In just a few weeks, things will be booming at Tom Dooley's Apple Orchard east of Waupun. That's when the earliest of the 21 varieties of apples are ready for picking. During the two-month apple harvesting season, the workforce at this family-run business will go from two to about 60.
Tom Dooley Orchard was started by a man nicknamed Dooley and his grandson, Tom. Thus the name. In 1967, they built the current sales facility along Highway 49 where tourists travel every fall to see the influx of geese and other wildlife on the north end of the Horicon Marsh.
In the 1980s, the original owners added baked goods to the business.
Mike VandeSlunt grew up across the road from the orchard and hadn't even thought about running an orchard business until the orchard came up for sale in 1995. That's when he and his wife Sue decided that running the orchard would be a way to spend more time with their family — time they didn't get when he worked second shift for a printing company.
Now the VandeSlunts have built a business that booms for several months in late summer and fall and keeps them busy the rest of the year planning, planting, pruning, and learning.
This spring, Mike planted 850 new trees. "The first year, we planted 60 trees by hand, digging holes with a shovel," he said. "Now we use a tree planter. It takes longer to measure out the row than it takes to plant the trees.
"It is important to keep grasses away from the base of the tree while it gets established. Trees also require 5 gallons of water per young tree. To accomplish this, we took a 5-gallon pail and drilled a small hole in the bottom and filled all the pails with water that trickles onto the new roots."
All the trees are planted so they are supported by conduit connected with a series of wires to form a trellis.
"The wires help train the trees to grow horizontal," he explained. "Training is necessary so the weight of the apples doesn't break the branch."
When he started the business, he used steel support pipes. At $6 a piece, it can really add to the cost of establishing trees, especially when doing 800 or 1,000 at a time. The trellis and conduit system costs much less.
"I order the varieties three years in advance," he says. "It used to take a year, but now they propagate them after the order comes in.
"A tree should produce 20 years, so eventually I hope I'll have the whole orchard established and won't need to plant more trees.
"Of course there are always trees that don't make it for some reason, and we'll need to replace them. We also want to keep adding new varieties in order to keep up with supplying the apples our customers want."
"We've gone to smaller dwarf trees," he added. They're a smaller root stock and easier to care for and pick.
"Once they are established, it will be another three or four years before we can harvest fruit."
Soon after the couple bought the orchard, they expanded the on-site apple pie bakery to include apple muffins, sugar-free pies, sugar-free squares, mincemeat, pecan pies and apple cider doughnuts. They make everything from scratch.
"We sell apples here, but it is the bakery that keeps us afloat," says Mike, noting that there is a lot of expense involved in maintaining an orchard and that leaves little room for profit.
Mike gets help from five others handpicking all the apples at the orchard. Because they ripen at different times, they are able to keep up with the picking.
"There are times in October when I need 25 bushels a day just for our baking," Sue said. "That can be a challenge keeping our sales shelves full of fresh apples for our customers.
"We always blend three varieties to make the pies taste good. Everything gets used, and there is no waste. Small apples go for cider, and the peelings from making pies go to a local pig farmer."
They contract with a company from Gays Mills to crush the apples for cider and then pasteurize it in Madison.
The VandeSlunts recently hosted the Dodge County Master Gardener's group, sharing ideas for planting, pruning and maintaining fruit trees.
He explained the spacing of the trees, noting that the larger trees are spaced 20 feet apart with rows that are 20 feet wide. The newer dwarf trees require less space; they are placed 5 feet apart with rows 15 feet wide.
Mike starts pruning the 4,000 trees in December and works through April. He cuts off the new bigger branches and dead branches so the trees will be ready in spring. The larger trees are more difficult to prune because they require longer ladders, more branches cut and more time spent on each tree. The dwarf trees can be pruned from the ground.
May through August, he regulates the spraying of pesticides using Integrated Pest Management.
Mike showed the Master Gardeners the variety of traps he sets in the orchard to check each week for pests. The tests regulate how much pesticide he uses in order to minimize the amount used. He also has a weather monitor to keep track of leaf moisture, the temperature and degree days.
"The weather monitor helps me determine when to spray fungicide," he said.
They fertilize trees with a 20-20-20 foliar spray, noting that granular takes too long to get down to the roots.
The VandeSlunts also take steps to protect the orchard from wildlife. A high deer fence goes around the perimeter of the orchard. While it keeps the deer out, they still have problems with turkeys breaking the tree branches.
They have also had their share of weather challenges, including wind and hail.
"One year, straight-line winds snapped the trees and rolled them like tumbleweed into the fence line," Mike said. "That's another benefit of these smaller trees anchored to a trellis. They are protected better from the wind."