The autumn season ushers in throngs of people standing knee-deep in lines at apple orchards waiting to buy a bushel of the crisp fruit and sweet apple cider. This year, however, orchard and cider mill owners are seeing a sharp decline in the crop yields due to drought conditions this spring. Although prices have skyrocketed and have shell-shocked some customers, orchard owners more than ever need local support.
“Customers really need to come out this year,” said Robert J. Long, who co-owns the Long Family Orchard, Farm and Cider Mill in Commerce Township along with his wife, Christine. “We’re apologetic for the price increase, but the apple shortage is the reason for it and we haven’t raised the prices proportionately. We are all open for business.”
According to the Michigan Apple Committee, the Michigan apple industry sustained massive crop losses stemming from historic weather events that occurred in late winter and spring. An early heat wave followed by a cold and frosty spring resulted in the largest apple crop loss since the 1940s. Subsequently, industry experts from across the state predicted a crop size of about 3 million bushels, a significant decline compared to the average crop size of 20 million to 23 million bushels per season — equating to a loss of about 90 percent.
“From the growers to the shippers, retailers, laborers and consumers, the effect of this year’s crop loss will be widespread,” said Diane Smith, interim executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee.
“This March is identical to that in March 1945,” Long said. “The buds came up a month early and were vulnerable to cold temperatures when they came back to normal.”
Some areas of the state were impacted more than others, and in some cases growers suffered greater losses than neighboring farms.
“The impact of these rare weather conditions was ‘hit-or-miss’ in many cases,” Smith said. “We have heard reports of some growers with nearly a full crop of apples, and some who have nothing.”
Long said Michigan was the hardest hit state in the Midwest.
“We are only getting between 5 and 10 percent of a normal apple crop; the Midwest from Minnesota to New York is expecting 20 percent,” he said.
Apple orchards and cider mills across the state have had to resort to purchasing apples from other farms, and in some cases from other states. Long said it’s fortunate that he has been able to purchase loads from farms on the west side of the state.
“We will have an array of varieties, so we’ve been pretty lucky,” he said. “We haven’t had to purchase any from out of state, but some cider mills have had to buy from West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, or Washington.”
Long said he recently purchased bins of Empire apples from a farm in Sparta, Mich.
“At least we’re able to buy locally-grown fruit,” he said. “Out of our orchard we have a few bins for cider, but it’s not significant and there won’t be enough for ‘you pick’ apples.”
The apple crop loss has been passed onto customers, who now can expect to pay up to 30 to 50 percent more than the normal price.
“Apple prices are way up,” Long said. “The wholesale price more than doubled, so the retail prices are up. We’ve absorbed some of the price and feel bad about it, but supply is low and demand is high.”
Long’s is charging $9 for a half-peck of apples this year and has not offered the full peck due to shortages.
Despite the rise in prices, Michigan residents love their apples, whether they are the classic McIntosh; fleshy Cortland; sweet and tart Empire; tangy Idared; acidic Northern Spy; gingery smooth Golden Delicious; snappy Gala; or sweet and firm Honeycrisp. However, Honeycrisp lovers may be disappointed this year since costs may be out of reach at $4 a pound this season.
The by-products of apples, of course, is apple cider, and little complements this better than freshly baked donuts, a cider mill staple. While donut prices have only risen slightly, cider prices have soared this year.
“Donuts have not risen nearly as much as cider,” Long said. “Grain (costs) a little higher, but we’ve only raised our prices a little bit.”
Cider is a different story altogether. Last year, Long’s charged $4 for a half-gallon or $6.75 for a gallon, whereas this year a half-gallon costs $5.50 and a gallon will set customers back $9.50.
“We heard some mills are higher than that,” Long said. “We’re seeing more people buying a half-gallon. Still the cider is very good tasting this year — the fruit has produced more sugar.”
Nearby orchards offer tractor rides, petting farms, corn mazes, and pumpkin picking — all of which are trademarks of Michigan orchards and cider mills that have embraced the agri-tainment trend in the industry.
The following represents a sampling of the signature orchards and cider mills in or around the lakes area, what they offer, and their times of operation.
