Applefest goers got a taste of orchard life Saturday afternoon, sampling freshly picked apples, watching the fruit make its way down the antique packing line and taking a trip through the trees of Van Lin Orchards.

Rick Van Lin led the tour, telling about 30 people the history of the farm and the complex process of growing and harvesting apples on the 40 acres. Originally a dairy farm, Rick’s parents bought the land in 1959, and the couple planted every tree themselves. It was five years before any apples were produced, but the business grew swiftly and was eventually purchased by Rick, who lives on the property with his three children, and one of his brothers, Dan.

Tour goers had plenty of questions for Rick about growing techniques and varieties, with children fascinated by the 40-year-old apple sorting conveyor belt. The machine pulls apples from a vat of water, polishing them and sorting by size. The machine is rarely used today, as most of the packing is outsourced, but it was a mainstay in earlier years.

Rick discussed the the history of the Honeycrisp (created by the University of Minnesota in the late 1980s) and the future of the university’s “M55” apple, a yet unnamed SweeTango hybrid developed for summer harvest.

This summer’s heat wave was not kind to the crops, according to Rick. Temperatures above 88 degrees can cause the apples to stop growing and ripen prematurely.

The orchard uses the Brix scale to measure fructose content in order to pick the apples at their peak.

Many people on the tour were curious about the rows of wires crossing through the 10 varieties of apple trees. Rick explained the goal is to keep the trees small for better quality apples.

“The purpose of the first three years is to grow the trees up, not out,” Rick explained. “We’re trying to grow apples, not trees, and we’re always chasing after the best varieties. Honeycrisps expanded the market and got people interested in apples again.”

Rick’s daughter, Leah Van Lin, 8, helped dole out slices of Riverbelle and Pazazz apples, her favorite part of the afternoon.

“I pretty much enjoyed the tour because I got to steal some apples,” Leah said. “I’m going to have to say RiverBelles are my favorite because I gave samples and its really good. I pick ‘em and eat ‘em.”

Tour-goer Satish Jeejula of La Crosse brought 3-year-old twins Adarsh and Asish to the orchard after hearing La Crescent was the Apple Capital of Minnesota.

“Having it so close to La Crosse, 15 minutes away, I couldn’t resist,” Jeejula said. “In India (where Jeejula grew up), the orchards are hundreds of miles away. I’ve always been eating apples, but I never knew the whole process of how they grew. It was very interesting to learn, and the land is so beautiful here with the rolling hills.

“And the kids are having a great time,” he added. “They ate about an entire apple of samples each.”

Van Lin Orchards will offer tours and wagon rides on Sundays throughout the fall. To schedule a tour, call 895-4492.

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