JOHNSON COUNTY — A popular local apple orchard is under new ownership, but it’s truly a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Chug Wilson and his wife Joyce purchased the 80 acres of land off Dingleberry Road NE back in 1980. At the time, the hills and valley contained pasture land and row crops. Not long after, Wilson’s Apple Orchard was planted with well over 140 different varieties of apple trees.
The orchard has become a popular autumn destination for people wanting to pick apples, enjoy a country picnic or just listen to Chug’s tales while riding behind his tractor.
“It’s time for us who have acquired a certain maturity to pass it on to someone younger,” Wilson recently told the Economist.
“Someone younger” is Paul Rasch, who purchased the orchard in April. Originally a native of Michigan, and currently a Solon area resident, Rasch is uniquely qualified to take over.
“He has more apple experience and knowledge than anybody I know, including me!” Wilson said of his successor. For Rasch, it may well be encoded into his DNA, as his family has been in the apple business for over 75 years. Rasch recalled working the orchards as a kid alongside his 44 cousins.
In the early ‘90s, Rasch was overseeing a 700-acre fruit farm in Michigan and needed a change.
“It was industrial agriculture,” Rasch said, noting it was hard to make a living. Rasch still wanted to be involved in the apple industry, and toyed with the idea of getting into the hard cider business. Rasch traveled to England to study hard cider. Deciding maybe America wasn’t the most ideal market, he thought of a college classmate from China, whose aunt was involved in fruit farming. Rasch and his wife Sara journeyed to China and found, as Rasch described it, a pent-up demand.
Rasch explained fruit juice was a luxury during the full reign of communism. China is an ideal land for fruit and apple growing, and is the largest apple producer in the world: according to Rasch, half of the apples grown throughout the globe are from China, as is two-thirds of the apple juice produced.
Rasch saw an opportunity ripe for the picking, or so he thought.
The tight grip of communism was loosening as the country began to embrace capitalism. Major corporations such as Coca-Cola, Motorola, and Pepsi were making in-roads and relating horror stories not of government control, but of unscrupulous individuals trying to cash-in on the new investments.
Undeterred, Rasch entered a joint venture in 1994 with locals in the city of Tianjin to form the first commercial juice company in China, “Great Lakes Fresh Foods and Juice Co. Ltd.”
“It just took off,” said Rasch of the enterprise. Rasch noted most juice sold in China at the time had only a percentage of real fruit juice in it. Great Lakes was the first to produce, bottle, and sell 100 percent fruit juice there.
“It was expensive, but the Chinese love fruit,” he said. Rasch applied tried and true production and marketing methods, which were common here, but revolutionary and pioneering there.
Very quickly, local competition popped up to challenge Great Lakes. Rasch countered by adding orange juice, and eventually expanded to 20 varieties of juice. He extended his marketing and distribution to cover more cities across the country. Unfortunately, the competition was relentless, battling back with lower prices and more advertising. As the novelty of pure juice wore off in the face of increasing competition from cheaper products, doing business in China became “high dollar and marketing intensive…just like home,” said Rasch.
By 2003, the company had grown, with two factories and over 300 employees. However, large rivals Coke® and Pepsi® were getting into the juice flavored drink market, and as Rasch told The Asian Wall Street Journal, margins had gotten thinner, costs were higher, volumes had gotten bigger, and “the costs of making a mistake are too high now.”
Del Monte Pacific was looking to expand into the Chinese market about the same time Rasch was looking to make his exit, leaving the battles to the big boys. In 2004, Great Lakes was sold to Del Monte Pacific. Rasch stayed on in China for two more years to help guide the company.
Upon returning to the U.S., Paul and Sara started looking for a new home. They had hoped to locate in a university town in the Midwest, preferably between Michigan and Kansas (Sara’s home). After looking at seven or eight communities, Iowa City, the last town visited, proved to be the ideal location.
Rasch makes his home on a 70-acre farm near Solon. Naturally, an apple orchard is included. Rasch said he much prefers selling direct to people rather than dealing with supermarket chains and large retailers. A key difference, according to Rasch and Wilson, is that large retailers typically let their apples ripen in storage, while orchard apples are ripened on the tree – which results in better taste for the customer. And the growing location itself can result in a difference for consumers as well.
“This place grows outrageously good fruit,” Rasch said looking over the rows of apple trees. During the season, people come from far and wide to pick their own apples, and take advantage of Joyce’s homemade pies and turnovers.
“It’s recreation for people to come out here and pick their own,” Wilson said.
“Talk a walk and eat an apple,” Rasch added.
Although the mantle of ownership has passed, the Wilsons both plan to stay active in the orchard, continuing to tell potentially tall tales and bake turnovers. And if you ask him, Chug might just tell you about those two touchdowns he scored for the Hawkeyes against Ohio State, “…in ’49, give or take a year.”
The orchard, located at 2924 Orchard Lane NE, is open to the public during August, September, and October. For more information, call (319) 354-5651 or go to www.wilsonsapples.com .