Apples and Peaches Add Value to this SW Kansas Farm
Part three of a three-part series, highlighting successful specialty crop growers in Southwest Kansas
By CHARITY HORINEK
The Applehutch, located near Plains in Southwest Kansas, is living proof that specialty crops can not only survive but thrive as a business in this arid region of the state. For almost 40 years, this fruit orchard has been providing customers far and wide with pick-your-own apples, pears, and peaches, and has added other crops along the way.
“My dad started the orchard on our farm almost 40 years ago with six or seven acres of Red and Golden Delicious apple trees,” Roger Holmes, owner, said. “This year, we had almost 3,000 separate [customer] tickets.”
Roger and his wife Wendy run this family operation with their two sons. Their busy season begins around August 1 with peaches, and runs through Oct. 20 or so with some late-season apples. Though the orchard at one time had expanded to about 40 acres, Holmes said they currently maintain about 15 acres of primarily apples and peaches. They also have some pears and about an acre of grapevines, as well as a pumpkin patch.
“We did have 20-22 acres in peaches at one time,” he said. “But we lost the peach crop the last eight years when it kept freezing, so we have not planted back the peach trees and are down to a smaller number now. And we have gone to a high-density system on our apples, growing more per acre on dwarf trees, so that helps our production be higher per acre.”
He said the dwarf trees, planted every 3 ½ feet and on a drip system, provide a pleasant picking experience for customers as well. “This summer, we had a tremendous crop of Cameo apples. It looked like just a wall of apples,” Holmes said. “It’s a nice experience for people to come and pick, because they don’t have to climb ladders and everything is within easy reach.”
The Applehutch hosts many school tours each year, and also accommodates groups and families as well as individual customers. The farm’s pumpkin patch is very popular with school children in the fall.
One challenge for specialty crop growers in rural Kansas has always been marketing of products. Holmes said The Applehutch began its efforts the old-fashioned way, on paper.
“We used to send out newsletters through the postal system. It was incredibly tedious, with addressing, folding, and stamping,” he said, finding marketing much easier now in the age of the Internet. In addition to a website, one of the Holmes sons maintains a Facebook page, enabling them to update customers frequently whenever a crop is ready for picking.
Holmes said he has found Southwest Kansas to be well-suited to raising fruit crops.“Somehow, Western Kansas is a very good fit for grapes. It’s hot and dry – which is also fine for apples, as it keeps disease and pests down. The climate is good for grapes and apples,” he said. “We do have to deal with severe thunderstorms in the spring, which they don’t have to deal with as much in other parts of the country where apples are grown, like Washington. We have much more incidence of hail here. But most years, we avoid hail and have good quality fruit available.”
The challenge for someone who would want to begin an orchard in this region, Holmes said, lies in start-up time and expense. “The establishment time is incredible. It takes a lot of work the first couple of years to get grapes trained, and the initial investment is large,” he said. “It costs about $15,000 per acre to start apples, and you need to be planting 5 to 10 acres at a go.”
But once established, he said, an orchard can be very rewarding. “It is a lot of work, but it helps if you love what you do,” he said, adding that his wife Wendy especially enjoys running the Applehutch store in the fall. “You have to love meeting with people, and enjoy what you do.”
The Holmes family plans to expand its operation over the next few years, hoping to plant another two acres of grapes this spring and another two to three acres of apples over the next couple of years. The family farm also includes conventional row crops, raising corn, heat, and soybeans. The specialty crops help to “fill in the gaps” of the growing year, keeping the family and employees busy with pruning, planting and other tasks between the growing cycle of conventional crops. And best of all, he said, is getting to see his customers.
“People just love to come to the country,” he said. “They enjoy getting out of the city and seeing where their food comes from, and we enjoy having them come.”
To reach The Applehutch, which will reopen in August 2018: From the southeast corner of Plains, drive three miles south on a paved road, then 1.5 miles east. Look for two dark blue storage towers with white tops. Be sure to check in at the store before entering the orchard property.The Applehutch has a Facebook page, as well as a website at www.applehutch.biz. They can also be reached at (620) 629-1447.