Anyone traveling out of Lubbock, Texas, east on Highway 62 might want to take a few minutes to drop by Apple Country at Hi Plains Orchards. Time the trip to arrive about noon and enjoy a buffet lunch that, depending on the day, could feature enchiladas, lasagna, chicken and dumplings or some other mouth-watering entrée.

There's always an apple salad, fried apples and apple deserts. Don't pass up the German apple cake!

Take a little time to shop in the Apple Country Store for craft items, homemade apple products — including cider, apple butter, cakes and pies. Take home a bag of apples as well, anytime of the year.

In season, pick your own from the 22-acre orchard. Even in late winter, however, some of the late-maturing varieties will remain crisp in refrigeration until the next season's early crop comes on. Industrious folk might select an apple tree or two to plant in their own backyards.

Apple Country is a year-round combination of working orchard, roadside retail enterprise, restaurant and local attraction, an evolution from what started as a pick-your-own operation planned for six-weeks per year harvesting.

The orchard also expanded from a retirement activity into a thriving business.

Calvin and Susan Brints manage Apple Country now, but they started the orchard so both their fathers would stay active after retiring. Cal's father, W.W. Brints, farmed for most of his life and always had some fruit trees.

Susan's father, George Elle, retired from Texas Tech University where he taught horticulture. George is now deceased. but W.W.. at 87. remains active in the orchard and in marketing the crop.

“We had no idea the operation would grow this way,” Cal Brints says. “We figured it would provide a pretty good hobby.”

He and Susan both had other jobs when they started the orchard. Now they both work full-time, Susan with the store and Cal with the orchard and the cider press. In addition to the pick-your-own orchard, which includes apples, peaches, and other fruits and vegetables, they also supply several farmers' markets with produce and will participate in a program this year that makes produce available to Lone Star Card (Food Stamp) recipients.

“The Texas Department of Health wanted to make fruit and vegetables available to low-income families,” Cal says.

The operation has been evolving for two decades. They started by buying some cotton land near Idalou in 1981 and began grafting trees. “We planted the first 3,000 on 10 acres in 1983,” Cal recalls. “It takes two years to graft and plant, and we started with multiple varieties to stagger maturity so we could provide apples over a longer period.

“We pick from July 4 through December 10 and have 20 varieties in commercial production. Another 28 are in a research block. We never plant a large block of trees until we've tested them under our conditions.”

They began harvest in 1985 and have planted more apples every year since, expanding to 22 acres with another 30 devoted to peaches, other fruits and some vegetables.

“George selected the first varieties,” Cal says. “He enjoyed the research and taking young trees and making them grow as they should. My dad enjoyed growing as well as selling apples. Susan and I also were involved from the first, digging holes and planting trees.

“Customer demand precipitated changes and growth,” Cal says. “Customers commented that if we had apple pies available they would buy them. So we added a bakery. Then customers suggested we put in a restaurant to serve lunch. We put in a restaurant.”

The Brints' daughter asked about holding her wedding in the orchard, so they built a gazebo and now make it available to other couples looking for a unique wedding setting. Customers asked for apple cider, so Brints bought a cider press and provides both frozen and pasteurized cider.

The gift shop features apple products, jams and jellies, collectibles, apple motif chests, yard ornaments and other decorative items, as well as baked goods. They have a mail order business for bakery items, gift baskets and custom designed packages. They also sell apple trees.

“All the expansion was customer driven,” Cal says. “Now, we do some catering, host school kids and other groups for visits and hold three festivals each year.”

The festivals, Apple Blossom in April, Apple Butter in September and An Orchard Christmas in December, benefits local charities.

“We also have house concerts,” Susan says. “We invite musicians to come and play in the orchard. We charge about $10 per person and the artists get all the money. They say they enjoy performing to small groups and the audience gets a chance to meet the performers.”

Production tips

Brints says growing apples in the arid High Plains comes with more than an apple basket full of challenges. He says the top five obstacles include hail, coloring the apples properly, insects, heat and tree thinning.

“Even with those potential problems, we don't have some troubles that apple growers do in other areas. We don't have the insect or disease pressure of the Northeast or Northwest. We don't have the wet weather that causes apple scab and other disease problems.”

He says getting the proper color is not as much of an issue as it once was. “With Red Delicious, the Northwest gets a lot of cloudy weather and that colors the apples really well. But, contrast that with a higher sugar content from all the sun we get and we produce a better flavor.

“We actually ship apples to the Northwest. Research from Texas A&M shows that sugar content of Granny Smith apples grown in Texas is 40 percent higher than those grown in the Northwest.”

New varieties also make the color issue less important. Apple Country grows more than 20 varieties, but Cal's favorites are Fuji and Pink Lady, apples that are not so bright red as the Red Delicious, but more flavorful, even after months in refrigeration. “Change in demand has helped us overcome the color problems,” he says.

Location helps with the hail issue. “We selected land with a relatively low incidence of hail,” he says. “In 22 years, we've had only two significant hail events. One the first year we harvested a significant crop of apples. The second 10 years later.”

He said the second hail resulted in a big year for cider production and spurred another product, apple wine. “We had more cider than we could sell, so we started making wine,” Cal says. “We even won a first place award for one wine.”

Currently, he doesn't sell wine in the Apple Country store but is applying for a permit.

The coddling moth provides the biggest insect threat.

“We use pheromone mating disruption to manage the pest,” Brints says. “We place a pheromone strip in every tree. The male finds the female by scent and with these strips all over the orchard, males get confused and are not able to mate. It's an effective way to manage the moth, and customers like to know that the apples have not been sprayed.”

He says the orchard may still get some damage, especially if a bred female flies in from another location. “We monitor the population but we'll give the pest a few apples.”

He uses a spray to thin fruit. “We also thin some by hand,” he says.

Diseases cause little trouble. “We may get a little powdery mildew in years where we go light on dormant oil sprays,” he says. “So we now use a full rate of dormant oil. That's the most important spray an orchard manager can make. In addition to helping prevent disease it also smothers mite eggs and seals the tree from other pests.”

He prunes “every tree every year. We're a little late this year because our pruning help was delayed. But in this area, we can prune all year. We don't have to worry about wounds and fungus infection because it's so dry.”

Despite some 20 years in business, Brints says marketing remains a vital part of the operation. “We have to be creative. We use apple culls for cider and baking and we feature apples in the restaurant every day.

“We time our advertising campaigns to reach the public in time for them to plan to pick apples. If we have a large crop of Winesaps coming off, we gear ads to get people interested in time to pick.”

They also send picking schedules to 40 area newspapers and use radio and television, “especially the last six months of the year.”

Apple Country offers a good example of what happens when ability and opportunity come together with folks who are not afraid of hard work and a little risk. Apple Country also offers a nice place to have lunch, browse and visit with the Brints over a cup of coffee or cider and a piece of that German apple cake.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com