Growing a better apple
Bryan Etchen grew up picking apples on his family’s orchard, which back in the 1970s was out in the country northwest of Des Moines.
Over the last 40-plus years, the city has grown around the orchard. Ye Etchen’s orchard kept growing apples.
Today, Iowa Orchard sits in the middle of a residential suburb of Urbandale. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it ag oasis nestled among family homes, strip malls and convenience stores on busy Meredith Drive off Interstates 35/80.
For many families in Des Moines and the growing suburbs around it, a visit to Iowa Orchard to buy an apple pie and pick a giant pumpkin is a fall tradition that dates back generations.
“They want an experience for their kids...,” says Etchen, a Polk County Farm Bureau member. “They want to show them that an apple doesn’t come from a grocery store. It comes from a tree. And it’s awfully handy because we are so close to town that they can just jet right over to us, a five-minute drive, and show them this is how it’s done.”
Etchen’s father, Winston, planted the first trees at the Iowa Orchard back in the late 1970s. Most of the trees at the Urbandale location are still the originals planted by his dad, Etchen says.
In the late 1990s, Etchen sold about 20 acres of the orchard for suburban development. But he didn’t give up on the apple business. Etchen bought a piece of land in nearby Granger to plant more trees for a U-Pick farm.
With the new 10-acre orchard near Granger, along Highway 141, he saw an opportunity to move the orchard into the modern age.
“We’ve had to learn how to work with our small space. And that’s what we are, a small space,” Etchen says. “We can’t change that, so we need to be efficient.”
Etchen planted trees only 3 feet apart in what’s known as a high-density system, a common horticulture practice in European orchards that is starting to gain in popularity here in the U.S.
Much like a vineyard, the apple trees are trimmed and trained to grow along wire trellises, so Etchen could plant the trees closer together.
Etchen also planted dwarf tree varieties. The trees don’t get much taller than 10 feet tall, and customers don’t need ladders to reach the best apples at the top.
Because the apples on the trees aren’t hidden under branches, the fruit stays drier, and there are fewer disease issues. “I can’t find a wormy apple out there,” he says.
The U-Pick orchard in Granger is home to 8,000 trees and more than 15 varieties of apples, including the popular Honeycrisp, Jonathan, Jonagold, Fugi and Pink Lady apples. In the spring, Iowa Orchard also offers a U-Pick strawberry patch at the Granger location.
“We haven’t had pick-your-own for 20 years until we started out (in Granger) three years ago. I was even a little nervous about doing it because of my nice trellis system,” Etchen says. “But people are a lot more respectful than you might give them credit for. Customers really do a good job of not throwing apples on the ground. So it seems like a natural fit for us, being that we are just a husband-and-wife outfit.”
In addition, the Etchens rent three other orchards to supply apples for Iowa Orchard’s apple cider, which has a caramel-like color and flavor that you can’t find with name-brand ciders.
“With our cider, we only use strong flavored varieties. I don’t use what (apples) I have laying around ... We use Honeycrisp, Gala, Jonathan — strong flavored varieties,” Etchen says.
The cider is sold at the Iowa Orchard Urbandale on-farm store. Customers can also buy apples and fruit pies there year-round.
Iowa Orchard hires four employees who help Etchen's wife, Anastastiia, bake pies in the store’s backroom. Made from a long-time family recipe, Iowa Orchard’s pies are so beloved that customers from all over the country stop by the store to buy a pie or two — or 15, says Anastastiia, who greets all the customers at the door.
Anastastiia and her crew bake more than 10,000 pies each year. Each pie is made by hand, using fresh fruit and a homemade top crust. (The bottom crust is supplied by a top-quality bakery to help save time, the Etchens say.)
Dutch crumb apple, with a streusel top, is by far the biggest seller. There are 25 pie varieties in total, including rhubarb strawberry, gooseberry and Missouri peach.
During the three days leading up to Thanksgiving, the Etchens recruit family and friends (who Etchen jokes “will work for apples”) to help bake 1,000 holiday pies. They fill so many pie orders, in fact, that Anastastiia says she typically stays up all night baking them.
The Etchens are also ready for their busy fall season, when they fill the Urbandale orchard with pumpkins. Families can buy a pumpkin (sold by the pound) and take a hayrack ride on the weekends. Iowa Orchard also offers fun activities for young kids and only charges $4 per person to keep it affordable for families, Etchen says.
Pick a few apples & a pieThe Iowa Orchard’s Urbandale store is open seven days a week year-round, except Christmas and July 4, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The store, located 9875 Meredith Dr. in Urbandale, offers apples, cider, pies and more treats. Pumpkins are available for sale in October.
Iowa Orchard’s U-Pick farm is located at 13140 NW 102nd Ave. in Granger. (A word of caution: Your GPS may direct you to the wrong location across the road. The orchard is located on the west side of 141.) The U-Pick farm is open from mid-October, seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Check out the Iowa Orchard’s website at www.iowaorchard.com or call 515-276-0852.
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