Wilson’s Orchard has been known for its apples for decades. But soon local apple enthusiasts will be seeing some changes to the farm that are intended to help diversify the business.
“Our vision is a farming operation that actively works to regenerate the soil and rebuild the connection between people and the land their food comes from,” said Paul Rasch, who owns Wilson’s with his wife, Sara.
“We are charging forward with a different view of what this country needs from our food systems. We are but one tiny speck in that system, but we are not alone in responding to the obvious need for change.”
Many changes are in the works related to the operations of Wilson’s Orchard and Farm, Rasch said, including diversifying agricultural production from just apples and pumpkins to additional crops such as strawberries, raspberries, sweet corn and asparagus.
Rasch said they will continue to complement those efforts with having animals on the farm as well.
“This diversity is great economically and ecologically,” he said. “Properly managed animals can do so much for our land and help build up our soil. This is a really exciting piece that has been lost in recent years.”
To become more sustainable on the food-preparation front, Wilson’s also is increasing its bakery operations.
“We are expanding the food we are preparing, with sweet and savory options,” said Rasch, noting it will offer prepared meals, takeout dinners and bakery offerings with a wider variety of fruits and vegetables.
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“Rather than depend on produce shipped thousands of miles in the winter, we’d like to be part of a food system that grows food locally and processes it for year-round use.”
Rasch said these changes also will allow Wilson’s to have more full-time, year-round labor.
With these changes, Rasch hopes to continue to get more people out to the farm — but they also plan to launch at-home food delivery services and partnerships with grocery stores such as Hy-Vee and New Pioneer Food Co-op to sell a wider variety of products in store.
And Wilson’s is updating its logo — from an apple to a bee.
“For us, bees represent the incredible web of complexity and coordination that is embodied in our natural ecosystem,” Rasch explained.
“Making the world a better place for bees will make the world a better place for all of us beings. Having a bee on our logo keeps us focused on the tall tasks ahead.”
He added that, “We are really excited to be a part of a big push toward a resilient food supply, being part of that larger effort, doing our little part to help correct some historical blunders in our country’s food system.”
‘Something is missing’
The Raschs took over ownership in 2009 from the Wilson family who started the farm in the mid-1980s. Paul Rasch grew up in the fruit business, now the fourth-generation of farmers in his family.
While his experience was with commercial farming, Rasch said he has taken many lessons from that which he applies to his work today.
“Many of us with small farm operations are starting to feel like something is missing both ecologically and economically,” he said.
Rasch said the announcement via social media recently about the changes coming to Wilson’s has been one of the most engaged social media efforts they’ve had to date, which is exciting as he said they will need support from customers for their efforts to be successful.
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“We have been hearing people say, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ Social media is allowing us to communicate directly with people, which is key ingredient to making this possible. We are engaging with people in a way that we couldn’t imagine 20 years ago.”
Rasch has added a staff position to specifically focus on customer engagement online.
While the pandemic certainly played a role in the shift at Wilson’s, Rasch said this is something they have been considering for quite some time.
Over the years the business has dealt with many challenges, most of them weather related, including a freeze in 2012, drought in 2013, the flood in 2008, and a rain-soaked fall in 2019 that keep customers away.
Wilson’s was not spared damage from the Aug. 10 derecho storm that blew through the area, although Rasch said he feels luckier than some.
He noted that they did not have any significant damage to structures but did lose about 450 of the farm’s 22,000 trees. He estimated that about 25 percent of Wilson’s crop — as the farm heads into apple-picking season — ended up on the ground after the storm.
“We had our share of damage, but it could have been much worse.”
The storm, he said, was a reminder of why the changes at Wilson’s are important.
“We are not seeing normal weather patterns any longer,” he said, “and our concerns remain with better fortifying ourselves for these kinds of storms at a time when locally sourced food is becoming increasingly relevant.”