Iowa City family opens second farming business near Des Moines

CUMMING, Iowa (AP) — Paul Rasch pulls some Red Free apples from the trees at Wilson’s Orchard & Farm, about 5 miles northeast of downtown Iowa City.

Hot and sweet apples are one of approximately 100 varieties that are at the heart of Rasch’s growing family business. Beyond a traditional “your choice” apple orchard and pumpkin patch, the family added strawberries, raspberries and blueberries; zinnias, dahlias and other flowers; weddings, music and other special events; a cider business; livestock operation; and a farm-to-table restaurant and barbecue smokehouse.

Today, the nearly four-decade-old Iowa City stalwart is taking root in Cumming, a town of about 500 just southwest of Des Moines, planting a second orchard and building a restaurant and center. of events in the state’s first agrihood, a 900- acre development called Middlebrook. The $800 million mixed residential, commercial and commercial project centers around agriculture, with the orchard joining a giant community garden.

Wilson’s Des Moines Metro Orchard will span 115 acres, approximately 30 of which will be dedicated to cattle grazing. “The rest will be in fruit trees, berries, pumpkins, flowers, vegetables, but also in meadows and places that are left to express themselves naturally,” Rasch said in a video Thursday announcing the project.

The goal is to connect people with food and “the land it comes from,” he said.

We had long dreamed of expanding into Des Moines,” Rasch told the Monks Register, adding that he searched for a year without success for a location near the capital that had scenic hills, ponds and woods. He mostly found flat cornfields.

“It looked like it wasn’t going to happen,” he said, until the Middlebrook developer added 160 acres to the project. “And everything fell into place.”

The new orchard project grew naturally when Katie and Jacob Goering, the children of Rasch and his wife, Sara Goering, joined the business, bringing their own skills and ideas. The family wanted to make the operation more sustainable, both environmentally and financially, said Rasch, who bought the orchard with his wife in 2009.

“We wanted to be more diverse. We wanted to extend the length of our opening,” said Rasch, who spent the summer planting apple trees, strawberries and raspberries at the orchard site on the west side of Middlebrook. “Before, we were open three months a year. Then it went to six months and now it’s the whole year. And what we do that year has expanded.

“It’s kind of a slippery slope,” Rasch said of the growing family business, which drew about 265,000 people last year to Iowa City’s orchard, market and restaurants. “He developed his own momentum.”

As Rasch walks through the Iowa City Orchard, he talks about some of the additions that resonated with visitors. A quarter-acre flower garden bursts with color with flowers visitors can cut or buy at the farm market. They can also cross a bridge and walk through rows of sunflowers that they can pick.

“People love them,” Rasch said, adding that flower gardens are also a popular spot for photos.

Bees and other pollinators also love flowers.

“We’ve seen a lot of native pollinators coming back,” said Rasch, who brings in commercial hives every year to pollinate fruit trees.

Reducing summer mowing also helps pollinators, Rasch said, walking through grass filled with red clover.

“We did a lot of mowing. But we have come to the conclusion that there are benefits to not being so impatient,” he said.

The habitat is home to insects that help protect its crops.

“Ninety-seven percent of insects are good guys. When I grew up, all the bugs were bad guys,” said Rasch, a fifth-generation farmer raised in Michigan, where his family grows apples, cherries, pears and other fruits. “We bombed them. We lived on sprays.

“But we’ve learned that we don’t have to do it that way. If you let the 97% do their thing – I won’t say we don’t do anything – but you don’t have to do the same,” he said, adding that new technologies have helped the effort.

For example, the farm uses pheromone disruption to prevent pest codling moths from laying eggs in apples, with the caterpillars later eating their way out. The crew ties pheromone strips to the trees, flooding the orchard with scents that prevent the males from finding the females and mating.

“It’s more expensive, but there are no pesticides,” Rasch said.

Regenerative agriculture is about more than “one or two big steps. It takes a million little steps to make it work,” he said, like mowing in the fall so eagles, hawks and other nesting predators can see and help control bark-eating voles that damage fruit trees.

Rasch also gives pomace – the pulp, skins, pits, stems and seeds left over after apples are pressed for cider – to the lambs, pigs and cattle he and other farmers raise. Meat, as well as orchard harvests, are served at the family-run Ciderhouse restaurant and take-out barbecue stand, the Smokehouse.

The family built the restaurants and event space after Katie Goering saw customer demand, and the family moved a restored barn onto the property to house the new businesses.

“We decided that if we were going to have food, we should have really good food,” said Rasch, who hired James Beard Award-winning chef Matt Steigerwald when he ran the Lincoln Cafe in Mount Vernon. . It showcases products from the orchard and regional farms on restaurant menus.

With the Orchard development in Cumming underway, Katie Goering said the next step for the family is to build a 20,000 square foot farmers market and bakery, Cider Bar & Restaurant, as well as a cider cellar and a production facility this fall. The business and orchard, with strawberries available first, will open next year. The family plans to build the event space a year later.

Rasch said the Cumming restaurant will offer ciders.

“Most people don’t know it, but Iowa was one of the biggest apple producers in the United States. Before Prohibition, hard cider was the most popular alcoholic beverage in the country,” he said. he said in the video announcing the project. “One of our goals as a company is to restore cider and a cider culture in Iowa.”

Steigerwald, the company’s culinary coordinator, will run the Cumming restaurant as well as the one in Iowa City. Additionally, the family owns a 90-acre commercial orchard in Solon between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, where they make the company’s cider, which is sold in metro Des Moines as well as eastern Iowa.

As the Iowa City restaurant leans into fine dining, Katie Goering said farm-to-table food at Cumming’s restaurant will be more casual, with take-out options available in the market. The new orchard will provide dining experiences through special events like those at Iowa City, which hosts Full Moon Dinners featuring prix-fixe meals paired with ciders, she said.

“The consistent theme throughout the food is quality – carefully selected local ingredients,” said Jacob Goering.

Rasch said it’s important that in both Iowa City and Cumming, the orchard is a place people can enjoy often.

“We don’t want it to be a one-time-a-year destination,” he said, adding that’s why the orchard frequently offers band performances, tractor and hay rides, ice skating in winter and other events.

“We have a lot of special events happening here ‘in Iowa City’ that will also be happening in Des Moines,” Rasch said.

Steve Bruere, chairman of Diligent Development, the company developing agrihood in Middlebrook, said he thinks Wilson’s Orchard will fit into the existing community garden, where 400-500 people gather each week for Farm Fridays during summer.

Armed with lounge chairs, families buy garden produce, wine, cocktails and dinner from one of the site’s 20 vendors, while listening to free music. The town is already popular with cyclists on the Great Western Trail, which runs from Des Moines to Cumming.

Developers are connecting the agrihood to the trail and building trails that will run throughout the development, including Wilson’s Orchard. The development will eventually have 1,500 homes, to be built over the next decade, and already includes Middlebrook Mercantile, an upmarket bar and general store.

Bruere said Wilson’s Orchard will make Cumming even more of a destination for Metro residents.

“Nobody complains that there are too many vineyards in California,” he said.

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