The Ragtime Farmer
Ask Marty Mincer about the origins of his fruit farm, and you’ll score a heartfelt grin. “You have a few minutes — or an hour?” he asks with a chuckle.
Then ask the history buff about his deep-rooted passion for ragtime piano. “Nothing better than that old ragtime music,” he says. “I’ve been playing since I was about 5 years old.”
At first glance, the nexus between fruit farming and the jaunty rhythms of ragtime might appear improbable. Yet in this breathtakingly beautiful corner of southwest Iowa north of Hamburg, Mincer — affectionately known as “The Ragtime Farmer” — has orchestrated a harmonious and thriving blend of these seemingly disparate worlds, a legacy that spans decades.
Mincer, a Fremont County Farm Bureau member, is the owner of Mincer Orchard and Farms, a fall destination and Iowa staple that grows high-quality apples, peaches, the occasional cherries and a few pears and strawberries, while also providing delicious apple cider, for more than a century.
Mincer says that from an early age, he “displayed a propensity for syncopation, much to the chagrin and annoyance of his first piano teacher — his grandmother.” He was raised in an area “rich with folk and ragtime influence,” and over the years has become one of the most sought-after ragtime piano musicians in the Midwest.
Iowans and other Midwesterners have caught his performances at festivals, nursing homes, dinner theaters, riverboat cruises and the Iowa State Fair, where he’s entertained for more than 30 years.
So how has Mincer been able to mesh the two unlikely careers? Passion for both, he says.
“It’s a way of life,” Mincer says about growing fruit. “It has a lot of meaning to me. Every tree that’s out there, I can pretty much tell you when dad planted it and the things he was saying when he planted it.
“It’s like the trees are my kids.”
And as for music? “The piano actually wasn’t my idea at all,” he jokes. “Mom decided I would want to play. My grandmother taught school and piano … She’d play something, and I’d try to copy her.”
First came Farm Bureau-sponsored talent shows, and then as a sophomore in high school, he got his first paid gig. He and drummer R.W. Smith performed background music for a wedding reception in 1978.
“Once I found out people would throw money at me for sitting in front of a piano, it made it a whole lot more interesting.”
Mincer lights up when asked about his farm’s history. His family traveled to Iowa from Indiana by covered wagon — cooking and washing dishes in a big copper kettle. The family bought land but lost the farm in 1855. Then his great-great-grandmother bought back a neighboring farm near Hamburg in 1890.
The current operation has been in business since 1914, aside from selling off 200 acres in 1926 that formed the Waubonsie State Park next door. Consider the development of a state highway thereafter, and “Walla! … suddenly, we have people on a state highway coming to the park who also swing in and buy apples,” Mincer explains.
At one point, the orchard had 40 varieties of apples — from Goldens and Jonathans to Winesaps, Yorks and Chieftains. The home-grown concept coveted today actually began decades ago on small farms like Mincer Orchard.
“Any time you can have something that is locally grown, it makes quite a difference,” Mincer says.
Mincer’s peaches have been sought after for years.
“The difference between a good peach and an awesome peach is the last 7-10 days on the tree,” Marty points out. “Pick it when it’s ripe, not pretty. Wait until when it almost falls off … That’s when it’s good.”
By far the most interesting account of more than a century of fruit farming is that of Mincer’s grandfather, who after two years of lost crops due to late spring cold snaps, decided to burn smudge pots in the fields to keep the trees warm. It was 1910, and the story gained worldwide attention for its innovation at the time.
“He saved the fruit crop utilizing 1,000 crude oil smudge pots,” Mincer explains. “The trees were in full bloom March 30, and we had a freeze on April 22. They hauled oil out in tank wagons and filled the pots all through the nights that followed.”
Pictured above: Marty Mincer and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig share a laugh in the orchard while sampling apples from the trees. PHOTO / BOB BJOIN
When Mincer, now 60 years old, eventually took over the farm, he supplemented his income with ragtime piano performances throughout the Midwest. At his peak, he’d perform at least once a week but has slowed down in recent years to roughly three times per year.
“It’s a one-man, family show based on ragtime,” he says. “I’ve performed at the state fair more than 30 years — the Walnut Stage, Riley Stage, Pioneer Hall.”
In 1990 and 1993, Mincer brought home the gold medal at the World Championship of Old-Time Piano Playing. He has appeared frequently at the Scott Joplin Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, and has entertained with his “sparring” partner “Perfesser” Bill Edwards as dueling pianists. Together they’ve produced a collection of piano duets, “The All-American Ragtime Boys.”
“It’s been a great time … and the boogie woogie that I’ve dabbled in recently has been fun as well,” he says.
Mincer says he’s entering the twilight of his careers. He’s old-fashioned and rarely uses email, so contacting him can sometimes prove difficult. While piano performances slow down, the fruit farm also is coming to an expected end. As the last fruit farm in Fremont County, there are few others willing to put in the time and effort to keep it going.
“Ninety percent of the trees are well over 40 years old and are gradually dying out,” Mincer says. “The trees will completely die out about the time I’m done … and I’m not replanting either. Oh, a few specialty trees I want to try, but as far as a commercial orchard, it’s going to fade.
“And I’m running out of steam … it’s not a fit for everybody. It’s a lifestyle.”
This fall, the orchard is open through early November a few days a week and on the weekend. Upwards of 1,000 customers could swing through on a given weekend.
Iowa’s agricultural leaders are encouraging Midwesterners to take a trip to one of Iowa’s orchards this fall. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig paid a visit to Mincer’s Orchard in late September and said the orchard is a gem, much like other operations across the state.
Naig regularly touts Iowa’s agritourism efforts, while championing for the state’s Choose Iowa brand to support local agriculture by connecting consumers to Iowa produce and food products while also expanding markets for farmers.
Naig said he remembers as a youngster traveling across the Minnesota border with his family to pick McIntosh apples and the delicious applesauce they made back home.
“Such great memories … so this Choose Iowa label and logo that we’re building is all about trying to create more diversity, support specialty crops and local foods,” Naig says. “People are wanting more of that.”
Added Mincer, “I’ll continue to grow the things I like … the apples and the peaches, and I like to have my little patch of strawberries,” he says.
He’s partial to one old-fashioned Jonathan apple tree out in the orchard. He calls the Jonathan “The Magic Apple.”
“You can make pie with it, you can make sauce with it, you can eat it by itself, and it can be the best juice apple,” he said. “It’s just that good.”
Pictured above: Marty Mincer calls ragtime piano the best. He’s enjoyed performing across the Midwest for decades. PHOTO / BOB BJOIN
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