Photo by Jeff Silker
A is for the apples Eric Luetgers produces at Timberlake Orchard south of Fairmont.
B is for the bees he nurtures to pollinate his trees and produce the honey he bottles.
C is for the fresh-pressed cider Luetgers sells with his apples and honey, but it could stand for cucumbers, one of several vegetables he raises to diversify his crop.
That’s a deceptively simple alphabetical portrait of Martin County’s only commercial orchard. It ignores the sweat and dogged persistence that’s gone into making Timberlake Orchard a reality. It began as a dream more than 20 years ago, a vision cherished and tended carefully ever since Luetgers planted his first rows of trees in 1981.
“I always wanted to work with the earth. If I could have afforded to be a farmer, I would’ve been a farmer,” Luetgers said. Instead, he left Fairmont to carve out a career in the Twin Cities, first with the University of Minnesota fruit research farm in Excelsior, then with the Minnesota Agriculture Society at the state fairgrounds and finally with the City of Plymouth’s Park Dept.
Although the work generally kept him outdoors, partnering with Mother Nature, the lure of a rural life proved too strong. “I always wanted to do my own thing. I knew I didn’t want to stay living in the Twin Cities. There were just too many people. It wasn’t a bad experience, but it wasn’t the lifestyle I was after,” he said.
Timberlake Orchard is now on the verge of becoming what he’s wanted to establish all along, a self-sustaining enterprise where he can make a living without relying on his off-the-orchard job. The bees helped by contributing 1,800 pounds of honey that he sold for nearly $3 a pound last year. That’s about half their 2001 production, because 2002 was a dry year.
“Our market is more than apples, cider, vegetables and honey. We carry a very high quality line of jams and jellies, made by a small family operation in Indiana,” Luetgers said. “We also carry two Minnesota products. One is antique popcorn, finely textured, very delicate. It’s not microwave popcorn. It’s almost a dessert popcorn. And we carry Emma Krumbee’s fruit pies.”
This expanded product line is part of Luetgers’ game plan. “We’re putting our eggs into more than one basket, trying to build it so I can do this full-time,” he said. “I want to get to the point where I can work just at the orchard and be able to do some things like hunt, fish and travel,” he said.
Despite its increasing viability as a self-supporting entity, the orchard remains a dwarf among the giant farming operations that dominate Martin County’s fertile landscape, a mere speck in the county’s agricultural statistics. Most grain farmers could plow the orchard’s scant acreage into neat furrows in less time than some people spend on a coffee break, without straining their massive tractors.
It took only two acres to generate his 2002 crop of nearly 1,300 bushels of apples and several hundred gallons of cider, plus a few bushels of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and squash. The 1,050 trees he began planting in 1981 stand in neat rows on an acreage where his parents live nine miles south of Fairmont, within sight of the Iowa border. That’s where he grew up, helping care for horses and pigs while bonding with the soil and nature.
He was 10 years old when his parents, Ted and Shirley Luetgers, moved from Fairmont to the 28-acre farmstead where his father, who managed a well-drilling company, could raise Morgan horses as a hobby. “Mom and dad wanted something for us kids to do too, so we got into raising Chester White hogs,” he said.
The family developed a herd of about 200 Chester Whites, running a farrow-to-finish operation, selling the market hogs to Hormel on a grade-and-yield basis. “Mom was the farrowing person and she had a high survival rate. We averaged litters of 11,” he said. “The last hogs left when I graduated from high school in 1977.”
Luetgers enrolled at the University of Minnesota’s now-closed Waseca campus, “not having any idea what I wanted to do with myself.” But he’d inherited a green thumb from his grandmother. “She was interested in gardening and I liked to help grandma garden,” he said.
At Waseca, he earned an associate’s degree in nursery garden center management and landscape development, graduating in 1979. Although the “job market was pretty tight,” Luetgers found an opening at the university’s fruit research farm in Excelsior and stayed there five years. “I liked working with Mother Nature every day. In spring you’d see the blossoms come and the fruit set. Then you’d see the rewards of what you’d done all summer long. The quality of the fruit is the end product, the best part,” he said.
