Apple season ripe for the picking

Published 7:07 am Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Ryne Schaefer stands atop a ladder as he reaches with a gloved hand for a Zestar! apple, examines it, and drops it into a bag fastened around his waist. Other apples, with bruises and pockmarks sustained from tornado hail damage, are released to the ground.

“After a few years, you get pretty good at it, like any job,” Schaefer explained. “Actually, I wouldn’t call it a job — it’s better than any job I’ve ever had.”

His job at Austin Apples is to prune trees and pick the apples. Like most orchards, they lose about 5 percent of their inventory per year.

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“It’s the same thing every year — there’s a cycle,” Schaefer said.

Austin Apples is located north of Lansing and boasts 1,500 trees and 31 varieties. The orchard opened Saturday, usually one of the slower weekends because of the Labor Day holiday.

“There’s people waiting at the gate sometimes at 11,” Schaefer said. “When it starts cooling down, you get people.”

Currently, four varieties of apples — Beacon, Chestnut Crab, Red Baron and Zestar! — are available for purchase at the orchard. Although they discourage picking your own because of liability reasons, the apples are available in large quantities, and they will have more as the season progresses. Some customers come every year as they prepare for canning or making pies, apple crisp and sauces.

“You get your regulars,” Schaefer said. “You know them by face.”

The apples are priced based on the variety; premium apples are more expensive. Many of the popular varieties at the orchard were developed by the University of Minnesota, like the Honeycrisp and Zestar!.

Chestnut Crabapple — large crabapple with nutty flavor, best for eating or sauce

Haralson — firm and tart, good for pies, cooking and eating

Honeycrisp — juicy, crisp and sweet-tart, a champion in the apple industry for its taste and texture

Red Baron — juicy and mild-sweet, good for eating

Sweet Sixteen — juicy and crisp with unusual sugar cane or spicy cherry candy flavor

Zestar! — zesty flavor with brown sugar overtones, good for eating, baking, touted for ripening early in season

Source: University of Minnesota

Orchard employee Mary Barth — Schaefer’s sister — staffs the tent next to the gate. She sells the apples, which are on display in baskets. She said the Chestnut Crab apples are sought after now.

“They are actually very sweet,” Barth said. “We have groups of people who come and eat them like popcorn.”

The newer Zestar! variety has a zesty flavor and brown sugar overtones. It has garnered praise because it can be harvested early in the season, in August.

Other varieties, like the Haralson, are tried-and-true staples for baking or canning.

“That’s what the older generation likes,” Barth said.

The orchard is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through the last weekend in October. Austin Apples is also a vendor at the Farmer’s Market from 4 to 6 p.m. Mondays at Oak Park Mall in Austin and from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursdays at the Austin Municipal Pool parking lot.

To visit Austin Apples, take U.S. Highway 218 north to the former Lansing Corners restaurant and turn right on County Road 2. Continue through Lansing for one-half mile and take the first gravel road north and go one mile to the orchard. Signs are posted along the way.