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South Washington County orchards ripe for the picking

Spending a warm, fall afternoon picking raspberries at Afton Apple, 4-year-old Alyssa Her, of St. Paul, filled several plastic pints with her mother Vismai Vang. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)1 / 6
Numerous apple varieties are ready for picking at Afton Apple Orchard in Denmark Township. “Lift and twist,” said Sarah Parkos, daughter of owner Cindy Femling, of the perfect technique for picking ripe apples. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)2 / 6
Red, pink and yellow raspberries are ripening on the bushels at Afton Apple Orchard. For $3.75 a pint, pickers have free reign of the open raspberry fields. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)3 / 6
Take a break from picking fruit by climbing on the orchard’s jungle gym, complete with a swinging tube, 20-foot spider web, straw mountain and giant retread hill. New this year are two spring animals for children to rock back and forth on. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)4 / 6
Take a shot at the 15-acre, three-phase corn maze. Reflective of this year's beneficiary, St. Jude Children's Hospital, the maze incorporates the hospital’s logo, a physician’s medical bag and a depiction of waves from an electrocardiogram. (Submitted photo)5 / 6
Don’t forget to stop up at the petting zoo after an afternoon of picking berries. On display, and ready to eat food out of visitors’ hands, are goats and several colored lamas. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)6 / 6

There isn’t anything quite like biting into a juicy red or green apple fresh from the tree after enjoying a sightseeing hayride through the orchard.

If that sounds idyllic, visitors of Afton Apple Orchard in Denmark Township have that, and much more, to look forward to during this year’s apple season.

Residing on more than 190 acres of lush land that produces more than 13 varieties of apples and hundreds of bushels of raspberries each season, Afton Apple is a staple destination for area families in the fall. For a nominal fee, children and adults can roam the orchard in search of the perfect fruit and take part in a myriad of activities on the farm.

Despite winter-like weather lasting into early May and a scalding hot summer, crops at the orchard fared well, said Sarah Parkos, daughter of orchard owner Cindy Femling.

“We opened (the apple and raspberry season) on Aug.17 this year, which is a little late, but average,” she said. “The dry heat this summer had us irrigating often, but everything is ready to go now.”

Eight varieties of apples were being picked last week, including Paula Red, Red Barron, McIntosh, Sweet 16, Cortland, Estival, Zestar and Chestnut Crabapple. The weather this year hampered the growth cycle of several other varieties of apples, but Parkos said they just need a little extra time to sweeten up.

“The sugars just aren’t there yet in the Haralson (apples),” she explained last week. “They are still very starchy in taste. In the next week or so they should be ready, along with the Honeycrisp apples.”

Fall raspberries, however, were in full bloom in recent days.

Bushels of red, pink and yellow raspberries line the orchard and wide thoroughfares give pickers plenty of room to fill pint-sized containers. While the fall fruits are bountiful this year, everbearing fall strawberries were picked out just as they became ripe, Parkos said.

Other orchard fun

Once the pints are full of fall raspberries and the bags become too heavy from the weight of fresh-picked apples, take a load off on a hayride around the orchard. Available on both weekends and during weekdays, hayrides are family-friendly fun for all ages and offer visitors a front-row seat to far corners of the orchard.

Just up the hill from the raspberry bushes, along the edge of a ripening apple field is a sprawling playground complete with a wooden jungle gym, retread mountain for children to climb, a 20-foot woven spider web and swing set.

Picnic tables are available if the berries and apples become too tempting to wait until home, and a petting zoo with llamas and goats is nearby. For a few quarters, visitors can dispense some treats for the animals and feed them by hand.

Maze benefits hospital

If hunting for the ripest fruits isn’t a big enough challenge, take a shot at the 15-acre, three-phase corn maze. Designed over the course of the year by a skilled design firm, each path to nowhere, dizzying spiral and zig-zagging passage are constructed with a certain theme in mind.

