Know Your Farmer? Hill Orchard Honor-System Roadside Stand

In these times of high unemployment and housing foreclosures, Tea Party rallies and an increasing number of militias, some people are hesitant to trust their own mothers. An honor-system roadside stand heaped with bags of fruit attended only by a jar for money comes as a breath of fresh air, life-affirming evidence of the innate goodness of people.

The Hill Orchard canopied stand has been a fixture on Old Stage Road, just north of County ZZ outside of Sister Bay, for almost 15 years. In a Currier and Ives Century Farm setting, a historic barn sits to one side, a vintage farmhouse to the other. This is not the land of the Honeycrisps; expect only traditional varieties, those known in the industry as heritage apples.

“Some of the trees are about 60 years old,” said Randy Hill, who maintains the orchard.

His mother Jean, who is in charge of the orchard stand, noted that her grandfather Charles Nordeen planted a number of the apple trees, as well as apricot and plum trees that still produce fruit. The name of the plum variety has not been passed through the generations (Jean’s grandchildren are the sixth on the orchard farm), and the fruit is now simply called Red Plums by the family.

Jean Hill’s late husband Lyle decided that a roadside stand would be a good marketing move, and he has been proved correct. The orchard now produces about 200 bushels of apples each year, Randy said, most of them sold at the stand. Jean retails excess fruit at the Country Walk and Anderson House farmers’ markets. Some of the produce is occasionally wholesaled locally.

“People like to go purchase fruit where it is grown,” Jean said, “a green connection. Customers come to the house, too, [on Scandia Road] and go to the stand any time of day or night. They know that if a variety is not there, it’s either not ready to be picked or the season is over.”

The stand typically opens for business in the middle of August and closes in the middle of November, depending upon weather. The early fruits include Duchess, Whitney Crab, and Hyssop apples, along with apricots. Later varieties are McIntosh, Cortland, Jonathan, and Red Delicious apples; pears include Bartlett, Spartlett, and D’Anjou; and, of course, the Red Plums.

Although the number of acres of production in the orchard varies, Randy estimates a total of about 65, including cherries.

Commercial orchard fruit shipped great distances must be picked before ripened to survive the trip. “We taste the apples before we pick them,” Jean said. “We wait until they are ready, tree ripened fruit.”

Sometimes, Jean said, people will tell her that they don’t like plums. “I give them a taste,” she continued, “tell them, just taste, and they will say, ‘Why do these taste so good?’ and I tell them, ‘It’s tree ripened fruit.’”

And it is carefully handpicked. “I tell my grandkids Jakob and Jana, ‘Don’t drop plums or fruit, but put it carefully in the bucket,’” she added. “They understand the importance of quality. Don’t put anything in the pail that you wouldn’t want to find! My mother used to say, ‘Beautiful all the way through!’”

The orchard stand and farm market methods of retailing fruit work well, she said, as people buy in smaller quantities than they once did. And she likes the connection with customers who ask questions, and sometimes stand around and visit.

They may learn about the family tradition of the orchard. “When I take a break under the apple trees, and my two kids [Jody and Randy] are there,” Jean said, “and my grandkids,” she feels a tremendous sense of good fortune.

Randy, who lives in Bonduel, spends four days a week in the family’s orchard in Sister Bay during eight months of the year, working with his mother Jean, helped by his sister Jody.

As Jody and Jerry Littler live with their children in the homestead house near the orchard stand, they witness much of the retail activity. “A lot of the people are intrigued,” Jerry said. “They enjoy the hominess, a step back into the past.”

“People are amazed that [the honor-system stand] works,” Jody said. She explained that one time apples may have been taken but no money left, and then the next day money deposited while no apples are gone. Someone had come back to pay.

“People will remember their childhood,” Jerry continued, “visiting a farm, things for sale next to a barn. Sometimes they stop by for the charm, a wonderful little pioneer homestead.”

“And it’s not a timed thing,” Jody said. “It doesn’t close at five. People say that it’s nice they can stop on their own time.”

“Customers have made purchases through the beams of headlights!” Jerry added.

And they like the fruit. “Jody and I had stopped at a local potters one day,” Jean said, “and the potter said, ‘I know where there’s some really good fruit that you can buy at this orchard any time of day or night,’ and he told where it was.” She laughed. “It was our orchard!”

The Hill Orchard honor-system stand is located at 10718 Old Stage Road east of Sister Bay and will be open, weather permitting, until the middle of November.