There are few things that feel more “fall” than heading to an apple orchard to get a bite of a fresh, ripe apple, right where its grown.
It was a visit to an apple orchard that convinced Al Peake to start an orchard of his own, and it was 40 years ago that he planted his first set of apple trees on his farm in rural Waukon, Iowa. Since then, Peake Orchards has seen banner seasons and bummer seasons, but it’s the love of the orchard, working in the fields, and the connection to family that keeps Al excited and inspired to tend the sweet crop year after year.
These days, Peake Orchards has 13 different apple varieties planted, and – once harvested – folks can find them in Decorah at Oneota Community Food Co-op, Fareway, and the Decorah Farmers Market. Or throw on a cozy sweater for a fall outing – you can head out to Peake Orchards to grab some yourself! They open to the public weekends starting September 21, from 9 am to 5 pm on Saturdays and 12 to 5 pm on Sundays. Catch a hayride on Sundays, from 2 to 4 pm, and mark your calendars for their annual “Fall Festival Sundays” October 6 and October 13 – there’s lots of family fun on the docket.
Read on to learn more about Al’s four decades of apple picking in this issue’s Sum of Your Business Q&A.
Name: Al Peake, Peake Orchards
Years in Business: Planted first trees 1979
Orchard address: 323 Northline Dr. Waukon, Iowa
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1. Tell us about the “leap” moment. When/how did you decide to jump in and become your own boss?
I visited a pick your own orchard in the late 70s up in Minnesota and really thought having an orchard could be something I could really enjoy! So I started planting trees on our family farm. The first planting was 50 trees and then a couple years later 375 trees. That was the point where we were really committed to getting serious about growing apples. Since then we have expanded to well over 1,000 trees.
2. What’s the best thing about being your own boss?
The best thing about being my own boss is the flexibility to try growing methods and varieties that appeal to us and our mission. I also really enjoy working out in the orchard most of the time.
3. How about the worst?
The worst thing about being my own boss is that apple season is a short intense time of year. When early September comes it is, go like crazy, try to get things harvested, washed and sorted and try to keep up with sales. Before you know it the snow is falling and you wonder where the fall went.
4. Was there ever a hurdle where you just thought, “I can’t do this?” How did you overcome it?
The biggest hurdle for me was losing my original apple partner (my wife Sandy) to a brain tumor in 2010. I still had other family to help but Sandy and I had started planning the orchard from the beginning and it was devastating for me to lose her. But, God is good and since then, I met and married my current wife, Cathy, who has been a wonderful partner in the orchard and a wonderful partner as my wife!
5. Any mentors/role models you look to/have looked to?
I would say my biggest mentors have been other apple growers I have met. I have attended many a field day and have learned a ton of things from visiting other growers’ orchards. There have been many great speakers and specialists from universities throughout the country who have presented at these field days and I always leave with some new knowledge and things to try in our orchard. I am also grateful that my parents supported us and helped with the orchard from the very start.
6. What’s the one thing you wish you had known before you started?
The only thing I can say is that there is always so much more to learn than you think, when growing apples and marketing of the crop. I planted the first tree 40 years ago (I can’t even believe it’s been that long) and if I said I pretend to know it all, I would not be telling the truth. I think that the day you say you know it all and have done it all, you are setting yourself up for a serious fall. Continuing to learn has kept me young.
7. How do you manage your life/work balance?
It is very difficult to balance work in the orchard and the rest of my life and many times I have done it very poorly. I always say there is enough work in the orchard to keep me busy 24-7. I am still learning to try to prioritize what’s most important in my life and walk away from the orchard and say that is all I can do for now. With wanting to spend time with family and friends and working at Friest and Assoc. Realtors, as well as the orchard, the balance is difficult.
8. What keeps you inspired? Any quotes that keep you going?
I think the thing that keeps an old guy like me inspired is exciting new apple varieties like Honeycrisp (and some other new ones we are growing that nobody has heard about yet), strolling through the orchard and seeing a great crop hanging on the trees, and working together with family and friends (special thanks to Mark and Barbara for all their sorting help) to make the harvest happen. I also look forward to passing on the orchard to my son Jeremy and his wife, Jodi (they could run it on their own at this point, if I wasn’t around). I feel blessed to be able to spend many hours on beautiful fall days, picking a great crop of apples that God has provided!