Minnesota orchard lets you pick up fresh fruit, distilled spirits
When Jay Clark and Tammy Soma Clark began Rochester's Apples R Us in 2009 they only had 300 trees planted, now in 2022, they have over 12,500 with plans to plant a third orchard section by 2024.
ROCHESTER — Picking apples can be hard work.
So, when Jay Clark decided he wanted to retire on an apple orchard, he knew he needed a way to keep the work manageable as he aged, and to keep the revenue coming after the apple picking was done.
“When I designed the orchard I was 57. I knew we weren’t going to be climbing up ladders with picking baskets. I designed it so that I could do this in my 80s. It’s casual labor and we’re the senior citizens crew here,” said Clark.
At 69, Clark enjoys the early years of retirement age working for his wife Tammy Soma Clark at her apple orchard, Apples R Us Orchard & Distillery.
Clark is not the only one in his 60s reaping the benefits of working for his wife’s apple orchard. The eight apple pickers that give their time are all 60 or older, with the exception of one.
Clark moved onto the property in 1995 after leaving the oil business and spent the next five years clearing out the property to build the Speed Shop, custom automotive shop.
He spent many years operating the shop and racing down at Deer Creek Speedway outside Spring Valley. Clark is now retired from racing but his wife Soma Clark still enjoys hitting the tracks every now and then during the summer.
It's a good diversion while the apples grow.
“We don’t want to pack year round,” said Clark. “We always make sure all our fruit is gone by Christmas, what we don’t sell we make into liquor. We go to Florida for the winter and come back between April 10 and 15 to start the next year of growing.”
“It’s all so I can get caught up on the harvest season,” said Soma Clark. “I have to crush, ferment and get everything ready so we can leave each winter. Last year I crushed 212,000 pounds of apples to make liquor before we left for Florida."
When Clark and Soma Clark began the orchard in 2009, they had 300 trees planted, now in 2022, they have more than 12,500 with plans to plant a third orchard section by 2024. The third orchard will be smaller than the two already planted and ready for picking on the farm.
“It takes five years for a tree to get to the point where it’s tall enough to pick a crop off it. We’re not planting anymore in our two orchards but were creating the third orchard for some early varieties: First Kiss, Honeycrisp. We’re a full USDA, Minnesota Department of Agriculture licensed pack house, there are not many around here, just us and (Elgin, Minnesota's) Wescott Orchard,” said Clark.
Once picked, apples from Apples R Us Orchard are sold off to all four Hy-Vee locations in Rochester among other places.
Clark and Soma Clark have only been in the distilling side of the business for four years now since Soma Clark secured a state distilling license for the business back in 2018. The distillery has given a place for even the bad apples in batches to be put to good use as Clark explained.
“An apple with open marks or bruises, our computer sorts those out and we can actually crush that for liquor. We can’t crush it for cider because when we crush for people to drink cider, we use unperforated apples that are washed and ready to go. But when we make liquor, we can use apples with marks and bruises because we ferment it and distill it so nobody ever drinks them, and helps to prevent any waste,” he said.
With the distillery and Speed Shop on the orchard farm, Clark and Soma Clark do not always offer the traditional fall activities targeted for families. Soma Clark pushes more focus on educating people and communities on the logistics and sciences of growing an orchard, but the couple does not discourage people from coming to their farm to take tours of the orchard.
“If people want to see our workers picking we’ll take them out to the orchard to see how our apple picking is done. We’ve been doing a lot more private events in recent years, as people have been really drawn to have their weddings on our farm,” said Clark.
The orchard is open for regular business or visits for those interested in stopping by. The orchard is open daily until Nov. 23, operating 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays.
The retail store inside the shed not only sells products from the orchard such as apple bunches, cider and rum but cheeses from Metz's Hart-Land Creamery and an art stand for a local artist's work to be sold.
In a year's time, Clark and Soma Clark expect to have brandy ready to sell at their farm and to liquor stores. The brandy still needs to age the required two years before being sold under state law.