in this area,” says affable beekeeper Rachel. Indeed, witnessing this successful operation first-hand would be a good investment of time for growers everywhere.