He’d been at the university’s research farm only two years when he realized he’d rather not live in the metro area. That’s why he began planting apple trees on his parents’ acreage in 1981, the same year he married Sue Yanz of New Ulm. But they continued to live in the Twin Cities for 15 years before returning to Fairmont in 1996. “Sue was ready to come back too. She knew this is what I wanted to do. She’s helped ever since we were married,” he said. Sue didn’t bring a green thumb into their marriage “but now she’s very plant-friendly.”
He picked and marketed his first apples in 1983, augmenting his inventory with apples purchased wholesale from other orchards. He wanted to get area residents accustomed to buying from his orchard even before he had enough of his own apples to meet demand. “I had to develop a market before all my trees came into production. I didn’t want to wait until I was in full production and then wonder where the sales were,” he said.
Luetgers converted an old corncrib into a sales building, installing a walk-in cooler, a washer and grader and his cider press. He also sells through Farmers Markets in Fairmont and Blue Earth. Two Fairmont supermarkets, Hy-Vee and Gunther’s, stock Timberlake Orchard’s honey. He extracts the raw honey from his hives in August “before we get too busy picking apples.”
During the Luetgers’ 15 years as Twin Cities’ residents, all the planting, pruning and picking had to be done on weekends. “We commuted to Fairmont an average of 34 weekends every year. We’d sort and grade apples Friday night and Saturday morning. Then we’d go out and pick the rest of the day Saturday and all day Sunday,” he said. “My folks ran the roadside stand then and they still do it now. My dad would plug along picking during the week.”
Returning to Fairmont meant finding a full-time job to support his family while he patiently pushed Timberlake Orchard toward self-sustenance. First he drove a garbage truck, then became a production worker at a compost site operated by Martin and Faribault counties, working full-time in the orchard and full-time at the compost site until dropping back to part-time in August of 2001.
Living in Fairmont and working only part-time at the compost site makes it easier to become immersed in the orchard and its future. Soon he’ll have another two acres of apple trees, planted across the road on 10.5 acres he bought two years ago. He’s already put in 600 trees on the land. A year ago, he and Sue built a home there. Sue and their sons, Kris, 18, and Justin, 16, are essential cogs in the orchard operation and his parents continue to help.
But his sons are growing up (Kris graduates this year) and his father is 77 years old. He jokes about “losing all that free labor,” but realizes it will make a difference. He knows he’ll have to hire apple pickers. And he plans to convert the original orchard to a “pick-your-own” site while developing an orchard of equal size across the road. “The new orchard will be every bit as big as what we already have,” he said.
Next year he plans to replace three rows of trees in the original orchard with a pumpkin patch, then replant trees after giving the ground a two-year rest from apple production. Converting to a pick-your-own operation means replacing the original trees, which stand 18 to 20 feet tall, with shorter varieties. He wants people to pick only what they can reach while standing on the ground and not run the risk of falling off ladders.
Most orchards are planted on marginal land, which may explain why there aren’t more in Martin County, known for its abundant acres of tillable, fertile soil. “Our soil is a whole different ball game. It’s so rich that the trees have a tendency to grow too tall,” he said. Such trees block sunlight from the fruit “so it doesn’t get a decent color,” Luetgers said. He’s already pulled out five rows of older trees, removed the stumps and replanted.
Even though he has only a handful of acres, Luetgers hopes to make a decent living because apples obviously are a far more profitable crop than corn or soybeans. But they’re also more labor intensive. “By no stretch of the imagination am I getting rich at this,” he laughed.
Establishing an orchard isn’t cheap and it doesn’t produce much in the way of instant gratification. The young trees cost more than $8 and they must be planted, pruned, watered, sprayed and mowed around for three years before they produce a single apple. “The payback on an average tree is seven to 10 years,” he said. Irrigation, an expense most southern Minnesota farmers don’t have, is part of Timberlake’s built-in cost. “Fruit requires more water than most crops so we irrigate because we can’t depend on the rain. An apple is 77 percent water,” Luetgers said.
The Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture says the statewide average for apple production is 457 gross bushels per acre. Net bushels, which means apples marketed, is 360 bushels per acre. The difference is apples that are used for cider or go to waste. If those 360 net bushels apples are sold at wholesale ($24 per bushel), the gross cash yield is $8,640 per acre. At retail ($32 per bushel), it’s $11,520. Contrast that with corn, where 200 bushels per acre will bring $400 to $600 if the price runs from $2 to $3 per bushel. (It’s been a long time since corn hit $3.) Cider brings $4.50 a gallon, requiring 16 pounds of apples per gallon.
Luetgers harvests considerably more than the statewide gross average of 457 bushels, grossing almost 650 bushels per acre last year. He isn’t sure exactly how many bushels he netted last year after cider production and waste.
He doesn’t trust the state’s gross and net yield statistics. “I don’t think that all producers necessarily make accurate reports to the MDA. A lot of growers don’t think the government has any business knowing how good we do,” Luetgers said. He believes a more accurate statewide average would exceed 600 bushels thus ranking his 2002 production at about average even though “it was a really good year for production.” However, damage from hail and freezing cut into the number of apples he could market. Although he sold some of his crop to wholesalers, “most of our apples went out of here at retail in five-pound bags,” he said.
His most popular varieties are Haralson, Regent and Honeycrisp. “They’re varieties that are local, varieties that people know. The best-seller is the Honeycrisp, a new apple that the university released about 10 years ago,” Luetgers said.
Picking apples by hand isn’t the world’s easiest job, according to Luetgers. “Nobody’s come up with a machine that won’t mar the fruit.” He and his father and his sons do the job with 10-foot ladders, going up the rungs with bags made of canvas or nylon slung over their shoulders. When they descend, their bags hold about three-fourths of a bushel, approximately 32 pounds.
Picking is the most time-consuming of all the orchard chores. “It can be a lot of fun, but it can be a pain, depending on weather conditions,” he said. Apples can stand several touches of frost, he said. They can even endure brief freezing conditions down into the 20s “without damaging the fruit. But last fall we had an extended period of terribly cold temperatures. It stayed at 21 or 22 degrees all night, so those apples froze. They weren’t edible anymore.”
Winter visitors could still see those apples, shriveled and darkened to a deep brown, clinging to the branches despite repeated attacks by Cedar waxwings and Bluejays. “We lost 20 percent of our late-season apples because of the freeze,” he said. But he takes such losses in stride. “Every year, Mother Nature throws another challenge at you. This year we also had 15 minutes of pea-size hail and that makes for a lot of damaged fruit.” A hail-damaged apple continues to develop, except for the point where the hail hit. “That’ll be a dead spot. Hail-damaged apples are OK to eat, but hard to market. They’re not very attractive,” he said.
Luetgers also shrugs aside the loss of windfalls, apples that drop from the tree before they can be picked. Many orchards rescue such fruit for sale or to press into cider, but not Luetgers. “We never pick windfalls. When an apple hits the ground here, that’s where it stays. It becomes fertilizer.”
That’s been Luetgers’ position even before what he calls “the e-coli scare” of the mid-1990s. That involved a child who died in Colorado after drinking cider that had been pressed in a West Coast orchard and became tainted with the e-coli bacteria in the process. Apples he presses for cider have always come straight from the trees to the grader, washer and press, never from the ground.
Nonetheless, the e-coli scare made deep inroads in his cider production and sales. It’s not pasteurized, but it’s tested regularly by a private lab in Blue Earth and by the Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture.
“A lot of people look at those windfalls as lost profit. I look at it as the normal cost of doing business,” he said. “I don’t cry about it as lost profit. I don’t cry about Mother Nature taking apples out. You take it any way it comes. If you worry over every little issue, it drives you nuts. When you work with God and Mother Nature, you have no control.”
