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Oaklake Orchard: Not Your Grandma’s Crabapples

You might call John Horrigan the “accidental farmer.” His small orchard outside Moose Lake, MN, wasn’t a long-time dream that became a reality and it wasn’t even the reason he bought the property. But those who are fortunate enough to eat his Minnesota grown apple varieties have been treated to his growing knowledge and passion for apples and farming.

Last year Horrigan, a Linden Hills Co-op member, supplied the co-op with Chestnut crabapples, Kerr crabapples and Zestar apples. “Zestar went out the door here about as fast as it came in,” said Horrigan. “This year I’m in the process of applying for organic certification and also planting a new variety that was just released, which is a cross between Zestar and Honeycrisp, two of the most popular Minnesota apples.”
John HorriganJohn Horrigan
So how did a former Navy and commercial pilot and air traffic controller turn a little bit of land “up north” into a small business that produces delicious, healthy, locally grown apples? It sure wasn’t by design.

“There was no orchard there; there were some fields. It was property that was adjacent to some property my wife owned,” explained Horrigan. “I didn’t really get interested in it until I had a large sailboat on Lake Superior which was awaiting re-work and I decided to haul it to that property, because it was easier to think about doing re-work there than in Bayfield.”

“If I could call myself a farmer,” he continued, “I could buy enough tools to help re-work my boat and take a business deduction for these things. That really never happened because the orchard assumed a life of its own.”

In the beginning, he only knew that an orchard needed more than one kind of tree and pollinators. Since then, he has learned by studying, consulting experts and a lot of trial and error. Horrigan had to deal with a one-two punch from Mother Nature and plant genetics in the winter of 2002-2003, which killed off much of his orchard.

“My little thing is on two acres. Apple trees these days are grown on a rootstock that gives certain qualities to the tree. Then the rootstock is grafted with the variety you want to grow. The rootstock I was using when I planted most of the trees from 1994 to 1996 [was] simply not winter hardy to Zone 3 if you don’t have snow. The winter of ‘02-‘03 was the second of two winters where the temperatures were relatively normal, but there was very little snow during the coldest parts of the winter. I lost eighty percent of my orchard, which at the time was about 360 trees.”

Horrigan didn’t give up, though, and has gained valuable insight and experience from that lesson. “I’m just now in the process of filling it back up again and I’m at about 450 trees.”

And he’s not just sitting back watching the trees grow. The process of building a healthy, producing orchard takes lots of hands on work “training” the branches to determine the shape of the tree and “thinning” the trees in an orchard.

“Crops take thinning, because the tree will probably produce two to three times the apples they should bear, comfortably. If you are conventional farmer, you will use chemicals to thin the trees. If you are an organic farmer, you have to hand-thin your crop,” said Horrigan. “It is a nice thing to do. It is early June and it’s a nice time of year to be working. If you don’t get all of this fruit off, it could have an affect on fruit production for the next year.”

For the record, Horrigan believes sustainable practices are equally as important as being able to call yourself or your product “organic” and his road to organic certification has a lot to do with consumer expectations.

“My methods have been organic for at least the last two years in terms of what I use for sprays for fungal diseases or bugs and in terms of what I apply as fertilizer. I’m doing [certification] more for market reasons. I’m starting to run up against too many people who say ‘Are you organic?’ (meaning organically certified) and if you say ‘No,’ then [they] go somewhere else.”

So, what is an advantage of locally produced apples? According to Horrigan, “You are likely to have a lot more variety. There are taste differences and flavor quality differences that are practically infinite.”

Take crabapples. “The usual buyer thinks of little apples like the crabapple that was in their grandmother’s yard as something that you wouldn’t really want to bite into,” said Horrigan. “There are many crabapple varieties that make wonderful tasting apples.”

One of his favorites is the Kerr crabapple, which he sells at the co-op. “The taste is really intense—kind of knocks your socks off if you pick it on the young side. It mellows somewhat it you give it a couple extra days.”

“It smacks somewhat of a Harrelson, but it is extremely juicy. I juice them; it makes the most wonderful apple juice you have ever tasted. I dry them and it tastes like candy, and apple crisp [with Kerr apples] is an absolutely wonderful thing.”

“Last year, for the first time, I showed up on the (produce sales) floor for direct sales marketing. This is the one where I literally grab people and stuff them in their mouth and say ‘You gotta try this.’”

So does this “accidental farmer” view his small orchard as a hobby? “No, it went way beyond a hobby a long time ago.” That’s lucky for all of us.

Written by Kathy Gerhardt