How About Them Apples?

October 8, 2013

Sampling this fall's crop

Sampling this fall’s crop

While picking apples at my hobby farm this weekend, I was once again reminded of one of the greatest failures of marketing I’ve ever experienced.

We bought the farm nine years ago after seeing a listing on the web site of a small western Wisconsin real estate company.

“Amish farm. No electric. No septic. Needs work!” said the listing for the place.

The two grainy accompanying pictures, which blew up to the size of a postage stamp, showed the broad side of the barn and a stack of firewood on the porch of what looked like the farmhouse. Not compelling. Still, something drew us in.

We called the listing agent, who was offering five other farms in the area, and the sales job didn’t improve.

“Hell, I don’t really know what I’ve got with these Amish farms,” he admitted before declining to join us for a showing. “Just walk up and introduce yourselves to the owners. They’re nice people.”

The bounty

The bounty

Okay. This place really must be a turd, we thought. Undeterred by his lack of enthusiasm, we jumped in the car and made the two-hour drive to check out the property anyway.

Turns out the place was a mess. It had been built by an Amish family with 12 kids, and to say these people were pack rats would be an insult to hoarders. The property was littered with everything you can imagine: Old doors, bathroom sinks, scrap wood and metal, broken manure spreaders and the like.

The house, which had been built with lumber milled on site, looked like it was about three-quarters complete. The inside smelled strongly of kerosene and there were flies everywhere. The drywall was not taped or painted in most rooms, and what little furniture filled the place looked like it had been rescued from the curb in front of a frat house. There were kids and farm animals everywhere it seemed.

But we immediately fell in love with the place.

Sunset at the farm

Sunset at the farm

The surrounding area was stunning. The farm was situated in a little valley, next to a hardwood forest and surrounded by undulating hills and bluffs. We’d never seen a landscape like it.

Over the course of an hour, Andy, the Amish guy who owned the farm, excitedly showed us a little creek that ran through the property and a spring-fed pond he told us doubled as a skating rink in the winter. He walked us through meticulously maintained gardens filled with organic vegetables and past a picture perfect concord grape vine that bordered one garden. He guided us up to the top of a wildflower-covered hillside overlooking the rest of the property, where he had planted a beautiful little orchard with apple, pear and cherry trees. The view stretched for miles. We were speechless.

The clueless realtor was marketing a dump. But the Amish guy knew he was selling a serene and romantic country retreat nestled in some of the most beautiful landscape around. Sold!

This weekend, my wife, kids and I picked several boxes of apples in that amazing orchard. I’ve never been able to get a fix on what kinds of apples they are. A couple years ago I asked my friend and client, Dennis Courtier, who owns Pepin Heights Orchard in Lake City, Minn., to help me identify the varieties. Not many people on the planet know more about apples than Dennis. His professional assessment after sampling several apples: “&%$# if I know.”

Off to Tilia!

Off to Tilia!

He told me they were likely varieties created by the Amish who planted the orchard.

This morning I dropped off this year’s harvest at Tilia, where my talented business partner and friend, Steven Brown, will eagerly turn those tart, organic mystery apples into apple butter or something similarly spectacular, as he has in years past.

So if you see Rumspringa Farms apples on the brunch menu at Tilia over the next couple weeks, that’s the back story.

How’s that for selling romance?