LONG FAMILY ORCHARD, FARM AND CIDER MILL
The lakes area is home to the Long Family Orchard, Farm and Cider Mill, situated on East Commerce Road west of Bogie Lake Road in Commerce Township. The west Oakland County staple has been in operation since 1876.
Today, the family-owned and family-operated farm is run by fifth-year generation descendent Robert J. Long, and his wife, Christine.
It was heralded in 2011 as featuring the best commercially-used barn, earning the Barn of the Year Award from the Michigan Barn Preservation Network.
Inside the cider mill, patrons can purchase cider, apple cinnamon sugar (or by request) plain donuts, apples, honey, and sweet corn.
Long’s makes its unpasteurized cider on site typically between two and three times a week.
Making a cider batch takes 18 bushels of apples at a time. The apples are washed and scrubbed, and then sent assembly-line-style up an elevator into a grinding shaft before they’re pressed. The product is then sent via a tube into a filling station.
Last year the Longs installed a second donut machine and hooked up an automatic jugger, along with an electronic upgrade for efficiency. The Longs wanted to make some more enhancements this year, but due to the uncertainty of this year’s crops, they held off.
“We weren’t even sure if could buy fruit with the crop yield so low, but we got lucky and although we were hoping to do some capital improvements, with such uncertainty we held off,” Rob Long said.
Apart from the apples, Long’s also sells homegrown asparagus, which is picked in May; strawberries; sweet corn; tomatoes; zucchini; peppers; squash; pumpkins; and honey.
The corn maze and farm yard opened on Sept. 22, accessible on weekends only. The red barn garage has been converted into a ticket booth to accommodate patrons. The play area — complete with a palace and wooden train playscapes to explore, a giant slide, inflatables, a pedal cart raceway and larger picnic area — has been a real crowd pleaser.
Those 30-inches-tall and under are admitted into the play area free of charge. For those taller than that, an $8 day pass gives patrons unlimited hayrides to the U-pick pumpkin area for the day in October, unlimited time in the 5-acre corn maze for the day, and unlimited time in the play area for the day. Patrons can upgrade to a season pass for an additional $1.
Play area hours are Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Patrons will also want to come and get lost in the Moonlight Maze, which is lit only by glow sticks. The 5-acre War of 1812 Moonlight Maze will open the last three weekends in October, limited to Friday and Saturday nights from 7 to 10 p.m.
“This year the design is of a soldier and cannon to commemorate the anniversary of the War of 1812,” Rob Long said.
Those 3-years-old and under are admitted to the Moonlight Maze free of charge; all others get in for $8. Glow sticks are included in the entry price.
Pumpkins are ready to pick this month. As a special attraction on Halloween, Rob Long loads the pumpkin cannon and sends one sailing every hour.
Call the hotline at 248-360-3774 for daily hours, or visit longsorchard.com.
DIEHL’S ORCHARD AND CIDER MILL
For over 50 years, Diehl’s Orchard and Cider Mill in Holly has been serving up fresh apple cider and warm cinnamon donuts to Michigan residents. Located at 1479 Ranch Road, the rustic cider mill is now open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day through Oct. 31. It closes for the season on Nov. 1.
The mill and orchard is owned and operated by a third generation of Diehl’s — Mike and Christine, and their son, Nick. Diehl’s was originally acquired when Mike Diehl’s grandfather’s brother acquired the orchard in a poker game. The brother handed it off later to Paul Diehl, Mike’s grandfather, who added on the mill.
“We truly love families and provide wholesome activities for them in a fast-paced world,” Christine Diehl said. “We’re just a humble type of farmers. There’s no bells or whistles. We just love serving people.”
Right now a full line of fresh apples are in, including Honeycrisp, McIntosh, Gala, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Jonagold, Jonathon, and McIntosh.
“Prices are up about a little less than 50 percent on apples and cider,” Christine Diehl said.
One-quarter pecks are priced at $6, half-pecks are $10 and a full peck is $16. A gallon of cider is $11 and and a half-gallon is $6.50.
“Our donut prices haven’t changed and prices on apples and cider will go back to normal next year, as long as the weather cooperates,” Christine Diehl said.
Diehl’s stopped harvesting apples a couple years ago, and instead gets fruit from farms around mid-Michigan.
