GREG BECKER, PESTICIDE SALESMAN TURNED APPLE GROWER

 

Greg and Barb Becker built their New England-style homestead and filled it with wonderful antiques and stories of their hobby apple orchard-turned booming business. “My wife and I were on a trip to the island of Maui, and one evening we had dinner at an open air restaurant. The name of the place was Pineapple Hill. Pineapple Hill is also the name of our orchard—we kinda plagiarized it to be honest with you.” Greg’s orchard does not grow pineapples, but what it does grow, besides apples, is a sense of humble beginnings and the relationships that can be harvested from growing food. “After all the pineapple is the symbol of hospitality,” he says.

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My wife and I built this home in 1979 and having a few acres of land to go with it, I thought it would be kinda a nice idea to have a small apple orchard—at that point it was just a few trees. I would have been thirty-one years old when I planted my first trees. The company that I worked for then was a crop protection chemical company…involved in agriculture primarily in the row crops. The company also had a line of products that would be used in the fruit industry—I thought it may be a good idea to have the apple trees and then use some of the same products to see how they performed so I may do a better job of selling people in the apple orchard industry. Our orchard is certainly one of the smaller ones; we have a little better than an acre and half of actual fruit production. My wife’s background was more in education and if anything, I did it on a small scale, so she didn’t know really when to say no because it didn’t seem like all that much.

It was never designed to be a full time business. It was designed to be perhaps at best a small family business were the kids could participate. For me it was a hobby, I love growing things, and I just enjoyed it and such, [as] opposed to really making a livelihood of it. When we first started out my wife and I were working. We both had full time jobs, so the orchard really wasn’t open to the general public per se—well it wasn’t closed either. If you wanted to come out and buy some apples, sure, we would be happy to take care of you, but I really didn’t have a little business store or anythin’ like that.

An orchard business is like any other business: you have to develop relationships with people. I found my inspiration in an apple orchard grower down in Oconomowoc…I always admired his skills with people. Meeting people is always going to be a favorite part of the business if you didn’t enjoy working with people you’re probably in the wrong business because most of what you do is really face-to-face. Through the years we’ve developed some wonderful relationships with people that come every week, and they buy apples from me as well as apple cider. I have been able to work with one of the local schools, and it’s been really enjoyable because they really appreciate what you do for them. They appreciate the quality. They want to work with local growers and show their students that the small local grower can produce as good of fruit as you can get from Washington State or anyplace else.

It’s a lot of apples…a third goes to the Harvest Festival, a third would be the farmers market, and then we sell probably a third of our apples right out here. As more people find out about our orchard, they like the quality that we offer, we’re getting a lot of people that come out to our home. You come out here and it’s just like you’re in New England…just leaves a neat sense of feeling inside that it was worth a drive out here.

You do get a lot of satisfaction of producing something that people enjoy and appreciate. The last thing that goes into the apple is the sugar. You leave them hang till they’re ripe and ready to eat—you really have a wonderful product to share with customers. The one interesting question that seems to come up at times is “what’s your favorite apple to pick?” and my response is “the last one.” The season is over.

When you own the business, again something this small, it’s very difficult to justify hiring people… and secondly, to find skilled people that would have the same commitment as I do. In the season…with these bigger trees, it requires picking up the apples that haven fallen. That’s done either every day or every other day. You get a day when the wind is blowing, you come out and the ground is full of red, and they’re not nearly as valuable then on the ground as if they were hanging on the tree. Sometimes the trees are a bit more or less productive—several hundred boxes that we will harvest over the course of the season, and its gunna vary a little bit from year to year.

Picking the apples is probably the biggest labor, time-consuming project that we’re involved with. The bigger trees we have are twelve or fourteen feet tall. It requires a big ladder, so it’s up and down the ladder all day long. I would say the elves at night do a lot of the work, but in reality… I do it. I have two replaced knees, and I shouldn’t be on a ladder anymore. And that physically is difficult as you get older—you can’t really pick that many apples in an hour. It’s probably more important, quality picking as opposed to quantity picking. I don’t pay anyone by the hour; I just pay them to do a good job picking the apples. You have to understand the more apples you pick the more chances you have the apple is gunna be bruised.

We’ll get started in the morning probably eight or eight-thirty after the dew dries a little bit so that you can pick the apples without being wet. And for the most part, we’ll pick apples pretty much all throughout the morning and have lunch. And then after lunch the apples will get graded and polished, and then boxed or bagged and ready for sale. We have about a dozen different varieties of apples that start maturing in late August. The first couple are called the Paula Red which is an overall eating and sauce apple, and after that we’ve got the traditional Macintosh, Cortland, Spartans, and Galas. The Empire is actually my favorite eating apple…the Empire is a cross between a Macintosh and a Red Delicious, and it’s just a wonderful eating and baking apple.

Most the folks that try the Honey Crisp apple—they just absolutely love it. Maybe it’s just the crunchy, juicy, sweetness of it that people enjoy. Maybe it’s the size because it is a rather large apple, or maybe it’s the color. The color seems to stand out like a fire engine red. And maybe it’s just peer pressure that when you’re talking in the office, “You oughta try these Honey Crisp apples.” I have one heirloom variety called a Snow apple…that one probably has more of an emotional response by people. They seem to remember it on grandpa’s farm…they’ll chose that apple simply because of the memories. Most of the other apples are chosen simply because of flavor.

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People want a nice clean red apple and if you left it up to Mother Nature it’s not necessarily going to grow that way—you need to use things… crop chemicals, or as I would say, “plant medicine.” I mean people have no problem taking prescription drugs to make them feel better. When an apple tree is sick or diseased…it still needs the same attention. Organically grown food is a niche for some people—they feel that’s safer to use. If the apple is diseased—I beg to differ. When you use something that is locally grown you can take a lot more confidence in eating it. I’ve taken all the necessary precautions safety-wise so that not only can my customers feel confident to eat this stuff, but I’m going to do it as well. In a lot of respects you’re in control of it, you designed that tree the way it’s supposed to be, and granted Mother Nature is still going to have the last say in it.

Life really could not exist unless you had six inches of topsoil and it rained; I mean that’s the basis of life. One of the necessary ingredients to living is eating. And consequently to [be] part of that process—to produce something that is as enjoyable as eating an apple—that goes back to Adam and Eve. I think anyone really should take part of food growing, whether it’s a garden or anything like that. I mean that’s as close to nature as you can get. You have to go in with the idea there is more to life than making money. It’s a way of life, I guess more than anything. And if you enjoy being outside—being with Mother Nature and prolonging your working career so to speak—it really is a healthy lifestyle.

We aren’t as young as we were and most everything around an orchard is physical labor. Sometimes the returns don’t seem like they’re worth it until you have a day like this in October when it’s just a gorgeous day and you get a chance to reacquaint yourself with friends that come out here every year—and you say you know this really is kinda a nice lifestyle. It’s enjoyable. I do remember going out to orchards when I was smaller, and it’s interesting how those visions or memories—they still stick with you. Maybe it was the smells. Maybe it was the sights. Or just just a wonderful fall day to be out and about, but you remember those were neat family things. And to me that’s just one of those lost parts of Wisconsin history—just a small family orchard. And a lot of these orchards were mom and pop type affairs just like ours. Right now, I don’t think any of my kids will have any desire to own this orchard after we leave it but still anyone that comes out here perhaps we will have inspired them in one way or the other to live the lifestyle that we have very much enjoyed.

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— Kendra Trost

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