Iowa profile: Apple fever in the orchard

Meet Wilson's owner and chief apple officer Paul Rasch

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Paul Rasch is an expert in apples.

A fourth-generation orcharder and now chief apple officer and owner of Wilson’s Orchard near Iowa City, Rasch, 57, has been in the apple business his entire life.

He grew up farming apples for commercial production on his family farm in Michigan. But with the rise of big-box and supermarket chains in the 1990s, “farmers were getting squeezed,” he said.

Stores wanted better quality apples but didn’t want to pay any more for them and “a lot of guys went out of business,” he said. “You just couldn’t make any money.”

Thinking he’d escape the business, Rasch studied political science at Oberlin College in Ohio, but was pulled back in after living in India where he planted apples as a rural development project.

“Life has a way of roping you into stuff that you don’t anticipate,” he said. “It’s in your blood somehow.”

In 1993, Rasch took his apple business to Tianjin, China, where he started a juicing company called Great Lakes Fresh Foods & Juice Company Ltd. He ran the business in China for more than a decade before selling it to Del Monte and moving to Iowa City in 2006.

At the time, Wilson’s Orchard was still owned by Robert ‘Chug’ Wilson, who first planted the orchard in 1982. But as Chug’s health declined as he grew older, Rasch began renting and running the orchard, eventually purchasing it in 2009.

Chug “had an unswerving devotion to great taste,” Rasch said, explaining he had planted varieties that wouldn’t have been found in supermarkets.

“He planted the Honeycrisp before anybody knew it was going to be a great apple. ... Now it’s like cocaine to people,” Rasch said. “Close to half of our sales are Honeycrisp — there’s no way to plant enough.”

Even the beavers and Japanese beetles go crazy for it, he said. “There’s just something about that variety that’s magnetic.”

Honeycrisps aren’t the only great-tasting apple at the orchard, however, with more than 130 varieties planted over nearly 100 acres — including “antique” varieties you’d find in your great-grandmother’s apple pie recipe to modern ones concocted by university fruit breeding programs.

Some are perfect for off-the-tree eating, while others are best for saucing, juicing or baking. Varieties ripen from the beginning of August through late October.

“The thing about apples is every apple has its season,” Rasch said. “People are so used to getting whatever they want when they want it. ... They’ve got to broaden their horizons a little bit.”

Using Honeycrisps again as an example, Rasch explained that the variety out of season “tastes like a dang potato.” That’s why out-of-season and unripe apples you might find at the supermarket don’t taste like they do when freshly picked. That’s a difference the Wilson’s experience offers.

“We’re dedicated to seasonality. When Honeycrisp season is over that doesn’t mean the world shuts down. There’s other great apples you can eat that you’ll probably enjoy more if you open your mind a little bit,” Rasch said.

“Us apple snobs prefer apples like Gold Rush,” he continued, noting the “crunchy, complex flavor” of his favorite late-season apple.

From the crack of dawn to sunset and sometimes later — especially during the busy fall season — Rasch buzzes around the orchards like a bee, sampling apples to ensure customers get the perfect pick. But that’s not all Rasch does. In fact, much of his days are spent putting out figurative fires, being tapped on the shoulder or called every few minutes for guidance on one of the orchard’s many ongoing projects.

In addition to their U-pick operation of apples and pumpkins, Wilson’s commercial orchard churns out apples for grocery stores, apple cider, pies, turnovers, doughnuts, apple chips, hard cider, vinegar, jams and more.

Perhaps the most demanding project of late is construction of Rapid Creek Cidery, which Rasch hopes to open to the public next year.

When Rasch took over Wilson’s, he never expected it would grow as much as it has.

“I thought we’d just have a little U-pick operation,” Rasch said. “But I’m a little restless. ... It’s kind of a hobby that went bad. It got away from me a little bit. But it’s fun. You just gotta go with the flow.”

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