“Our prices have doubled, so we’re taking a hit. Some farms have insurance because they grow (their apples), but we buy our apples,” Christine Diehl said. “Our business is maybe a little down. People are buying less cider, but I don’t think people are staying home — they are still making that annual trip to the cider mill.”
The mill operates a cider press purchased in the late 1960s and sells hot donuts in three varieties — plain, cinnamon, and powdered sugar.
Diehl’s only sells unpasteurized cider.
“We consciously choose not to pasteurize and feel strongly about serving raw, fresh juice from the apple,” Christine Diehl said.
For those who want to pasteurize their cider, Diehl’s recommends taking cider home and cooking it on the stove for 10 seconds at 160 degrees.
Diehl’s also sells jams and jellies; locally-produced honey; caramel apples; cider slushies; apple butter; a slew of pie varieties; and old-fashioned goodies and candies.
The mill is now also home to 20 pheasants at the bird coop.
On the weekends, Diehl’s offers hayrides that run from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Costs are $3 per person, or patrons can combine the hayride with the corn maze for $7. The hayride travels over to the pumpkin patch, where patrons are encouraged to pick a pumpkin for $5 each.
For a smaller cider mill, it provides a large venue for entertainment, and produce. To kick off the season, it holds an annual Ciderfest and Ciderfest Run, complete with a craft show, entertainment, free face painting, artist demos, and free samples at the end of September, along with an apple pie baking contest.
A pair of craft shows are coming up in the first two weekends in October. New this year, from Saturday, Oct. 6 to Sunday, Oct. 7, the craft show will also feature antique hit-and-miss engines. After the Saturday, Oct. 13 and Sunday, Oct. 14 craft show, Diehl’s will host a pig roast.
Another unique feature is the dinner and a hayride evening offered from May through Oct. 31 where you choose from two menu options. It includes a tractor-pulled hayride and a dinner served by campfire for $18 per person.
Children are allowed to play on the playground, playscape, hay piles, or navigate through the kiddie maze or apple orchard free of charge every day.
“We get people from anywhere from Sterling Heights to Schwartz Creek to Ann Arbor and Detroit,” Christine Diehl said. “There are generations of families that come here.”
FRANKLIN CIDER MILL
The Franklin Cider Mill, located at the corner of 14 Mile and Franklin roads, a mile west of Telegraph in Franklin, is steeped in history. The mill was completed in 1837 under the direction of Ed W. Matthews of New York. He purchased a large tract of land near the mill’s current location, but due to financial difficulties he had to abort the project. Another entrepreneur, Peter VanEvery, stepped in to wrap up construction and opened it as a gristmill, and became a miller for people far and wide.
Over the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the mill changed hands a number of times. But in 1966, Jack Peltz purchased the mill and it has remained in the family for 52 years, currently under the ownership of his son, Barry Peltz.
“At one time Franklin was made of nothing but wheat farmers, but the land got expensive and they went south to retire and sold it to apple farmers,” Barry Peltz said.
In a typical apple season, Franklin offers a large array of apples. This year they are offering Honeycrisp (No. 1 and No. 2 varieties); Jonathon; Jonagold; Golden Delicious; Red Delicious; Cortland; and Empire.
“It’s hard to find as many varieties this year, but for years I’ve been buying about 95 percent of our apples from a farmer in Grand Rapids,” Barry Peltz said. “This year, apples cost 50 percent more if you buy from this state, which we have always done. We want to support Michigan.”
But Peltz has turned away some varieties this year.
“Some aren’t as hearty, like the Northern Spy or Rome, and because of the quality we wouldn’t accept them,” he said.
At Franklin, the preferred apple for customers is the Honeycrisp.
“The most favored apple is the Honeycrisp and we offer two varieties and grind a third variety into our cider,” Barry Peltz said. “Honeycrisps are graded on looks, but they taste the same. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
A half-peck of Honeycrisp No. 1 is $24.95; the No. 2 variety is $10.95 for a half-peck.
Franklin sells only non-pasteurized cider. Costs are $12.95 a gallon; $7.95 a half-gallon; and $5.50 a quart. Cider can be frozen indefinitely for later consumption.
