Vander Mill’s Paul Vander Heide, left, and Dan Dietrich, one of the owners of Ridgeview Orchards, discuss the 20 acres set aside for production of cider apples. Photo by Pat Evans
For every apple picked off of a grocery store shelf, a consumer could pick up several cans of hard cider.
Very few apples pass the test to make it to the grocery store, with the rest heading to processing purposes, such as hard cider, apple juice, applesauce and other apple products, according to Dan Dietrich, a member of the family ownership of Ridgeview Orchards, which is one of two orchards operating through Dietrich Orchards.
Money in apples generally is made through fresh apples sold in the produce department at grocery stores, and those are the apples — such as Galas, Fujis and Honey Crisps — dictating an orchard’s production, Dietrich said. Apples not making grade lose more than half their value, Dietrich said, which orchards often view as a loss.
“It’s so hard to make money growing strictly processing apples,” he said. “You’ll always have apples, but to strictly grow those, you’ll never make money.”
Additionally, apples failing to make the cut for grocery stores are more frequently finding their way to cider mills for hard cider, such as Vander Mill, Dietrich said, and Ridgeview is hedging a bet on certain apples being worth more for cider.
In 2013, Dietrich went to New Hampshire to bring back branches of heirloom apple trees — they spent two days cutting samples — to Michigan to graft onto rootstock to create a section of cider apple trees at his family’s orchard in Kent City.
The partnership between Vander Mill and Ridgeview has developed during the past 10 years, since Vander Mill owner Paul Vander Heide began his operation in Spring Lake. The past several years, Vander Heide began to pester the Dietrich family to start a section of orchard dedicated to the apples not meant for eating — but drinking.
“I’ve worked with them for a long time, and they’ve been great partners,” Vander Heide said. “Eventually, they determined they’re a large enough operation that this project won’t sink the ship.”
Vander Heide recalls one of the Dietrichs telling him, “We’ve done dumber things than this.”
With the tree branches from New Hampshire, Dietrich grafted them to rootstock of trees with history of growing well in the soil of his orchard on the Fruit Ridge. Dietrich planted 20 acres of heirloom apples, eventually destined to become perfect for cider making, as the apple varieties are more bitter than apples on store shelves.
Twenty acres is not a small investment for the orchard, as Dietrich said each acre of apple trees is a $20,000 investment.
The decision to plant the trees wasn’t easy, as one of the apples planted was one Dietrich’s grandfather had chased out of the orchard.
“Baldwin, my grandpa said, ‘Get that out of here, I spent decades trying to get that out of my orchards,’” Dietrich said. “Prohibition was probably the time that really smashed these apples, but people really turned to growing apples for food, and they focused on apples that tasted better.”
Dietrich has high hopes for the apples and likened them to Honey Crisps, which were developed in the 1980s and took until the mid-2000s to become the most popular apple in America.
While the trees are up to three years from full production, there’s hope between Vander Hiede and Dietrich the trees will come to be profitable. For now, Vander Hiede has committed to purchasing all 20 acres’ worth of apples once they grow.
Had a smaller plot been used, it might have been too little, too late, Vander Hiede said.
“There’s potential value for being first if it does work,” Vander Hiede said. “The cider industry can talk all it wants about how this can be great for small farmers; well maybe, but someone has to do it to try and figure it out.
“Hopefully, the fruit will grow and people see the value and way the farmers need to make it a sustainable business.”
Although Vander Hiede has yet to make any juice with the apples from the orchard, he said he knows Dietrich has learned more in three years of working with them than most in the agricultural industry who still are speculating and trying to figure out how to grow the apples.
Vander Hiede and Dietrich also have leaned on Sietsma Orchards in Ada to help discover which heirlooms grow better in West Michigan than others. Andy Sietsma said his orchard has about 15 acres with approximately 150 varieties of apples they use in sweet and hard ciders.
The past several years, Sietsma said he and his father have planted more of the varieties growing well in the climate, such as Ashmead’s Kernels, Spitzenburgs and Golden Russets.
“Everyone is trying to find out what grows well, ferments out well and what people like,” Sietsma said. “We have a lot of people coming to us because of what we’re growing.”
Dietrich said each acre could produce up to 3,000 gallons of juice, so the 20 acres could potential yield 60,000 gallons for Vander Hiede. The capacity for production at Vander Mill’s production facility — opened this spring with a restaurant in Grand Rapids — is more than 1 million gallons.
Vander Hiede said it will help Vander Mill make ciders on a larger scale than most cider makers in the nation can make right now, whether the product strictly features the cider apples or is blended in with the current product to help give a hard cider more character.
“When Dan asks me what we’d do when he’s got 3,000 bins of this stuff, my thought is I can’t sell that many big bottles of it, but if we can blend it into everything, it gives everything a little more depth than we can right now,” he said. “If that happens, we can hopefully start to get people more into those apples.”
Cider makers are important to Dietrich, whether it works or not, but he’s sure the experiment will work out one way or another.
“I’ll be happy if I can sell them all,” he said. “If there’s a demand beyond that, I’ll plant some more. If it flops, the backup plan is to tear it all out. Sure, I’ll be out a few years of investment, but I have the infrastructure here.
“I’ll come through and make it Honey Crisp.”