This year, designers crafted the maze to reflect the mission of the St. Jude Children’s Hospital, which is the benefiting charity this year, and incorporated the hospital’s logo, a physician’s medical bag and a depiction of waves from an electrocardiogram.

Earlier this summer, the orchard hosted The Minnesota Major River-to-River ride, which raised funds for St. Jude, and conversation sparked the idea of tailoring the maze around the cause, Parkos said.

“It was a great opportunity for us so we thought why not continue to help out an organization that does so much good,” she added.

For every paid adult that enters the corn maze this year, $1 of the admission fee will go directly to St. Jude Children’s Hospital.

“Along the maze there are 24 different trivia stations for people to get to know a little more about the organization,” Parkos said.

Since 2000, when the first corn maze was realized on a six-acre plot of land, the orchard has expanded and connected areas to create what is now the 15-acre area.

“I can’t even count how many people have gone through our maze,” Parkos said, guessing in the high thousands. “We have people who are in their for a few minutes before giving up and then we have people who take their time and spend hours in it. It’s just a lot of fun.”

Entering its 25th year as an establishment, Parkos said it’s an anniversary that will most likely be celebrated after the fact, saying “we’ll probably have a big celebration next year after we have completed all 25 years. It’s will be a big, special honor for us.”

If you go

  • Afton Apple Orchard, 14421 90th St. in Denmark Township, $3 general admission. Featuring a 15-acre corn maze, which has six miles of weaving trails. The corn maze, as well as mini mazes, is open from 4-10 p.m. on Fridays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. Admission to the maze is $9 for ages 11 and older, $7 for children 2 to 10 and kids under 2 are admitted free. The rest of the weekdays can be reserved for field trips and larger groups of 50 or more. The orchard is hosting its Apple Fest the first three weekends in October, which for the $3 general admission fee, includes full access to apple and raspberry picking, cider pressing demonstrations, folk and bluegrass music, chainsaw carving demonstrations, among other activities. For a complete list of available apples and picking times, visit the orchard’s Facebook page or call 651-436-8385.
  • Whistling Well Farm, 8973 St. Croix Trail South, Hastings. Featuring more 20 varieties of apples, most of which were developed by the University of Minnesota, on a sprawling 5,000-tree farm. Available for purchase are fall flower decor, pumpkins and gourds, an assortment of jams and jellies, ciders and dig-your-own potted fall mums. The orchard is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., through November. For more information, visit the website or call 651-998-0301.
  • McDougal’s Apple Junction, 14325 110th St. South, Hastings. Nestled on more than 100 acres in Denmark Township, the orchard has a 27-year history of selling quality apples and pumpkins. Farmer Bob entertains kids with wagon rides and a variety of animals are available to view, feed and pet, including goat mountain. Climb atop the observation tower for a breathtaking view of the St. Croix valley. The orchard is hosting Apple Fest the first two weekends in October with music, grilled food and homemade pies. For more information about available apples, visit the website or call 651-480-4701.
  • Fisher’s Croix Farm Orchard, 12971 St. Croix Trail South, Hastings. Located in the St. Croix River valley, the farm boasts “good old country fun” picking the perfect apples and pumpkins. Owned and operated by the Leadholm family since 1980, the orchard offers 22 varieties of apples and a store full of jams, jellies, caramel apples and pies. The farm is hosting Apple Fest the first two weekends in October, featuring its corn maze, apple express train and farm animals. The orchard is open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday from September through November. For more information about which apples are available for picking visit the website or call 651-437-7126.
  • Carpenter Nature Center, 12805 St. Croix Trail, Hastings. Residing on 425 acres of main property, the nature center is an oasis for outdoor education. The apple orchard, which began in the 1940s, has a large variety of apples, gourds, squash, pumpkins, and homemade pies, syrups, salad dressings and the famous apple salsa. With nearly 10 miles of walking trail, visitors can snack on sweet fruit while taking in the sights and sounds of the river valley. For more information about the orchard and the nature center visit the website or call 651-437-4359.