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The Sweetness of Ela Orchard

AsI set out to write about my experience visiting Ela Orchard and interviewing Bob Willard, I feel truly unequipped to capture the magic of the place in words. My visit was punctuated by the kindness of the people I met there, and the beautiful landscape the orchard are nestled within.

I was lucky enough to catch some of this wonder in photos, and they will assist me in creating a pictorial profile of one Willy Street Co-op’s wonderful P6 producers.

To begin, Bob and I entered the apple barn, outside of which were tall stacks of empty wooden crates, sure to be filled by the season’s end. Bob explained how orchard upkeep is a year-round job, and they begin picking fruit in mid-July. The most concentrated work takes place between August and October.

These are two of the crates that Edwin was sorting into. The variations in size for this particular variety were minor. I was struck by the realization of the care that must be taken at every part of the harvesting process in order to ensure the best quality of delicious fruit for eaters.

We made our way out of the apple barn, and discovered some apple-loving goats. Bob explained that their decision to keep goats was not necessarily an economical one, but rather, goats had always been part of the farm, and that tradition continues. It is likely that they, and the sheep, provide a bit of entertainment for late summer, autumn, and winter visitors to the orchard.

As we move along, we come upon some grafted saplings. Bob explains how they buy root stocks (M7- which is a mid-size dwarfing tree) and then graft a branch on for whichever variety they selected. I am pretty unfamiliar with grafting in general, but Bob described how this process is crucial in order to keep the variety consistent, as opposed to growing the trees from seed.

We got up close and looked at some Japanese beetle damage on a Honeycrisp apple tree. They had used neem oil for awhile until the plants became overwhelmed with the insects. Strangely enough, the Japanese beetles don’t touch pear trees at all. Ela Orchard does use pesticides in their maintenance and upkeep of the orchard, but also practices a variety of methods to keep the application minimal.

Most of the trees I admired were free-standing and spaced widely. However, Bob showed me a different setup that seemed like an interesting option for an aspiring apple grower with limited land. This particular row featured trees that were only short distances apart from one another, with a wire trellis holding them in that configuration. Near this row were also six beehives, and Bob explained the wonder of growing 17 acres of orchards without permanent irrigation.

This is a view of part of the orchard from a distance. Sheep graze in the foreground, and Bob describes how Ela Orchard’s land spans 230 acres total, with cropland, woodland, and marshland. Some of the trees, planted in the1940s, are finally being retired. The trees have weakened with dying branches, with smaller than average fruits, yet they still taste fine.

Inside the apple barn, Edwin Ela, the second owner and Bob’s cousin, was using one of their sorting machines. The owners demonstrated how each of the two machines sorts for size, and this particular photo features the machine that is gentler with the process, more suitable for this particular variety of easily-bruised apples.

This photo showcases one part of the press in the cider room. At the time of my visit, they were pressing one time per week. The setup and cleanup of that cider day’s operation was about one-third of the time spent on it. Each single pressing could produce roughly 90-100 gallons. Later in the season, they will be doing five pressings per cider day. Cider-making will continue into January or February. Ela Orchard is no longer allowed to sell their unpasteurized apple cider at Willy Street Co-op, due to Federal regulations regarding retail pasteurization. However, you can find them selling it at the downtown Dane County Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, where they have been vending for approximately 40 years!

This particular sheep you see poking her head over the fence is Dandelion. While the sheep have been utilized for their wool and meat, they too have always been part of the traditions at Ela Orchard. The history of the orchard itself stretches back to the late 1920s, when Bob and Edwin’s grandparents started a dairy farm and planted fruit trees. In the 1950s, Bob’s aunt and uncle (and Edwin’s parents) took over, and began to focus on apples. Eventually, Bob and Edwin took over, with the help of many family members, partners, children, and friends of the family. “I feel really fortunate to have known the generation before, as co-workers and relatives,” Bob says.

This photo shows some young and widely-spaced trees that had been planted in the last year or two. It will take 6-7 years before they will bear fruit for picking, which requires an enormous amount of patience, planning, and monitoring.

In this photo, there are two types of pest traps on these Macintosh apple trees. One is white and triangular (to the left), and is the trap for codling moths. The other is round and red (to the right), and this is the apple maggot trap. By monitoring the number of insects in the traps, along with the degree days, they can determine the most appropriate time to take action to prevent the insects from overtaking the trees. This monitoring happens often in the spring, when the buds break and the temperature is around the mid-30s. I was also shown a similar white triangular trap on one of the pear trees. That sticky lure was specifically monitoring the Oriental fruit moth.

This is a view of part of the orchard from a distance. Sheep graze in the foreground, and Bob describes how Ela Orchard’s land spans 230 acres total, with cropland, woodland, and marshland. Some of the trees, planted in the 1940s, are finally being retired. The trees have weakened with dying branches, with smaller thanaverage fruits, yet they still taste fine.

We circle back to the beginning, and Bob sends me home with a sampling of a couple different apple varieties. Growing 35 different apple varieties clearly has encouraged Bob and his family to become established apple connoisseurs. I highly recommend coming to visit and sample the sweetness yourself, as they sell onsite in Rochester, WI, every afternoon from noon until 6pm, from late August until January.

The haul of that morning (so far), pears and apples, waiting to be tractor-pulled up to the apple barn for sorting and storage.