More small orchards like his “are being planted all over in Minnesota, some by farmers who want to diversify, some by people like me,” Luetgers said. “But this is not a retirement business. People who think that don’t realize how much work they’re getting into.” Looking out his window at trees laden with frozen apples, he says “it doesn’t look like there’s much going on right now. But I’ll be out pruning every day from January to April.”
Still, it’s a life he relishes, “being outdoors, working with Mother Nature. There’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing that the only one telling me what to do is me. If I don’t do it, it isn’t going to get done,” he said. “ But the real lure is seeing things grow, knowing that I did it with the help of the Good Lord.”
The Male Bees Do Absolutely Nothing
To his surprise, Eric Luetgers finds beekeeping to be a fascinating fringe benefit of running Timberlake Orchard.
“I never thought I’d enjoy working with bees, but I find it immensely relaxing,” he said. Their soothing effect compensates for one downside—frequent stings. He generally doesn’t wear gloves while tending his hives, “so my hands get peppered pretty good.”
“When I spread honey on my toast, I realize how many bees it took to put that spoonful there. Everybody in my family has a greater appreciation for bees,” he said. They often use honey as a sugar substitute in made-from-scratch pumpkin pies, homemade bread and honey-baked beans.
Although two hives would be enough to pollinate his 1,650 apple trees, Luetgers has 34 hives scattered around Martin County in small groups known as “bee yards.” Besides contributing honey as a cash crop to supplement the orchard’s revenue, the bees have become a calming diversion for a man who always has more than enough to do. He finds it relaxing just to watch them. “I can go out to a bee yard, sit or stand next to a hive, and watch them work their tails off,” he said. “They work just frantically.”
Such “workaholism” shortens a bee’s life. A bee’s life-span depends on when it’s hatched, according to Luetgers. If it’s hatched in late fall, it spends much of its time hibernating and may live for 200 days. “But if it’s born in June, it lives only about 30 days. They work themselves to death,” he said.
Female bees, called “worker bees,” do all the chores. They invest a lifetime collecting just 1/64th of a teaspoon of honey. Male bees “do absolutely nothing,” Luetgers said. “They’re called ‘drones.’ Their only job is impregnating virgin queen bees. They fly around looking for queen bees on mating flights.”
The worker bees take their revenge in late fall, when they force the drones out of the hive to freeze in the cold weather. The workers then help raise a new generation of drones, hatched from eggs laid in the hive by the queen.
Queens, capable of laying 1,000 eggs a day, enjoy much longer lives than the workers and drones. They can survive three years, although most beekeepers put a new queen in a hive every other year.
Luetgers says there’s much that beekeepers don’t understand about the insects, but he’s learned enough to know that they’re fascinating creatures. For example, when it comes to toilet training, bees are highly disciplined. They won’t relieve themselves inside their hives, no matter what. By the time spring rolls around, one-third of their body weight might be excrement. When there’s a January or February thaw, with temperatures pushing into the 40s and 50s, the hibernating bees awake and take bathroom breaks that beekeepers call “cleansing flights.”
The hive is a matriarchal society, ruled by a single queen bee. “She’s the boss in the hive. There can’t be more than one. If there is, one will kill the other.” The queen is the only bee capable of laying eggs and reproducing. The laying takes place between mid-March and October, with a hatching time of about 21 days.
There are few, if any, wild honeybees left in the U.S., according to Luetgers. While agricultural insecticides played a role in their demise, the major culprit is a tiny parasite, the Varroa Mite. It arrived here in 1996 from Southeast Asia, where bees have a natural resistance to the mite, and rapidly spread throughout the U.S. Luetgers blames importers who illegally brought in queen bees from Asia. “The mites rode along. Everybody’s got them. They’ve virtually wiped out all the wild bees,” he said. “There are different treatments, but nothing’s really effective.”
Luetgers says the University of Minnesota is developing a strain of mite-resistant hygienic bees. “Eventually we may see wild bees again. When a hive throws a swarm, such bees may be more adapted to keeping themselves,” he said. “They’ll be able to tolerate the mites better.”
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