WINONA, Minn. (AP) –During harvest season at Ecker’s Apple Farm in Trempealeau, Wisconsin, the day starts at 2 a.m. when the first pies go into the oven.
Sara Ecker is in the orchard five hours later, surveying which apples to pick. The pickers themselves follow shortly after, working into the afternoon while the pies are restocked, the caramel apples are dipped and a steady stream of customers are getting ready to devour both.
When the orchard closes to the public at six o’clock, the Eckers use a little bit of quiet time to pack apples and attend to any details they may have missed during the rush. Sometimes as late as 9 p.m., they finish for the day, mere hours away from starting the process all over again.
And that’s just for the apples.
Family-owned since its inception in 1945, Ecker’s has looked for ways to push beyond traditional orchard offerings in the past few years, from hosting weddings to running yoga classes to making their own cider. It’s not that the apples themselves are drawing any less of a crowd – they typically welcome more than 1,500 people on a fall Saturday – but diversifying the options keeps them coming back.
“It’s really just about showing people a good time for a couple hours, a bit of an escape from all the concrete and all the hubbub,” Jess Ecker, who manages the operation’s 50-person staff and runs special events, told the Winona Daily News .
The hours that people spend in their orchard is relatively new, largely in part to the 2014 arrival of a beer garden. Before that, Jess Ecker said most folks would come in, get their apples and go in a matter of 30 minutes.
The beer garden initially grew out of a possibility of having their own brewery, but Jess Ecker said licensing hiccups drove them in another direction: a hard cider they named “Fat Blossom Girl.” The orchard partnered with Maiden Rock Winery and Sand Creek Brewing to make it a reality, and for the first time, customers this year will be able to take home the cider in bottles.
Nearby orchards had already established what they were known for, Jess Ecker said, and the beer garden was the product of a desire to create that for Ecker’s.
“Ferguson’s (in Galesville) has a great niche with kids’ entertainment. That’s their thing,” she said. “I thought, what else can I do? Something a little bit different.”
And while visitors can drop by any weekend for beer, treats from a food truck and live music, it’s all building toward the orchard’s special event of the season – the Honeycrisp Hootenanny, which this year takes place Oct. 13.
The hootenanny, which features multiple food trucks, local music like Them Coulee Boys and the jazz band from the area high school, a whopping 2,000 caramel apples and a long list of beers to try, is celebrating a decade of existence this year and is perhaps no better indicator of the orchard’s growth.
“The first year, Dad was alive,” Jess Ecker said. “He said, ‘You should get some beer. Go up to George’s and see if you can get a keg of beer.’ We got a sixth barrel, which is 30 to 35 beers. We didn’t finish it.”
At last year’s hootenanny, they went through more than 60 kegs and 20 barrels of cider.
The day also features a unique beer-tasting called the killer whale series, after the nickname “whale” for a rare beer. Jess Ecker asks 30 local breweries to send her one keg of their craziest drink, and each goes on tap for one hour only — those who aren’t lucky enough to try it will have a wealth of other brews to sample.
Underneath the events and expansions, however, is the same drive to provide people with an opportunity they might not get anywhere else.
“I guess my dad really saw the farm as an opportunity to give people who aren’t lucky to have an orchard or to live in the country, to give them a farm experience, that they can have a good time on the farm,” Jess said.
And though a nearly indescribable amount of work goes into preparing that experience, it’s worth it to see folks spending an afternoon together there, enjoying the day.