Apple farming is a way of life in Michigan, where orchards provide dozens of delicious varieties every year. The moderate climate of Lake Michigan and the rolling hills are ideal locations for family-owned growers, like Wittenbach Orchards of rural Belding.
“I’m the fourth generation,” says owner-operator Mike Wittenbach. “Farming is what I enjoyed when I was a kid, and I knew it’s what I wanted to do.”
Wittenbach Orchards grows apples, corn and soybeans.
“When my grandfather had the farm, it was a small dairy with a little bit of orchard,” Mike says. “When my father took the farm over, he eventually got rid of the cattle and expanded the orchard business.”
“He didn’t want to work seven days a week,” he adds with a laugh.
The orchard business has done well for the Wittenbach family — the number of varieties they grow has expanded over time. Wittenbach grows about 13 kinds of apples, SweeTango included. “Michigan tends to be ‘the variety state’” due to its moderate climate, Wittenbach says.
Wittenbach, a 25-year veteran of apple growing, says he’s seen the industry change in big ways.
“My generation of farmers are looking a little more for eating experience than in the past,” he says. That means that apples like Red Delicious — which “don’t always have the best flavor characteristics,” he says — have given way to apples that make superior eating, like SweeTango. “An apple isn’t just an apple anymore,” Wittenbach says.
“We’re trying to capture part of the snack food industry and trying to get people to eat more healthily,” he says. “We’re trying to compete with potato chips and candy bars. You can’t do that without a quality piece of food that somebody wants to eat.”
The way to find those new varieties, he says, is through old-school growing techniques: cutting and grafting and trial and error. “We’ve introduced varieties in the past that we knew were an improvement, but none as exciting as SweeTango,” he says, “because it’s a big improvement.”
In the end, Wittenbach says, apple growers want to produce better fruits for customers to enjoy. “When you grow apples, you’re growing a product that can be directly consumed by a customer,” he says. “The pleasure comes in growing something that the consumer can just pick up, eat and enjoy.”