Castle Rock couple finally enjoying the fruits of their labor
The trees at Castle Rock Orchard are not what you might imagine when you picture an orchard. There are no spreading branches, no rolling hills to rumble over on a hayride. Just long, straight rows of short trees attached to trellises.
The apples are still plenty tasty, though, and there are plenty of them. Now, after four years of growing and maturing, they’re finally available to the public. A roadside stand popped up earlier this month along Highway 3, and so far business has been good.
Robin and Jana Garlick started Castle Rock Orchard at the suggestion of Jana’s brother-in-law, Steve Gilbertson. They had no real experience growing apple trees, but lack of experience doesn’t seem to keep the couple from making big business decisions. When they moved home to Minnesota in 2002 they bought Castle Rock Kennels, the business Gilbertson and his wife, Darla, had opened in 1993. Despite having no prior experience running a kennel they have expanded the business significantly.
Why should apples be any different? They had the land. Robin had grown up on a farm growing corn and soybeans. Maybe most important, they had the willingness to put in long hours learning the ins and outs of the apple business and tending their trees.
It turns out the kennel and orchard businesses are complementary. Business at the kennel slows down after Labor Day as families stop taking vacations and no longer need to board their dogs. That’s right around the time apple season picks up.
The couple planted 1,250 dwarf trees in all, a mixture of Honeycrisp, Zestar, Snowsweet, Chestnut Crab and SweeTango. It was the opportunity to get SweeTango, a popular variety developed by the University of Minnesota, that sealed the decision to open the orchard.
It took a year just to get everything set up and planted.
“It was a lot of planning, trying to decide where on the property we’d put the orchard,” Jana said. “If it were easy, everybody would do it. It’s hard work.”
Throughout the process thee couple discovered an extremely supportive community of Minnesota apple growers. They got help with the planting from Pine Tree Orchard in White Bear Lake.
Harvests were small in the early years because the trees were maturing and because of weather. Last year the couple lost much of their crop to hail damage and poor pollination.
This year, though, the branches are heavy with apples and Castle Rock Orchard is open for business. The roadside stand is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday.
Keeping it all running is hard work. There are plenty of 14-hour days, and Garlick went west to drive a crude oil tanker for a few months early on so they would have enough money to get going. But they like the work, they like the idea they’re producing something in their community and they like talking to the people who stop at their stand.
“Both of us love being outside,” Jana said. “I find nothing more enjoyable than picking apples.”
Robin, too, takes pride in the work. He pulls an apple out of the refrigerator, fresh from the tree, polishes it up and sets it in front of a visitor. It’s the result of his hard work, and he likes showing it off.
Next year they plan to add pumpkins and squash, and they’re using the money they make this year to convert a building on their property into a large cooler for the apples. They’re also getting into wholesaling.
Castle Rock Orchard might not ever be that picturesque little spot, but its owners like what it’s becoming.
“We have fun with it,” Robin said. “We add a few things every year.”