Paul Rasch pulls a couple of Red Free apples from the trees at Wilson's Orchard & Farm, about 5 miles northeast of Iowa City's downtown.
The warm, sweet apples are among roughly 100 varieties that are the heart of Rasch's growing family business. Moving beyond a traditional "you-pick" apple orchard and pumpkin patch, the family's added strawberries, raspberries and blueberries; zinnias, dahlias and other flowers; weddings, music and other special events; a cider business; livestock operation; and farm-to-table restaurant and barbecue smokehouse.
Now, the nearly four-decades-old Iowa City mainstay is taking root in Cumming, a town of about 500 people just southwest of Des Moines, planting a second orchard and building a restaurant and event center in the state's first agrihood, a 900-acre development called Middlebrook. The $800 million mixed residential, retail and commercial project is centered on farming, with the orchard joining a giant community garden.
Wilson's Des Moines metro orchard will sit on 115 acres, with about 30 of them devoted to pasture for livestock. "The rest will be in fruit trees, berries, pumpkins, flowers, vegetables, but also in prairies and places that are left to express themselves naturally," Rasch said in a video Thursday announcing the project.
The goal is to connect people with food and "the land it came from," he said.
"We've dreamed about expanding to Des Moines for a long time," Rasch told the Des Moines Register, adding that he searched for a year without success for a location close to the capital that had scenic rolling hills, ponds and woods. He mostly found flat cornfields.
"It looked like it wasn't going to happen," he said, until Middlebrook's developer added 160 acres to the project. "And everything fell into place."
The plan for the new orchard grew organically as Katie and Jacob Goering, the children of Rasch and his wife, Sara Goering, joined the business, bringing their own skills and ideas. The family wanted to make the operation more sustainable, both environmentally and financially, said Rasch, who bought the orchard with his wife in 2009.
"We wanted to be more diverse. We wanted to expand how long we were open," said Rasch, who spent the summer planting apple trees, strawberries and raspberries at the orchard site on the west side of Middlebrook. "We used to be open three months of the year. Then it crept out to six months and now it's year-round. And what we do in that year has expanded."
"It's sort of a slippery slope," Rasch said of his family's growing business, which attracted about 265,000 people last year at the Iowa City orchard, market and restaurants. "It's developed its own momentum."
Learning to love the bugs
As Rasch walks through the Iowa City orchard, he talks about some of the additions that have resonated with visitors. A flower garden bursts with colors across a quarter acre with blooms that visitors can cut or buy in the farm market. They also can walk across a bridge and wander through rows of sunflowers they can pick.
"People just love them," Rasch said, adding that the flower gardens also are a popular place for photos.
Bees and other pollinators love the flowers too.
"We've seen a lot of native pollinators come back," said Rasch, who brings in commercial hives each year to pollinate the fruit trees.
Cutting back on summer mowing helps the pollinators as well, Rasch said, walking through grass filled with purple clover.
"We used to do a lot of mowing. But we've come to the conclusion that there are advantages to not being so eager," he said.
The habitat supports insects that help protect his crops.
"Ninety-seven percent of insects are good guys. When I grew up, all insects were bad guys," said Rasch, a fifth-generation farmer raised in Michigan, where his family grows apples, cherries, pears and other fruit. "We nuked them. We lived on sprays.
"But we've learned we don't have to do it that way. If you let the 97% do their work — I won't say we don't do anything — but you don't have to do nearly as much," he said, adding that new technologies have helped the effort.
For example, the farm uses pheromone disruption to prevent damaging codling moths from laying eggs in apples, with the caterpillars later eating their way out. The crew ties pheromone strips in trees, flooding the orchard with scent that makes it difficult for the males to find the females and mate.
"It's more expensive, but there's no pesticides involved," Rasch said.
Regenerative agriculture is more than making "one or two grand measures. It takes a zillion little measures to make this work," he said, like mowing in the fall so that nesting eagles, hawks and other predators can see and help control the bark-eating voles that damage the fruit trees.
Rasch also feeds pomace — the pulp, skins, cores, stems and seeds left over after apples are pressed for cider — to lambs, pigs and cattle that he and other farmers raise. The meat, along with the orchard's crops, is served in the family's Ciderhouse Restaurant and grab-and-go BBQ stand, the Smokehouse.
The family built the restaurants and event space after Katie Goering saw demand from customers, and the family moved a restored barn onto the property to house the new ventures.
"We decided if we were going to have food, we should have really good food," said Rasch, who hired chef Matt Steigerwald, a James Beard award finalist when he ran the Lincoln Cafe in Mount Vernon. He features products from the orchard and regional farms in the restaurants' menus.
A place to hang out every weekend
With development of the orchard in Cumming underway, Katie Goering said the family's next step is to build a 20,000-square-foot farm market and bakery, Cider Bar & Restaurant, as well as a cider cellar and production facility this fall. The business and orchard, with strawberries available first, will open next year. The family plans to build the event space a year later.
Rasch said the Cumming restaurant will feature ciders.
"Most people don't know this, but Iowa used to be one of the largest apple producers in the U.S. And prior to Prohibition, hard cider was the most popular alcohol beverage in the country," he said in the video announcing the project. "One of our goals as a company is to reestablish cider and a cider culture in Iowa."
Steigerwald, the business's culinary coordinator, will lead the Cumming restaurant as well as Iowa City's. In addition, the family owns a 90-acre commercial orchard in Solon between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, where they make the business's cider, sold in the Des Moines metro as well as eastern Iowa.
While the Iowa City restaurant leans toward fine dining, Katie Goering said the Cumming restaurant's farm-to-table food will be more casual, with grab-and-go options available in the market. The new orchard will offer fine-dining experiences through special events like those in Iowa City, which hosts full-moon dinners that offer prix fixe meals paired with ciders, she said.
"The consistent theme across all the food is quality — local ingredients that are sourced carefully," Jacob Goering said.
Rasch said it's important that in both Iowa City and Cumming the orchard is a place that people can enjoy often.
"We don't want this to be a once-a-year destination," he said, adding that's why the orchard features frequent band performances, tractor and hay rides, winter ice skating and other events.
"We have a lot of special events that happen here" in Iowa City "that will also take place in Des Moines," Rasch said.
Steve Bruere, president of Diligent Development, the company developing the Middlebrook agrihood, said he thinks Wilson's Orchard will mesh with the existing community garden, where 400 to 500 people gather weekly for Fridays on the Farm during the summer.
Armed with lawn chairs, families buy garden produce, wine, cocktails and dinner at one of 20 vendors at the site, while enjoying free music. The town already is a favorite with bikers on the Great Western Trail, which runs from Des Moines through Cumming.
The developers are connecting the agrihood to the trail as well as building trails that will run throughout the development, including Wilson's Orchard. The development will eventually have 1,500 homes, to be built over the next decade, and already features Middlebrook Mercantile, an upscale bar and general store.
Bruere said Wilson's Orchard will make Cumming even more of a destination for metro residents.
"Nobody complains about there being too many wineries in California," he said.
Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8457.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Wilson's Orchard in Iowa City to open in Cumming's agrihood