116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Home / At Wilson’s Orchard, take a walk, eat an apple — or a three-course meal
If you have the chance to sit down and chat with Paul Rasch, or perhaps walk some of the acres of surprisingly beautiful countryside at Wilson’s Orchard and Farm, you’re sure to learn not only a thing or two about apples, but also about how a decades-old farm continues to blossom.
Wilson’s Orchard and Farm, located just off Highway 1 north of Iowa City, has long been a local landmark and a must-stop on many families’ fall agenda for u-pick apples and pumpkins.
But these days, Wilson’s is growing up—or growing differently, you might say—into a model of sustainability and a highlight reel of the importance of local foods.
Rasch, a fifth-generation apple farmer, and his wife, Sarah Goering, purchased the farm in 2009 and have been working since then to carry on the legacy of the original owners, Chug and Joyce Wilson, who started the farm in 1980.
“The Wilsons had a motto, which was, ‘Take a walk. Eat an apple.’ And as much as possible, we're trying to keep that up,” said Rasch. “We have a lot of people tell us that they feel like this is their private little park to come out and walk around. We want to preserve that idea of getting people outside on this beautiful little piece of property. Get some fresh air in their lungs. Let the kids scuff their knees rolling down the hill. Skip stones in the creek. Just letting people enjoy being outside and at the same time they can see what's going on on a farm.”
With that in mind, Rasch and his team of young, eager agriculturalists have also sought, especially in the last couple of years, to enhance the role Wilson’s plays in the local foods and sustainability picture.
Of course, telling the story of sustainable farming practices comes with its challenges. “It's easy to say we're going to be sustainable, but in this climate with humidity and too little water, it can be a real challenge. So bringing people out to the farm is a way to kind of showcase to people the challenges we face. Sustainability, whether economic or ecological, requires constant attention, constant experimentation, and a lot of failures and a lot of learning. We invite people to see that here.”
While Wilson’s Orchard and Farm was once only open for about three months out of the year for apple and pumpkin picking, the farm is now open year round, save for a few weeks in January, Rasch said. This has been made possible by their efforts to diversify the crops being raised on the land. Now you can pick not only apples (there are 100 varieties!) and pumpkins, but also tulips, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, sweet corn, sunflowers, and other cut flowers.
“There’s always going to be something that’s available to pick,” said Rasch, noting that they also have a large farm market where you can purchase freshly picked items if you don’t wish to pick them yourself, as well as a variety of other local food products. Rasch also said they are all learning a lot about having sheep and cattle become part of the farm as well.
While the fruits of the field are plentiful, you can also delight in the culinary creations of renowned chef Matt Steigerwald at the on-site restaurant Rapid Creek Cidery. “We want to showcase the products that we grow, the things that come from this particular farm, and the restaurant really lets us do that,” Rasch said. Housed in a unique and picturesque gable-roofed barn, it is one of two restaurants—and a large event space—operated by Wilson’s. It is ideal for hosting local and regional music acts that provide entertainment at various times throughout the year as well.
“So people are coming out now not just for u-pick raspberries, but perhaps some u-pick raspberries that are also served on a desert that's made in our bakery and it’s served alongside a pulled pork sandwich from our Smokehouse while listening to some music,” said Rasch. “We think it just creates a little more robust experience for people. We want it to be an authentic, rural experience.”
“Plus, there is a healthy and growing interest in local food and how that's grown,” he added. “Agri-entertainment is a wide spectrum, but for us it means agricultural experiences that are rich and rewarding, whether that's music or prepared food, or u-pick, or a tractor ride right across the creek. We strive to showcase the great things about being outside and being connected with a farm.”