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John McPherson, horticulturist at Carpenter St. Croix Valley Nature Center, stands in the 11-acre orchard he has taken care of for the last 11 years. Photo by Margaret A. Ontl

Apples: One man's fruitful journey

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Apples: One man's fruitful journey
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

When the sun rises on the apple orchard at Carpenter St. Croix Valley Nature Center it glistens on the dew-covered fruit that a young John McPherson literally fell for when he just a boy.


"My mom took me to Aamodt's Apples when I was 12," said McPherson. "It was the first time I tasted something other than a Red Delicious. I took one bite out of a Fireside and I was hooked."

The kid from northeast Minneapolis never stopped eating apples; in fact, eating them is now a big part of his job. He is the horticulturist for the Carpenter Nature Center where he is responsible for the 11-acre apple orchard, the raspberry patch and most of the flower gardens and plantings around the grounds. He is the first to say it all works because of the volunteers who literally give of their enthusiasm and hours and hours of time.

It is, however, McPherson who guides the direction of the orchard which now includes 2,100 trees of 14 varieties.

"Over ten years we have planted 1,200 new trees to regenerate the orchard and get fruit from better varieties," said McPherson.

"I think we have the full spectrum of good Minnesota regional varieties. They are harvested from late August to mid-October and they run the gamut from tart to super sweet."

McPherson thought he would become a biology teacher until he went to Europe for a year. Working on small farms in Norway and touring the rest of Europe exposed him to a different style of production.

"The light bulb went off in my head when I was coming back from Europe," said McPherson who hitchhiked from New York back to the Twin Cities. "When I turned and came through La Crosse and La Crescent and saw the orchards on the hillsides, I knew what I wanted to do."

McPherson earned his horticulture degree from the University of Minnesota in fruit production which put him in the midst of one of the premier fruit-breeding programs in the nation.

Over the last couple of decades, new varieties of apples have been introduced by the University of Minnesota.

"I am very excited about the new varieties coming out," said McPherson. "The future looks really good for us apple growers." That is due, in part, to the breeding program at the University of Minnesota that hit a homerun when they brought out the Honeycrisp variety.

"It used to be 30 plus years or research before they could bring out a new variety," said McPherson. "Now they have reduced that to 20 years." The process starts with planting 10,000 seeds out of which five might grow. Over successive generations, the plants are bred based on being cold hardy and disease resistant.

"The final test is the blind taste test," said McPherson. "The Honeycrisp was introduced in 1991. It took off like wildfire and is now planted around the world. Once you hit international status people really to take notice." It was followed by Zestar and now SweeTango is gradually becoming available. It is the result of cross breeding of other two.

"Hats off to the University of Minnesota fruit breeding program," said McPherson. Its apple breeding program is more than 100 years old.

Taking all he learned and then some, McPherson pursued a career in the apple field. For the last eleven seasons he has been at CNC.

The orchard's mission is to grow high quality produce in a ecological and sustainable manner.

It is a year round commitment with hand pruning beginning in February. Using integrative pest management means McPherson's grandson can eat an apple right off the tree. With an assortment of biological lures and traps and cultural methods the use of chemicals is minimal. In fact the trees are only sprayed once in the spring. This method of fruit production requires more man hours but the premiere fruit that is produced is worth the effort. All of the fruit is also hand-picked by staff and volunteers.

The CNC orchard is surrounded by a ten-foot deer exclusion fence. This season saw a 30 percent reduction of apple production due to the weather. The warm weather in April forced an early bloom and the 26 degree frost in May spelled trouble.

"They say there are always ten obstacles to overcome every year," said McPherson, who despite the challenges wouldn't do anything else. "I do love apples. I have to eat them all year long and I have to test them to see what is ready and what's not."

This weekend the CNC apple orchard is hosting the annual Apple Fest, which is entirely held within the orchard grounds on the Minnesota Campus.

The Apple Shack, retail shop will be open selling apples, pumpkins, squash, jams, jellies and maple syrup. Just a warning, Honeycrisps are sold out but many of the other popular varieties are still available.

Apple Fest is Oct. 9-10

Carpenter Nature Center's Apple Fest is this weekend.

Located on the Minnesota campus, the event includes hayrides, children's activities, live animals, music and apple-oriented food, including apple brats.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. For more information you may call (651) 437-4359 or visit