Wilson’s Apple Orchard – Eco-Friendly Farming Yields Bumper Crop of Family Fun

Wilson's Orchard north of Iowa City is a familiar landmark with new eco-friendly farming practices. Photo: Brigette Fanning

Wilson's Orchard north of Iowa City is a familiar landmark with new eco-friendly farming practices. Photo: Brigette Fanning

Drive a little more than 4 miles north out of Iowa City on Highway 1. Turn east down Dingleberry Road for a little less than a mile, and take a right down an unpaved road. Soon you arrive at Wilson’s Apple Orchard, a local Iowa City landmark that you won’t soon forget. Ask just about anyone in the Iowa City – Solon area, and they’ll tell you about a family outing they took to Wilson’s when they were kids, about their own child’s recent preschool field trip, or a romantic apple-picking outing with their date. Young and old, Wilson’s Apple Orchard figures into the fond memories of generations of Iowans.

Customers can pick their own apples from more than 120 different species of apple trees. Photo: Brigette Fanning

Paul Rasch bought the grounds from previous owners, Robert “Chug” and Joyce Wilson, last year. When asked about the environmental practices he is putting in place in his new venture, Rasch comments that there are three main environmental concerns associated with farming: manure, erosion, and pesticides. Wilson’s Apple Orchard has no livestock, so manure is not a concern. Rasch does no tilling, so the soil is stable. That leaves only pesticides to deal with.

When the business got its start nearly 30 years ago, orchard owners commonly used pesticides to protect their crops from infestation. After all, no one wants to find half a worm in their apple. But today, environmentally minded farmers are increasingly careful about what they spray on the food they sell. “The main thing we’re working on is trying to minimize chemical input,” says  Rasch, who hails from Michigan and is a fourth-generation apple grower. He adds that the pesticides he sprays are “softer,” affecting only the target organism, as opposed to a wide-spectrum pesticide that kills most any organism it contacts.

“Most commercial growers aren’t as concerned with pesticides,” said Rasch. “We’re considerably ahead of the curve.”

But limiting the use of pesticides is only one of Rasch’s eco-friendly farming practices.

For example, since purchasing the land from the Wilsons, the new owner is doing more pruning. This horticultural practice opens the trees to increased air circulation, resulting in less disease and less need for chemicals to prevent or treat disease.

And, rather than ship his produce over long distances to market, Rasch sells his crops on site. On-site sales reduce carbon emissions and save on transportation costs. Rasch passes those savings on to consumers with a low price-per-pound for all apple types, even the most unusual of the varieties he grows. The traditional Wilson’s Apple Orchard pick-your-own marketing strategy delights visitors. Customers pay according to where the apples are gathered: the ground, the trees, or the orchard store; providing one’s own labor has its dividends.

Most of the food — and all of the fruit — sold at the orchard grows right there on the farm. Any food not produced on site comes from other local producers, like Prairie Delight Cheese from Milton, Iowa. Prairie Delight Cheese uses only milk from cows that have not been treated with rBST, a hormone used to boost milk production.

Rasch purchased a total of 87 acres on two farms — Wilson’s Apple Orchard and Fox Ridge Farm, just a few miles away. On 30 of his acres, he grows pumpkins and more than 120 varieties of apples. The remainder of the grounds have creeks, old oaks, and a wildlife sanctuary.

Fill your own bag or choose from those already picked and waiting in the barn. Photo: Brigette Fanning

Fill your own bag or choose from those already picked and waiting in the barn. Photo: Brigette Fanning

Wilson’s Apple Orchard is open to the public from the beginning of August through the end of October. Children are invited to enjoy tractor rides, free of charge. Adults can relax with an evening picnic and a concert, an event that Rasch began in late September and is hoping to continue. And the whole family can join in to celebrate Fall Fest on Oct. 17, with music, a barbeque, a treasure hunt, pumpkin carving, and storytelling.

So, if you’re in the Iowa City area, stop by Wilson’s Apple Orchard for delicious food and a delightful outdoor adventure. Pick a basket of apples, buy a mum grown in Kalona, take home a pumpkin, or snack on a fresh apple crisp from the bakery. Your purchases not only support local farming and sustainable agriculture, they will also provide you with a healthy and memory-filled alternative to supermarket fare.

Brigette Fanning

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)