Ellery Teach purchased land and started an orchard in in 1934, and since then, the business has remained in the family. Ellery’s grandson Allen Teach is the current president of Sunrise Orchard as the fourth generation runs the operation in Gays Mills, WI, with the fifth generation starting to come on board.
“We want to make sure we continue to do the things we’ve been doing for years,” said Brent Seiser, co-manager and part-owner. “A lot of that is keeping our customer base and maintaining quality products.” Sunrise Orchard is known for apples and apple products, and they’ve come up with a variety of ways to market the quintessential fall fruit.
Less than 10% of the orchard is traditionally planted. “We’re transitioning to high-density, trellised orchards,” said Seiser. “Everything we’ve planted over the past couple years has been high-density, most on trellises.” He added that blocks on hilly ground are individually staked to maintain contours.
Although the initial expenses of trees, posts and irrigation for a high-density orchard are steep, Seiser said the mid- to long-term benefits pay off with better yields of high-quality fruit. Employee safety and efficient use of labor, which are important to the Sunrise Orchard family, are also enhanced with shorter trees.
While the standard favorite for many years has been a perfect-looking Red Delicious apple, many varieties, including Honeycrisp, have changed consumers’ buying habits. “It doesn’t have to be perfect and red to be a good apple,” said Seiser. “That has opened more peoples’ eyes to look at other varieties.”
Sunrise Orchards has been growing Honeycrisp for about 20 years, and it’s a customer favorite. Seiser said managing Honeycrisp is a combination of pruning, irrigation and proper nutrients – especially calcium.
“Picking and storing Honeycrisp is also a little different,” he said. “We start storage at a slightly warmer temperature then slowly drop the temperature over time. It takes about a week to drop the temperature slowly. Other varieties can go directly into cold storage.” Seiser said this process helps extend the storage life of Honeycrisp, and by the time they’re offered for sale, the apples have completed the slow cooling process.
Sunrise Orchards continually experiments with new apple varieties and will grow them for several years before deciding whether they’re worth keeping. The orchard crew also does lot of grafting to obtain new varieties.
“We’ll grow a tree for a few years and see how we like the apples,” said Seiser. “We also find out if customers like them. If they’re hard to sell or there are storage problems, we’ll graft a different variety on the tree.”
Rootstock decisions are made according to variety and potential disease pressure. The majority of rootstock are B9 and Geneva® 41, with some B10. “We have the best luck with dwarfing rootstock,” said Seiser. “We have to make sure the tree is growing and up to size before we can put a lot of fruit on, but once it gets there, we have fewer headaches with bitter pit. B9 helps reduce bitter pit and is also good for Macintosh and others to slow down growth.”
Because each block differs according to rootstock, Seiser and other orchard managers work with the pruning crew to be sure trees are pruned appropriately, with cuts that will allow each tree to yield well.
Pruning techniques continue to evolve, so Seiser takes advantage of the latest information from university-based research and Cooperative Extension to manage dwarf trees for optimum crop yield. “Before, a branch was pretty much there for the life of a tree,” he said. “We’d clean up the branches and prune. Now, we’re cutting branches back almost to the trunk to allow a new branch to regrow. Everything has changed, from the trees down to the pruning.”
While Seiser is eager to adapt new technology and information based on research, he doesn’t switch practices until he’s sure they will work for Sunrise.
Early apple varieties include Dudley, Zestar!®, Paulared, Rave™ and Premier Honeycrisp®. Seiser said some apples are at peak flavor right off the tree, while others require time to mellow to enhance flavor. “Others aren’t as good over time,” he said. “Every apple is unique – they’re all a little different.”
The packing line at Sunrise Orchard includes a sorter that separates apples by size and defects. The processing equipment and grader, bakery, cider room and retail store are all under one roof, which allows customers to see what’s happening in each area of the store either by video or direct viewing.
Sandy Jeffers, co-manager at Sunrise Orchards, has multiple responsibilities and is keenly aware of customer knowledge and preferences. “I like to think we’ve become more intelligent consumers,” she said. “A lot of our customers have been coming here for generations and want to sample an apple before they buy it. We grow plenty of varieties for customers to try.”
The orchard has been making cider for about 40 years with an accordion-style cider press and bottles and pasteurizes cider onsite. Some cider is made with only Honeycrisp or EverCrisp® apples, but most cider is the orchard’s own Sunrise Cider, made from a blend of tart and sweet apples. The cider is also used for apple cider donuts made on the farm.
Jeffers said customers have an interest in all the processes at the orchard, from packing to pressing cider. “People love to see where things happen,” she said. “The biggest question I get is ‘What do you do with the leftover mash?’ I tell them it all goes back to the orchard.”
In addition to on-farm sales, Sunrise Orchard offers a subscription service by which customers can have apples shipped to them throughout the season. “With the EverCrisp subscription, customers can get a box of EverCrisp apples in February, March and April,” said Jeffers. “People love them.”
Another popular item, especially for late autumn and winter holidays, is gift boxes. EverCrisp apples are a customer favorite but other varieties are available. “We offer the most popular apple varieties that will pack well and are appealing,” said Jeffers. “Varieties in the gift box can change throughout the season and by availability.”
Jeffers said the orchard features a variety of activities, including Cheese Curd Weekend, Caramel Apple Weekend, EverCrisp Weekend, Bakery Weekend, Deer Hunting Weekend and a Christmas celebration with Santa. Customers can stop in the store until the week before Christmas, and many local customers appreciate the opportunity to pick up apples to last through winter.
One challenge for Sunrise Orchards arose when their town of 1,400 was reduced to 400 due to a flood. With area dairy farms going out of business, Sunrise lost a major portion of the available labor pool.
“We’ve gone to the H-2A program and have some wonderful people from South Africa and from the southern U.S. who have been coming for four generations,” said Jeffers. “They’re a very important part of the operation. It’s a high-volume, short season so we need people when it’s time to work.”
Visit Sunrise Orchards online at sunriseapples.com.
by Sally Colby