“We don’t pasteurize. It’s pure, natural cider,” Barry Peltz said. “Those that do pasteurize the cider by boiling, it kills the flavor. We only add love to our cider because we are all about making it the right way for a high-quality product and people from all over the state come to our cider mill for our cider and donuts.”
Unlike some cider mills, Franklin banks on its one signature donut, a cinnamon-spice blend.
“When Bob McKee bought the mill, he converted it to a cider mill and McKee’s wife’s family had an old German recipe for donuts that we still use today,” Barry Peltz said. “Our donuts are very different — cinnamon and spices, not sugar coated or with any toppings. Ours are beige, not yellow like at most cider mills, and it’s a night and day difference.”
The Franklin mill also sells homemade apple pies and Dutch apple pies.
“We have our own off-site bakery and make all-natural apple pie with no preservatives,” Barry Peltz said. “We make them once a week and they last 10 days. Again, you can freeze them indefinitely.”
For patrons who purchase the pies and freeze them, he recommends baking them in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes.
Franklin also offers a myriad of other pies such as pumpkin; pecan; key lime; four berry; cherry crumb; or strawberry rhubarb, just to name a few.
“We also try to get anything we sell in sugar-free varieties,” Barry Peltz said.
The mill also sells caramel and candy apples; scones; iced cinnamon bread; a large selection of homemade cakes; jams, spreads and butters; Hickory Farms meats and cheeses; nuts; honey; candies; and vegetables, including gigantic pumpkins.
For autumn decorations, Franklin offers Indian corn, gourds, bales of hay, and corn on a stalk.
On the weekends, grilled Kosher hot dogs are sold, along with a new commodity, steamed corn in the husk.
For nearly a decade, Franklin has been the only cider mill in the area that has offered horse-drawn carriage rides on the weekends, pulled by magnificent Percheron horses. Costs are $9 per adult and $6 per child; carry-on babies ride free of charge. The 20-minute ride takes patrons through the picturesque village of Franklin and its original streets.
New this year, the cider mill holds pet adoptions every weekend.
Hours of operation are weekdays from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; and Thanksgiving Day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Historically the Franklin Cider Mill has closed the first Sunday following Thanksgiving. This year it is tentatively set to close on Nov. 25.
Erwin Orchards is a third-generation family farm located at 61475 Silver Lake Road in South Lyon. Now celebrating its 92nd anniversary, it boasts of 200 acres of fruit orchards.
Owners Bill and Linda Erwin, along with partner Bill Emery, pride themselves on maintaining the environmentally-friendly orchard by practicing integrated pest management, using biological controls on insects instead of chemicals whenever possible.
Erwin’s trademark has always been top-quality “Pick Your Own” apples, sweet cherries, raspberries and pumpkins. This year, however, The Erwin orchard, like others in the state, was compelled to purchase apples from a farm on the west side of the state. Currently it’s offering McIntosh, Gala and Ginger Gold apples.
Erwin’s features its award-winning, fresh pressed unpasteurized apple cider produced from high-quality homegrown apples. Erwin’s took first-place from 1999 to 2002 during the annual Michigan Cider Contest.
Another trademark of Erwin Orchards is its apple spice and pumpkin donuts. Again this year, the orchard is bringing back glazed pumpkin donuts topped with autumn sprinkles, a favorite among children, and cider slushies.
Squash and cabbage will be harvested in late fall.
Erwin Orchards sells honey; hot dogs; pies; maple syrup; apple butter; speciality breads; apple sundaes; and a large selection of gourds.
Tractor-pulled wagons continue taking patrons out to the pumpkin patch. Wagon rides are available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Oct. 31, and cost $2 per person.
Erwin Orchards offers a full array of family entertainment, including a corn maze, petting farm, the Mr. Bee’s Big 3-D Adventure attraction, and inflatables. To ring in the Halloween season, visit the Spooky Fun Barn for younger children, or the Barn Of Horrors and Terrifying Corn Maze for the braver at heart. The Barn of Horrors with the Mystery of the Black Hole features horrific creatures created with state-of-the-art robotics, special effects, and illusions. Costs are between $10 and $14 per person, per attraction.
The cider mill is open until Oct. 31 on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and weekends from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. The haunted attractions run on Friday and Saturday nights through Oct. 27 from 7:30 to 11 p.m.