Wolfe Orchard Apple Growers are Experts to the Core

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Illinois apple orchard

Editor’s note (Oct. 29, 2017): We’re sad to report that the Wolfes are retiring and closing their apple orchard. We’re keeping this article up to honor their many years of growing apples and hosting visitors to their farm.

Meet Ron and Hope Wolfe, who can tell you which apples to use for baking, which make the tastiest cider and which taste the sweetest. They know how to grow and harvest the most popular varieties of apple trees, and they know how to graft and preserve rare heirloom trees. They can identify their apples by size, shape and color, and they know the history of their apples.

So, when you visit their orchard just outside Monticello, you can learn a lot about apples. You can buy fresh, locally grown apples as well.

On two acres of their 40-acre farm, more than 300 trees produce 75 varieties of this uniquely American fruit. That translates into more than 200,000 apples grown each season at Wolfe Orchard. You probably know about half of them from the grocery store – “modern” apples, such as Fuji, Jonathan and Gala. The other half, heirlooms, have been grown in the United States for more than 100 years.

SEE MORE: Farm Focus: Apples

“Because apple trees only last 30 to 40 years, many of these older varieties have become increasingly rare,” Ron says. “They need to be propagated again if we want to preserve them and pass them along to future generations.”

The Wolfes accomplish that preservation through grafting. “You have to take a small piece of the twig from the heirloom tree and join it to a piece of root from another tree,” Ron explains. The process requires time, effort and care, but the results are worth it.

“Many older varieties have flavors and freshness that modern apples do not,” Ron says. Hope adds that the heirlooms have more uses as well. For instance, many of them make tasty cider, apple butter, pies and applesauce.

They also have some intriguing names like Sheepnose, Smokehouse, Spitzenburg and Northern Spy.

Illinois apple orchard

Ron and Hope Wolfe harvest more than 200,000 apples from their 300-plus trees.

Taking Root

Ron grew up on a farm and worked as an agronomist before retiring in 1990, so his knack for growing apples comes naturally. His father-in-law, Furman Fox, spurred his interest in heirloom apples. Furman lived in western North Carolina, an area ripe with these older varieties.

In the early 1980s, Furman collected some samples, while Ron tried his hand at grafting before he and Hope bought their 40 acres. After they moved to the farm, the hobby really began to take root.

“That’s when I really started getting serious,” Ron says. “I started grafting and ordering trees, and planted the first ones in 1987. Every year I’ve added to it. It’s kind of a hobby gone wild.”

And now that hobby benefits other apple lovers. From late August until late October, they can visit Wolfe Orchard to get their pick of the area’s ripest, freshest varieties.

But the work starts long before that. In March, Ron spends much of his time pruning the trees to keep them productive. Then he starts a spraying schedule to control diseases and insects. That work continues until July.

Illinois apple orchard

SEE MORE: Apple Recipes

In mid-August, Ron begins harvesting. Varieties ripen at different times in the season, which makes it a continuous process. Hope explains that Ron picks one variety at a time, places them in boxes in their sales room and labels each box with a sign. Customers can choose from among all the apples as they fill their peck or half-peck bags.

“Prices are by the bag, so we encourage them to fill them to the top with as many different apples as they’d like,” says Hope, who manages the sales room. “They may have as many as 20 varieties in their bags. We let them taste the apples, and we share information about the different varieties.”

 

Hope, a retired nursing professor, emphasizes the education component. She explains that because people see apples in the grocery store year-round, they don’t always understand the seasonal nature of the fruit. Wolfe Orchard only sells apples at their ripest and freshest. And when they run out, they’re gone – until next year.

So, Hope and Ron help them make the most of those apples, sharing recipes and advice on which to use for what purpose.

“The Bellflower, for instance, is an heirloom that is really only good for applesauce,” Hope says. “That’s because when you put heat to it, it disintegrates immediately. The Northern Spy is a great apple pie apple because of its tremendous flavor.”

Illinois apple orchard

Apple Appreciation

The Wolfes also enjoy sharing the stories of the heirloom varieties with customers. Ron works to preserve the trees, and Hope works to preserve the history. Customers can pick up information about where the heirlooms originated, their best uses, and interesting characteristics and facts.

For instance, Hope’s research indicates that Thomas Jefferson favored the Spitzenburg, and that the town of Bellflower reportedly got its name from the Bellflower apple tree that stood in the center of town.

The story behind every variety gives you an appreciation for how long they’ve been an essential part of the American diet, Hope says. “We want to share them and help keep those stories going.”

Ron adds, “Somebody has to preserve these varieties. We thought we’d do our part.”

3 Comments

  1. Carl

    June 5, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    Ron and Hope are great people and they know their apples. They will give you a sample of any apple they have and explain what each is best for and they have a large variety. You can fill a bag with many different kinds. I think they are A+++. Give them a try, you will be glad you did. People drive for many miles just to buy the apples.

    • Nancy Chacae

      September 20, 2016 at 9:03 pm

      It is such a treat to go to their orchard, listen to Hope share her knowledge of apples, get tastes of the apples, and great advice. We drive from Bloomington to Monticello – the only place I buy my apples for the winter.

  2. Kate Hunter

    October 30, 2017 at 7:37 pm

    It was heart wrenching to make my last visit to Wolfe Orchard this week. They are retiring and they will be missed by their devoted customers. Chatting with Ron and Hope was the best part of a visit. They are both so knowledgeable about apples and about life in general. I don’t believe there is another orchard within a couple hundred mile radius that grows so many different varieties, both heirloom and modern. There are early, mid, and late season apples, and each visit was an education. Hope provided tasting slices with a running commentary about each type of apple.

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