This last weekend, I made the season's first foray into the madness that has become apple picking. Minnesota orchards have found a way to eke out a living by providing a State Fair-like experience that often includes jumping goats, hayrides, and corn mazes. It's a gift . . . and a curse. Some places go way over the top and cease to feel like farms/orchards, giving way to more of a frenzied, festival feeling. But people love it, and if it gets them out to a real food source while delivering cash directly into the hands of growers, I'm all for it. If you can learn a little bit about growing food while stuffing your face with cinnamon apple mini doughnuts on a wagon ride, giddyup.
Here are my top picks for the season:
This is my personal favorite, the one I've been going to for years. This is a real working orchard/farm with cows, goats, chickens, and piglets that tend to wander around everywhere. The wagon ride is one of the most educational I've been on, learning about why the farm grows flax and amaranth with its corn. It's also offering the new U of M apple, SweeTango.
Sponsel's Minnesota Harvest—Jordan
This place is passionate about apples, it's not just a side gig. For more than thirty years, Sponsel's has been breeding unique apple varieties, many of which are only available on its farm, such as Nectarapple, Golden Haralson, and Sugar Shack. Plus, is has guided horseback riding through bluff-top trails.
One of the only places that uses IPM (Integrated Pest Management) to halt the use of chemicals. It is very focused on education, and a low-key natural experience can be found hiking its 425 acres along the river.
Emma Krumbees—Belle Plaine
It's the Las Vegas of apple orchards. Petting zoo, mountain slide, all-terrain farm trikes, and more than 100 scarecrows on display make this place a rockin' time. The crowds are huge, the apple pie is sensational, and there's an on-site hotel in case you get apple overload and need to crash.
On a huge spread, it puts on a good show. It charges admission on weekends, so if you're just looking for apples, it's not worth it. But if you want to partake in the corn maze, giant hay mountain, bug investigation station, or the upcoming yo-yo-making class while enjoying some of the best cider relish to sit a-top a brat, then you're good.
Pine Tree Apple Orchard—White Bear Lake
It may be wrong that I go there just for the flaky, tangy apple rollover pastry, but wrong was never so right. It's the spiced cider icing that kills me. This place also sponsors a lot of cool live music and an October Apple Run through the farm.
Natura Farms—Marine on St. Croix
Certified by the Food Alliance Midwest, Natura Farms is a lovely, grand example of sustainable and natural farming. Not only can you pick apples, but you can pick grapes, eggplant, leeks, herbs, and, soon, winter squash. This one is for serious foodiephiles; no corn mazes. Call for hours and availability before you go.
If you have a fave not mentioned above, feel free to give them props.