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Keeping it in the family: Local orchards thrive in West Michigan

Andy Sietsema

It's fall in West Michigan, and local orchards are packed. Find out who's growing that apple you're eating, and how they're innovating into the next generation. In a region where agriculture is big business, Lauren Carlson reports on how a few family-owned operations are weathering the seasons.
Agriculture is big business in Michigan, and Grand Rapids is largely surrounded by fields and orchards. So as the leaves begin to change, it's no surprise that West Michiganders dive into their local orchards to partake in their favorite autumn pastimes. Year after year, hungry consumers count on the delightful corn mazes, you-pick apple frenzies and family-friendly hay rides before holing up in their homes for the characteristically chilly Michigan winters. But how do these family-owned orchards weather the cold, the dry seasons and, in the past few years, a dramatic economic downturn? With a combination of generational hard work, evolving planting techniques and retail-friendly sales models, Grand Rapids orchards continue to keep it in the family, each finding their own unique way of meeting consumer demand.
 
"What we wanted to do was create a more intimate, almost educational experience for the consumer," says Andy Sietsema, fourth generation grower and part owner of Sietsema's Orchards and Cider Mill in Ada. Family-owned since 1934, Sietsema's held its property, part of 125 acres, near Knapp St. and the East Beltline, until 1998. That year, the family sold the majority of their land as part of a brief hiatus designed to cut cost and shift focus. "It was bittersweet," Andy admitted, but explained that the sale provided the funds to build their current base of operations.
 
The smaller scale also allowed the family to begin to "tie in to the local food movement," says Andy, creating a monthly farm-to-table dinner that utilizes local caterers, such as Suburba and The Starving Artist, and takes place outside in the orchard itself. "It's just starting to really get some legs," he says, adding that he's excited about the program's continued growth. With strong connections to these local purveyors, Sietsema's also sells 50 percent of their hard cider through local distribution, in addition to the 50 percent sold on-site.
 
Apple varieties from Robinette's Apple Haus & Winery.While Sietsema's utilizes its small operation to focus on the local food movement and hard cider, neighbor Robinette's Apple Haus & Winery, founded in 1911, pours all its energy into its retail business. "Entirely geared toward the customer," as described by Ed Robinette, owner and fourth generation grower, Robinette's moved away from a purely wholesale operation in 1971. Understanding the limits of a small farm, the Robinette family decided that "wholesale production wasn't going to do it anymore," he says. Building the cider mill and opening the apple haus to the public, they never looked back. "That's what's been our direction ever since," says Ed.
 
Offering fresh baked goods such as their famous cinnamon doughnuts, regular and hard cider, wine and fall sweet-treats such as caramel apples, Robinette's welcomes a high-density crowd throughout the peak season. On those days, they are so busy, "we almost physically can't do the job anymore," says Ed.
 
Unlike Robinette's and Sietsema's, whose business has grown to include hard cider and a large array of ancillary items, Wells Orchards, just outside the city, relies almost exclusively on their farm-grown products. "We really want to keep the focus on fruit," says Scott Wells, third generation grower and part owner. Though "apples have been the main thing," he says, they pretty much grow "anything that will grow on trees in Michigan," he adds jokingly. Selling half of his products directly to the consumer, Scott also relies heavily on face-to-face customer interactions. "Over half our income comes in and out that door," he says.
 
Family-owned since 1919, Wells Orchards, located off I-96 between Standale and Grandville, revels in its prime location. "It's just really unique," says Scott. Relatively close to downtown Grand Rapids but secluded, they serve the surrounding area with a comfortable 120 acres. "A lot of farms are getting bigger," says Scott, but "we kind of found our niche." Despite his contentment with staying relatively small, Scott still has his concerns about the next generation.
 
"It's going to be a different kind of generation," he says. While he and his two brothers partook in "minimal" higher education, Scott foresees the fourth generation of the Wells family focusing on business and technology in order to stay ahead of the continually difficult food safety regulations. "We hope it doesn't become too big of a burden," he says, of regulations that add extra time and cost to their daily operations.
 
As Andy Sietsema looks toward the fifth generation, he sees a higher demand for environmentally friendly practices. "We try to be as sustainable as possible," he says, adding, "You have to grow and adapt." However, Sietsema's small size of 15-17 acres, at just under 14 percent of their original 125 acres, allows them to adjust quickly to market changes. These are advantages he hopes to pass on to his own children, but "I'm not going to force them to do anything," he says.
 
Heirloom apples.Ed Robinette, one of three brothers who all work at the orchard, also looks forward to passing on the trade to the fifth generation. However, he, too, sees the challenges that lie in the future. "It would be nice to have more land," he says, explaining that, nestled in a suburban community near Four Mile and the East Beltline, they are restricted by houses, colleges and churches, disabling further geographic growth. However, he says, "120 acres is nothing to sneeze at."
 
Though these three (and many other) West Michigan orchards may maintain and view their businesses in different ways, a few common threads tie them together. First, the use of high-density dwarf trees allow planters to obtain a higher fruit yield. In past generations, growers such as Ed Robinette's grandfather would plant trees 45 feet apart and wait 12 to 15 years for the first sign of edible fruit. Now, smaller trees planted much closer together allow for easier picking and, believe it or not, tastier apples. "The quality of the fruit is better," says Ed.
 
In addition, though ability to forecast the weather and irrigation might have changed, all of these orchards still rely on the elbow grease of their employees. "It's still hand-picked," says Scott Wells. Orchard employees include family members, local students, and immigrant farm workers who return year after year to meet demand.
 
Though times may have changed, local orchards remain a staple in the Grand Rapids community. As the city has grown around these family-owned businesses for the past hundred years, apple and pumpkin enthusiasts and families of all shapes and sizes still return to the orchard when the temperature drops. Weathering the centuries, apple growers such as Ed Robinette, Andy Sietsema and Scott Wells continue to perfect their craft among welcoming communities. "The people make West Michigan what it is," says Andy -- people who seem to agree that "Michigan apples are the best apples in the world," he says.

Lauren F. Carlson is a freelance writer and editor, Aquinas alumna, and Grand Rapids native. Her work can be found at www.emptyframecreative.com, and she can be reached at lauren@emptyframecreative.com for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird
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