by Sally Colby
After fulfilling careers and spending time in other states, Indiana natives Kristi and Tim Schultz were seeking a change.
“We were ready for ‘what’s next’ but we didn’t know this is what was next,” said Kristi. “When my dad purchased the orchard in late 2014, he needed someone to manage it. I have a science background and my husband has a business and agriculture background, so it works well for us.”
The Evansville, IN, orchard was started in 1919 by the Engelbrecht family and became well known as Englebrecht’s Orchard. Today, as the Shultzes customize the operation, they’re introducing their business as Countryside Orchards.
The original orchard included mostly peach trees with some older apple orchards. “We have since added three blocks of high-density apple trees on dwarfing rootstock with 1,000 trees per acre,” said Kristi. They’ve planted 5,000 apple trees since starting at the orchard. “They’re easier to prune and the high-density setup is more efficient for spray materials.” In 2020, the family acquired more acreage and planted additional peach and apple trees. The original peach trees are becoming brittle, so Kristi and Tim are trying to establish new plantings before the older trees age out.
Today, peaches are the main crop for Countryside Orchards, and Kristi said their location is ideal for growing the popular stone fruit. The topography provides good elevation, and tall trees on the north side afford protection from north winds. “In 2020, we had peaches when others didn’t,” said Kristi. “We have more than 30 varieties, and peaches are available from the third week in June until Labor Day.”
With the help of land grant universities, Tim learned the fine points of pruning peach trees. He removed several rows of a variety that didn’t perform well and that became a trial area. Peach trees are planted seven feet apart so trees are significantly closer within the row, which results in smaller trees at maturity. “We’re using quad V pruning and so far they seem to be doing well,” said Kristi. The system allows more trees in a smaller footprint. “The pruning is prescribed – the decisions are easy to make, even if it’s painful initially. We don’t have to look at the tree from different angles so it’s easy to make pruning decisions. Last year we pruned the new trees very quickly, which is a bonus because pruning can take a long time.”
When Kristi and Tim started managing the orchard, it wasn’t open to the public. Today, Countryside Orchards has an on-farm stand and U-pick opportunities. The orchard is also represented at three local farmers markets.
Their customers can find information on approximate ripening dates for peach varieties, flavor descriptions and fruit qualities. Peach season begins around June 20 with semi-cling varieties Flamin’ Fury PF1, Desiree and Spring Snow, and ends with Blushing Star in early August. “We have quite a few customers who talk with us every week at market and they’ll know what we have and what to look for,” said Kristi. “Certain varieties have followers – I don’t know customers’ names but I know what they like and can personalize their experience.”
Since peaches are highly perishable, Kristi said it’s important to teach people how to select ripe peaches without squeezing each one. “We try to get people to look at the color and how to use that to determine ripeness,” she said. Grading is done close to the retail area, so Kristi can show U-pick customers how to look for green near the stem versus the appearance of a fully ripe peach.
Countryside Orchards also grows nectarines and white peaches, although some customers aren’t familiar with the distinct flavor qualities. Kristi said tasting fruit helps people learn the differences and credits a core group of women at the farm who know how to help customers select fruit.
The Schultzes were aware of a gap in the fresh local peach supply and partnered with other Indiana orchards to help fill the void. “We’ve started our own version of the Peach Truck that comes out of Tennessee and Georgia,” said Kristi. “Ours is called Peach Express and we’ve worked with Indiana Grown, an organization that helps market and connect Indiana producers and growers with customers and other farm markets.” Maintaining good email communication about Peach Express allows customers to preorder and prepay, and peaches are always available for walk-ups.
The orchard location is a bit warm for apples so the season begins early. They usually start picking Gala apples the first week in August – early for that variety. Kristi frequently explains to consumers that the late-season apples they’re accustomed to purchasing from grocery stores have been specially stored for out of season sales.
In 2016, one year prior to planting a new high-density apple block, the Schultzes met with the foodservice manager at a local school to find out how to participate in the Farm-to-School program. That’s when they learned yellow apples were preferable to red. “Golden Delicious apples do well in our soil and climate,” said Kristi. “Sometimes our temperatures are too warm for apples that need to color or it’s so hot they start to get spotty. We put in between 500 and 700 Golden Delicious trees and they started producing the second year, with full production the third year.”
The Schultzes planted strawberries in 2019 for a 2020 crop. Their goal with the matted row system was plants that would bear for two to three years. “Strawberries are a way to extend our season, but peaches are still our main crop,” said Kristi. “We aren’t going to take our people away from peaches to tend strawberries. We planted almost an acre, 25 rows, by hand, then we had weeds. The next year we had a beautiful strawberry crop.”
Due to excessive weed pressure, the Schultzes mowed down the strawberries. “The strawberries were patchy this past season; some rows did better than others,” said Kristi. “We now know we can’t maintain the matted row system, but we aren’t giving up. We have transitioned to raised beds with plastic and we’ll plant them as an annual crop.”
The Shultzes committed to planting pumpkins strictly for U-pick, always concurrent with ripening apple varieties. In 2021, Countryside Orchards opened the pumpkin patch in the last week of September. It remained open until they sold out. “We added more wagons,” said Kristi. “The bigger container we give someone, the more they’ll pick. People come back with 10 big pumpkins in a wagon.”
One of their goals in managing the orchard is to drive traffic to the orchard, said Kristi. “Having people come out and experience it through U-pick, school field trips and pruning workshops offered by Purdue University. Last year, we saw traffic to the farm explode exponentially – people were hungry for outdoor experiences and things they could do as a family.”
The Shultz family is committed to agriculture, not agritainment, and strives to maintain a working farm. “We want to always make sure we’re presenting agriculture accurately,” said Kristi. “I want people to come and enjoy being with nature and learn about where their food comes from and spend time in the quiet.”
Learn more about Countryside Orchards at engelbrechtsorchard.com.