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Baraboo orchard’s hopes are Ski Hi

September 6, 2018

April showers bring not only May flowers, but September apples.

A cool, wet spring set the stage for a bumper apple crop at Ski Hi Fruit Farm outside of Baraboo. Operations Manager Jake Franzen said McIntoshes are ripe and ready for picking, to be followed soon by Cortlands and Honey Crisps. “This is just the beginning,” he said.

A late spring prevented the trees from budding prematurely, keeping them safe from frost. Franzen said this year’s crop was well-pollinated. “It pushed everything back, which is good for us,” he said.

The century-old orchard’s 8,000 trees will provide ingredients for the 60,000 doughnuts it sells each fall, not to mention 5,500 pies, 25,000 bags of apples, 10, gallons of cider and 16,000 caramel apples. Ski Hi will have cider available by mid-September.

“It just depends on how many apples we have in and what we can get sorted,” Franzen said.

History lesson

On busy weekend days during the core of apple season, from mid-September to mid-October, Ski Hi draws 5,000 people a day to its store perched atop the Baraboo Bluffs near Devil’s Lake State Park.

It was there that owner Betty Thiessen’s grandfather bought a farm in 1907. Rocky soil prevented the farming of traditional row crops, so A.K. Bassett opted for lower-hanging fruit. He grew an apple orchard that survived hungry deer, swarms of grasshoppers and harsh winters. He attended classes at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and learned which varieties of apples would thrive in this climate.

He eventually turned over the orchard to son Art, who expanded the farm to 500 acres, 80 of which he used to grow more than 90 varieties of apples. Today it’s owned by his daughter, Thiessen, and operated by Franzen and a staff that swells to 30 during apple season.

Picked apples ready for sale are stacked in a giant cooler behind the store. In a prep area nearby, workers peel apples that will be baked into pies. In a kitchen next to the shop, workers make 70 to 250 pies from scratch each day. Up to 275 doughnuts are made there daily. The orchard remains open through late November.

“This is a good place to work,” longtime employee Mike Maccaux said. “I love this time of year.”

Apple attraction

Last year the staff harvested a quarter-million pounds of apples, a number Franzen expects will rise this season.

“We have a little bit heavier crop this year,” he said.

The farm’s first apples went on sale last week, with pies hitting the shelves last weekend.

Ski Hi doesn’t yet allow customers to pick their own apples because many of the trees require ladders for picking. As the orchard transitions to dwarf trees that lend themselves to easy picking, Ski Hi may open its orchard to customers.

Seeking to make the orchard an attraction, Ski Hi has brought in a petting zoo. On weekends community groups grill brats so families can enjoy an entire meal while surveying the orchard’s panoramic view of the bluffs.

“We’re trying to bring in some savory food they can pick up,” Franzen said. “Hopefully it keeps people here longer and gives them an experience.”

Shoppers already flock to sample treats, pick up bags of apples and walk the grounds, which feature the property’s original 1862 cabin.

The store also stocks maple syrup, honey and popcorn made by artisanal companies. Franzen said Ski Hi strives to stock high-quality, Wisconsin-made products — just like its apples.

“We want this place to be unique,” he said.

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