Fork in the Road: An Orchard with Deep Roots
It’s official—2008 is the year of the “staycation.” The convergence of soaring gas prices mixed with our sleepy economy is prompting more of us than ever before to forgo the annual family road trip in favor of a more localized approach to vacationing. Spicer Orchards in Fenton is a weekend oasis for families looking for a local, wholesome outing with healthy souvenirs.
Fall is the busiest time of year at the farm, when bushels of over 30 varieties of apples are plucked from the trees every day. The cider press never tires of doing its noble work, and the smell of freshly made doughnuts and pies draws pickers in from the fields to enjoy the classic snack of the fall harvest. “There’s nothing like a wagon ride out to the trees followed by cider and a hot doughnut,” says Alan Spicer, the patriarch of the orchard.
In addition to growing the most popular varieties of apple like Honeycrisp and Red Delicious, Spicer Orchards grows more than a dozen antique varieties such as Lodi Transparent, Twenty Ounce Pippin, Northern Spy and Fameuse (Snow Apple). “The antique varieties are just so full of flavor because that’s what they were bred for rather than strictly for size and storability,” Spicer explains. For that reason, many of the antique varieties must be picked by hand to avoid bruising. For Spicer, this lifestyle is definitely a family affair. His maternal grandfather began an orchard in Novi in 1903, hauling apples by horse- drawn buggy to Detroit’s old Western Market to sell. Both of his parents were orchardists as well, and as time passed and the area became more populated, the Spicers headed to farmland west of the city. “My children and grandchildren are fourth- and fifth-generation farmers here, which is pretty unique these days,” Spicer says.
In 1967 Spicer and his wife, Wanda, planted their first 6,000 trees on 100 acres in Fenton. With generations of experience guiding him, Spicer chose dwarf varieties of trees and established his farm primarily as a pick-your-own orchard. “Even back then we could see that it was going to become more and more difficult for small farmers like us to make a living with a wholesale approach,” he says.
Forty-one years later, he has acquired double the land, double the trees and his pick-your-own orchard has become a gathering point for thousands of Southeastern Michiganders each year. While apples are the bulk of the fruit produced here, the orchard is diverse in its offerings, beginning in early June with strawberries. As the summer sun warms the ground, acres of trees turn red with tart and sweet cherries, and raspberry canes put forth healthy yields of red, golden and purple fruit. Next come blueberries and several varieties of peaches and plums. Finally the picking season closes by the start of November with pears and apples.
Spicer’s approach to farming involves responsible stewardship of the land, as well as a desire for his product to be as natural as possible. “While we are not organic, we monitor our crop incredibly closely so that we spray only when absolutely necessary. Each week, we have a scout from Michigan State come out to give us a report. We monitor insects by taking trap counts, then we use natural pheromone strips tied to the trees to confuse the insects. They just fly around instead of mating,” he explains. “We precisely track spore releases, so we can get away with spraying very minimally for fungus. We spray one hundredth of what farmers used to spray 50 years ago; I know because I was there.”
Besides growing delicious fruit, the Spicers provide a welcoming place for families to spend a day. Farm tours, hay wagon rides and a barnyard filled with farm animals delight young visitors, while helping them make that crucial connection between food and farm. Every September the orchard holds its Antique Harvest Festival, which draws an eager crowd. It features displays of restored antique farm equipment, a corn maze for children and, of course, plenty of autumn edibles from the market bakery. You needn’t wait for the festival to make your visit to the orchard.
The pick-your-own approach allows for a refreshing morning or afternoon spent in the open air, removed from busy schedules, city traffic and BlackBerries—the electronic kind, that is. “When the economy gets tough, our business actually gets better,” says Spicer. “People are looking for a simpler, more economical way to spend their leisure time, and we have a great place to do that right here.”