116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY - Families, couples, teenagers and school groups have been flooding Iowa's orchards this fall for weekend after weekend of idyllic weather and prime apple-picking conditions.
And orchard owners have loved it - for the most part.
Because while little makes them happier than watching customers carry bulging buckets of apples and parents snap candids of kids sneaking bites, there's one 'eye sore” that's a constant and economically-burdensome problem - waste.
'It's a huge issue,” said Paul Rasch, owner of Wilson's Orchard, which offers 120 apple varieties on picturesque grounds between Iowa City and Solon. 'We have great customers, but they might not realize that every apple dropped is money out of our pocket and wasted food.”
On average, Rasch said, his orchard loses 30 to 40 percent of its crop to waste, costing the operation a 'significant” amount. And Wilson's is not alone.
'We go to trade shows, and this is the No. 1 issue,” Rasch said. 'Some orchards do it different than us. Some people put guards out in the orchards to direct people and nag them. But that's just not us.”
Part of Wilson's mission, he said, is to let customers explore the rolling hills and harvest their own fruit at their own pace.
'The experience is so much of Wilson's from the time it opened …
and we want to preserve that,” Rasch said. 'So when you see a kid out there throwing apples, you want to nag them. But you can't.”
Instead, Wilson's is taking a multifaceted approach to minimizing waste, starting with customer education. A large portion of Wilson's waste is the result of customers either not knowing how to properly pick an apple or choosing unripe fruit and then tossing it on the ground after taking a bite.
'So on our tractor ride, we try and educate people about the problem,” Rasch said. 'We tell people we have a big waste issue, and to only take the apples they want to buy.”
He also advises pickers to twist an apple and then pull - rather than just yanking it off the tree. And Wilson's marks ripe and ready-to-pick trees with flags, which aims to prevent customers from choosing immature fruit while also maximizing the harvesting of peak apples before they drop naturally.
'Some apples want to stay on the tree and some want to fall off - it varies by variety,” Rasch said. 'That is one of the issues that has nothing to do with customers.”
Rasch said he's also been planting more apple varieties that tend to stay longer on the tree, and he's been using different, smaller 'root stock” to encourage them to do so.
'You can make apples with different size trees and root stock, and we are finding that as we move into smaller trees, the losses are less,” he said. 'The apples stay on better, and people waste less because the fruit is better quality.”
Rasch said those combined efforts seem to be working - he believes waste is decreasing as customers are paying more attention.
'People have a real reverence for this place,” he said. 'They want to see it succeed and keep it nice. So once they are made aware of the problem, they seem to want to help.”
As for the apples that do end up on the ground, Wilson's offers a discount for customers willing to collect them as part of their harvest. Employees also gather some of the dropped apples to feed to a group of about 20 heirloom-variety pigs the orchard now is raising in hopes of selling applewood-smoked pork products later this year.
'That is a way of turning some of the waste products into salable products,” Rasch said.
But the orchard doesn't have the staff or the time to spend collecting too many ground apples. And they won't use them to make applesauce, cider, turnovers, or doughnuts.
There isn't a market among local formers for the dropped fruit, Rasch said.
'So once they are on the ground, they are lost to us,” he said.
Just north at Allen's Orchard in Marion, owner Steve Gensicke said he too struggles with the issue of waste. He estimated annual losses at about 30 percent of the crop, but he said the actual impact is hard to quantify.
'You really can't put a time or value on it, but it certainly is an eye sore to see a half eaten apple on the ground,” Gensicke said.
He believes education also is key, as some pickers might choose an apple assuming it's ripe and are disappointed when they can't even sink their teeth into it. Allen's Orchard does offer a list of ripe trees and asks customers to leave the others alone. They also tag with yellow ribbons the trees that are not ready for picking.
'We say that whatever apples you pick, you need to pay for, whether they are ripe or not,” Gensicke said.
But no one is out policing the grounds.
'We don't have any ideas as far as what else to change,” Gensicke said. 'But if something would work better, we certainly would try to accommodate that.”
Bob Atha, owner of Appleberry Farm in Marshalltown, said his orchard sees drops as with any other. But, unlike many, Atha said it doesn't concern him.
'We like to have as efficient a harvest as we can,” Atha said. 'But that's part of the game. You are going to have apples on the ground.”
After an afternoon of picking apples with her 8-year-old twin daughters at Wilson's Orchard last week, Cathryn Varga said she's aware of the issue of waste and regularly chooses the ground apples for baking or applesauce.
'And when we taste them, we taste the drops,” said Varga, of Coralville.
Although she appreciates the concern over waste, Varga also said she's glad Wilson's lets its guests browse the grounds without tight oversight.
'It's an experience,” she said. 'And I don't mind paying more, if that's the cost of doing business.”