Big Stone Apple Ranch preserving the area's history
By Carol Stender
Date Modified: 09/25/2012 10:54 AM
CLINTON, Minn. — Bette Johnson calls herself the caretaker of trees.
She tends 300 apple trees on her Big Stone Lake property near Clinton in western Minnesota.
Through her seasonal business, Big Stone Apple Ranch, she sells pre-picked apples in half-peck, peck and half-bushel bags. Johnson is also preserving a bit of history at the same time.
"This was an orchard community back when people my age were kids," Johnson said. "There were orchards all up and down the lake. At one time, there were 30 of them. Now, I am the only one left."
Johnson and her husband, Jerry, hadn't intended on running an apple farm. They merely wanted a lake home when they retired from their Twin Cities-area jobs. The two found the perfect home on Big Stone Lake.
A seasonal cabin stood on one side of their property and the apple orchard on the other, she said. The trees would keep the area from development, or so they thought.
The property's original owner called them as the Johnsons were selling their Metro home. He told them that he intended to sell the remaining property to a developer. The couple quickly looked at their options and decided to purchase some of the adjacent property including 300 of the land's 1,000 apple trees. Before the remaining land was developed, a Hutterite Colony, took the other 700 trees and transplanted them on the colony's land.
The Johnsons pruned trees, mowed the orchard's grass and picked apples.
When Jerry lost his fight with cancer three years ago, she took over the orchard's operation.
But, just like the song, Johnson says she gets a "little help from my friends." The friends and her six children help with harvest, bagging and selling. Hutterite Colony members gather fallen apples while others pick from the tall trees.
She calls her orchard outdated and notes that, at 30 years old, the trees are full height. Other, more modern orchards plant dwarf trees that are lower to the ground and more compact. Johnson admits the orchard's upkeep is challenging. She's not able to prune every tree each year. Some varieties grow faster than others and need to be pruned more often, she said.
"You go where the need is the greatest and get done as much as possible," Johnson added.
She plans to start selling apples around Sept. 28. The date is later than at many other orchards this year. Johnson feels blessed. Her orchard didn't suffer the killing frost that affected many trees that blossomed early this spring.
Johnson's trees are University of Minnesota varieties, she said. She has Harold, Fireside, Cortland, State Fair, Harold Red, Honeycrisp, Zestar and Keepsakes.
The trees' branches are laden with fruit. She will bring some to the cancer walk. It's a great fundraiser for the group, Johnson said.
Big Stone Apple Ranch's season starts the third week in September with 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. hours seven days a week. During the season, she freezes some apples and cans them over the winter. Before the season starts, she and 10 to 12 young Hutterite women make pies that are sold at the business. Johnson also sells produce, jams, jellies and more. Some of the items are prepared by the Hutterites.
Although the orchard is a lot of work, Johnson enjoys it. Her lake home's large living room windows have a beautiful view of Big Stone Lake. The property is peaceful and well shaded between the trees that line the lake and her orchard. Johnson is also busy with volunteer work for the cancer society and the local food co-op in Ortonville. And she gets to meet many people who enjoy her apples.
"It's a good hobby for an old lady," she said with a smile. "And I sure do sleep good at night."