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Antique Apples and the Modern Orchard

As with so many familiar cycles where the old becomes fresh and new again, Andy Sietsema, fourth generation apple farmer, is at the forefront of the revitalization of his family's orchard, focused on bringing the past back in vogue.   

"My great-grandfather bought all the land out there during the great depression," Sietsema begins.

The orchard
, purchased in 1936, was originally located at Knapp St. and the East Beltline, now the home of Celebration Village North. "My grandfather grew up in the farmhouse there. My dad worked the farm as well. I grew up (on the farm). My dad bought everything and took it over in 1986," Sietsema says.

The Sietsemas expanded the orchard beyond that first plot of land and the family name became well known. "We had a pretty big operation going. We had about 200 acres total, some off of Leffingwell St. and 3 Mile, and where Forest Hills Middle school on Leonard is," Sietsema says. "(We also grew) apples and peaches out on Hall St., across from Forest Hills Central High School."

Following decades of successful business, change crept in.

"In the early 90s, you started to see the shift (in buying habits) from customers," Sietsema says. Long standing traditions of home canning and baking slowly fell out of favor as more commercialized methods became popular. Purchases changed "from grandma coming into buy bushels of peaches to can, to buying a peck or a half a peck just to eat for the week… It was a whole transition we didn't adapt to."

Beyond consumer habits, the surrounding landscape began to change dramatically.

"In the mid 90s property values skyrocketed. The beltline came through from a two lane highway to a four lane highway," Sietsema says.

As the area was targeted as prime real estate, great interest was focused on the fertile expanse, home to Sietsema Orchard. The ambitions of various developers and business chains centered around re-fashioning the stretch of farmland into a major shopping destination.

The first significant change came with the addition of Knapp Corner Meijer and other businesses. While Sietsema said his family experienced "no high pressure from the developers," he explained that his parents were "young, [with] four kids, trying to send them to private Christian school," and faced with a choice.

"When you got land that is worth that much money, some people don't like the decision that we made, but it was a decision we had to make," Sietsema says. "You can't stop growth, you can only hope to work with it and manage it the best you possibly can and our family tried to do that."

They opted to hold out for the right offer, as their decision would affect a significant portion of land and the local population.  

"We could have sold out to a big national chain, but we as a family didn't want that and wanted something local or at least regional," Sietsema says. "The Loeks family has done nothing but good for the community."

Although the Seitsemas sold a major plot of acreage, they continued to farm. "This whole time we were out at Ada and 2 mile. That land has been in the family for about as long as the Knapp and beltline area," Sietsema says.
Today, although his parents are still the primary owners of the orchard, Sietsema is aiming to usher the business into modernity while simultaneously embracing traditional methods and a nostalgic atmosphere.

"We're ahead of the curve on antique apples, (apples over a century old). We have the ugly apple. These heirloom apples are making a resurgence throughout the US, in Virginia and the Northwest Coast…people want other options," Sietsema says.  

Antique, or heirloom, apples are making a comeback as shoppers seek flavorful produce not modified for appearance.

"Heirloom apples haven't been genetically modified for taste and look. Some of them look like a potato, but the taste is like nothing you've ever had before," Sietsema says. "(These are) great eating apples, great for cider and hard cider. Everyone wants these heirloom apples for their cider and no one has them."

In addition to offering antique apples, Sietsema intends to recreate the orchard experience of bygone days where folks shopped with a neighboring farmer. "I want to have that closeness and I want people to be able to come sit out on our porch swing. I want that old idea of the family orchard there, without the big rush of people. I want people to almost feel like it's theirs. But, like with everything, you need a modern day twist on that," Sietsema says.

In keeping with today's connectedness, Sietsema is going to integrate QR codes into the orchard this fall to offer customers an enhanced experience. "There is so much you can do with the Internet and social media," he says. "It gets me excited about everything that I can do."

As the Sietsema family revamps their approach, the focus is on the local food market and rejuvenating the farm.

"That can be successful. We already have the tools in place and have the recognition. It's a matter of managing how the orchard is set up and the flow," Sietsema says.

Plans include expanding their new, decorative pole barn where they hope to offer donuts and hard cider and other products along with a cozy atmosphere. "We want that home feel. This is how it used to be. (I envision) dinner on the orchards…a picnic table on the orchard in the summer evening."

Sietsema is confident in his vision, his apples and the history he hails from. "We know we have a superior product. We have the name. We're looking forward to it."

Audria Larsen, writer for REVUE Magazine, is the founder of Audacious Hoops hula hoop company, heads the Atomic Hoop Troupe, performs with Super Happy Funtime Burlesque, is headmistress of Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School Grand Rapids, produces Shimmy Shack Burlesque and is an occasional model.


Andy Sietsema at the Sietsema Orchard in Ada

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

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