Yes, there really is an apple orchard in the desert
By Candace S. Hughes
Just off Highway 93 north of Wickenburg at milepost 177.5 a rough wooden sign with scrawled letters reads: “Yes, there really is an apple orchard here.”
Turning off the highway 22 miles northwest of Wickenburg is only the beginning of an adventure for families heading out for a day of apple picking starting in September, but the adventure began for the Knight family almost 40 years ago.
Four miles down a dirt road, just as families are beginning to wonder if they are going to right way despite encouraging signs, the green leaves of red and golden delicious apple trees are seen in a valley created by Date Creek.
“We’re right on the border of the Sonoran and Mohave deserts. There are saguaros, a Sonoran desert plant, and Joshua trees, a Mohave Desert plant,” says Stefan Wolf, 40, who took over managing the ranch with his wife Kim 18 months ago.
No one seems to know where the name came from because there are no date palms, but Wolf jokes that pioneers may have believed that the Joshua tree fruit were dates.
“We’re having trouble getting people to come out now,” says Wolf, who estimates that from 800-1,000 families arrive each season to pick 7,500 pounds of peaches and 10,000 pounds of apples at 80 cents per pound.
Although the numbers have been going down, hopes are high that Arizonans will make the drive weekends in September to pick apples from 7 a.m.-3 p.m. The orchard also is open the same hours Labor Day.
Be sure to call 1-(928)-231-0704 first if going in late September to ensure that there are still apples. Appointments also may be made for other times by calling 1-(928)-231-0704). Information also is available at http://datecreekranch.com or by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Sept. 9-10 the Rainbow girls, an organization devoted to helping girls learn leadership skills, will be selling apple treats. Those wishing to pick apples should plan to bring plenty of water and a picnic to enjoy at shady tables. Be sure to gas up in Wickenburg.
About 10-15 percent of Date Creek Ranch’s business is from the 1,100 apple and peach trees in the orchard, and another 20-30 percent from naturally raised beef. The remaining portion of the 39,000-acre ranch’s income or from $80,000-$100,000 is from commodity beef sold at auctions or private sales, says Wolf.
Families are urged to sample since no pesticides are used on the apple, pear and peach trees planted 35 years ago by Phil Knight. Wolf’s wife is Knight’s daughter, and the two families live on the ranch.
There’s only one paid employee, and the orchard and ranching operations sustain Knight, who is 70, in his retirement and provide a sufficient income so that Wolf and his wife don’t have to work off the ranch.
The peach crop was lost two out of the last five years due to frost. “Apples aren’t as susceptible to frost, but the peach blossoms come on earlier and they’re not as frost resistant the apple blossoms,” Wolf said.
The orchard is on the family’s 648 acres of private property, but much of the 120-year-old ranch is on Arizona State Trust land where about 250 cows are rotated. The ranch headquarters, first built in 1883, are close to Date Creek with cottonwoods and willow.
Solar panels and a diesel generator provide electricity, water is pumped from a well, and telephone service can be unreliable. “I’m a city kid born in Germany,” says Wolf, who met the family in his home country, came to visit the ranch, met his wife and has been living there for 10 years. “I married into this,” he laughs.
“My 13-year-old son is into horses, but my 17-year-old daughter would rather be in town. She does love to ride and they both help out on roundups,” Wolf says.
Horses and calves graze in the orchard to keep the weeds down and no weed killer is used. “They keep the weeds down for free and it’s much easier for an animal to eat than to mow it,” he laughs.
The family has experimented with several natural fertilizers ranging from chicken manure to bonemeal to organic liquid fertilizer. “It all seems to have a good effect. We only have good things to say about all of it,” Wolf says.
Apple pickers are given brochures about the family’s natural beef business, which generates about $45,000 annually from the 30-35 head sold by the quarter at about $3 per pound, he says.
Customers can arrange to pick up a side of beef in Wickenburg or on the west side of Phoenix. “Word of mouth is slowly growing. We don’t do any advertising. We tried ads in the Yellow Pages, but they didn’t bring in anything.”
Managing the land holistically has been the Knight family’s goal as they give a pasture 100-180 days of rest. “We try to have greater animal densities for shorter periods of time,” says Wolf, who adds that the family works with the Center for Holistic Management and Holistic Management International. They also are members of the Nature Conservancy.
“We have tried to move away from commodity agriculture and move toward community-supported local agriculture such as natural beef and fruit.
“We are also exploring other ways to increase revenue on the ranch,” says Wolf, who adds that they reduced their cattle due to the drought and have stopped raising pigs.
Diana Kessler, who with her husband Alan manages Orme Ranch, practices planned grazing for their natural and commodity beef. “The closer to nature, the better for all of us,” she says of the Orme family’s efforts to raise and sell natural beef with antibiotics or growth hormones.