Wilson’s Orchard evolves their image with a focus on new crops, sustainability

Wilson’s Apple Orchard is now Wilson’s Orchard & Farm, growing and selling a variety of fruits, vegetables and products. — Wilson’s Orchard & Farm/video still

Since Wilson’s Apple Orchard first opened to the public 35 years ago, the visitor experience has been centered around exactly what you would expect: apples. Over the last four decades, thousands of visitors have journeyed to the orchard in autumn to pick apples, sip apple cider slushies, eat apple turnovers and buy Wilson’s merch featuring a big red apple in the center.

Now, the Iowa City farm is rebranding as Wilson’s Orchard & Farm, diversifying its crops, focusing on sustainability and connecting consumers with the land their food comes from — and, yes, still serving all the apple-ly treats visitors have come to expect.

The new logo of Wilson’s Orchard & Farm

Wilson’s new brand comes with a new logo that pays homage to the orchard’s most welcome guest.

“Bees are essential to our business because they are the ones that pollinate the trees and give us the apples,” Wilson’s owner Paul Rasch said in a video addressing the rebrand. He and his wife Sara Goering bought the property from Joyce and Robert “Chug” Wilson in 2009. “We feel like choosing the bee imposes on us a certain responsibility. It reminds us on a daily basis that this is what is dependent on us, as much as we are dependent on it.”

For years, apples and pumpkins were the only foods grown on the Wilson’s acreage. But last year, the crew planted strawberries, taking a step towards diversifying their crops — important for the health of any agriculture operation — and extending the orchard’s season.

A Wilson’s employee picks strawberries in the strawberry patch planted in 2018. — Wilson’s Orchard & Farm/video still

This year, the farm planted sweet corn, and plan to introduce cherries, asparagus and other berry crops. Wilson’s is also partnering with local farmers and selling their produce.

“We’re now looking at further diversifying not just with crops, but also with other types of plants,” Rasch said, “so one of the things that we’re looking at is where can we either expand woodlands, or expand prairie plantings. And that’s something that won’t be a moneymaker for us, but we feel like for bee habitat, for wildlife habitat, this is a critical component of it.”

“We’re just barely scratching the surface, and we look to sort of fill this out in the next five years.”

Rasch told Little Village the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that when facing a crisis, denying the problem is “as dumb an idea you can have.” In combating both COVID-19 and climate change, he says the country has failed to act as a collective.

“People need to understand that climate change and food security are tremendously important as threats to this country and the world,” Rasche said. “We can’t afford anymore to just put our heads in the sand. Science is there, the evidence is clear. We have to take action to alleviate the effects of climate change and help slow and potentially even reverse the effects of our carbon emissions.”

For example, raspberries shipped in from New Zealand aren’t only less fresh than locally grown berries, Rasche said, but have a much more significant carbon footprint. But our produce-shopping decisions affect more than the environment.

Paul Rasch holds a ripe strawberry from Wilson’s strawberry patch in a how-to video for berry picking at the farm. — Wilson’s Orchard & Farm/video still

“I think something that people don’t really think about enough is just what the economic impact is of sending your food dollars [out of the local economy],” he said. “The food choices you make affect the local economy in ways that should be obvious, but aren’t always in an agriculturally bound economy like Iowa has … If we really want a vibrant agriculture and a good restored ecosystem, we have to start to invest our food dollars locally, and let them circulate around, because we need local communities to support local agriculture.”

One of the focuses of the rebrand is enhancing the way Wilson’s communicates with consumers, Rasche said. The owners built a studio to make shows and podcasts about where food comes from in eastern Iowa. Rasch said the content will not only feature the Wilson’s staff, but other cooks, processors and growers in the area.

“We’re really excited about telling the story of local agriculture and local food and we’re excited that we have a space to build that from,” said Alex Kline, digital marketing manager at Wilson’s.

Kline’s primary project in the rebrand has been redesigning Wilson’s website.

“It’s going to kind of change the way we do things on the farm. It lets us offer our customers more convenience,” she said. “And in addition to that we’re kind of starting our media program, writing articles alongside videos, food recipes and all sorts of other interesting pieces that we hope our audience will be interested in and enhanced in.”

When it comes to getting their expanded set of products to customers, the farm has already been working to get people on site and buying produce safely in the midst of a pandemic — including requiring mask-wearing and social distancing in their facilities — and establishing a delivery system.

“That seems particularly apt in COVID and I would say this is one area where COVID has really pushed us a lot harder to develop certain takeout [options] but also to start to experiment with delivery service,” Rasch said. “We’re sort of halfway there, we just now have to add the delivery service and that’s coming along … you’ll see a lot more on that in the months to come.”

Wilson’s is also offering prepared meals such as sesame tofu and Jamaican jerky wings at their Farm Market, through their website, at Rapid Creek Cidery and in Hy-Vee stores.

“We want to continue to make prepared meals, reflect the kind of menus that we have at Rapid Creek Cidery which is really — in a way that I think most people don’t appreciate — it’s really based on what’s available seasonally. So, in this particular week if broccoli or radishes, or peaches or whatever, are available, that’s what’s gonna go into the menu, and that’ll be true for our prepared meals, as well as our sit-down meals.”

This fall, Kline recommends making several separate visits to the farm to sample whatever new foods are in season. Rasch says he wants to offer customers a broad range of experiences, from picking strawberries, to trying homemade sausages, to getting outside to explore the land’s diverse topography, flora and fauna.

As Wilson’s evolves, Rasch wants customers to evolve, too.

“They need to be starting to pay attention to actively creating the kind of future that they want, and their purchasing decisions are the key elements in that.”

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