Tom Vorbeck

Tom Vorbeck

Some people are born gardeners and others discover a passion for it serendipitously. For Tom and Jill Vorbeck, owners of Applesource, a specialty apple business, it all started with snow peas. They were living in Chicago, working as computer systems analysts, when Jill decided to take a Chinese cooking class. She and Tom were especially enamored with a recipe for beef and pea pods, but they balked at paying $4 a pound for snow peas. They thought, "Hmm, we could grow these." So they planted their first garden.

"We found we really enjoyed it, and within a few years we had decided to chuck working for a large conglomerate in Chicago and move to my mother's farm in Chapin, Illinois, to grow vegetables," says Tom. Once there, they tasted tree-ripened - not supermarket - red delicious apples, and they were hooked. A future business took shape in their minds. They wanted to introduce people to a richer diversity of apples than they could find on supermarket shelves, and in the process help backyard growers decide what to plant. They began planting apple trees, and soon were selling apples direct from their orchard and through a mail-order catalog.

At first, Tom and Jill knew nothing, so they relied on help from the local Extension Service, the North American Fruit Explorers, and other apple growers to determine the needs of different varieties and the limitations of the climate. For example, McIntosh was a leading variety, but growing Macs had no commercial potential in their locale because of the climate.

"Here in central Illinois, McIntosh ripens in late August when temperatures are often still 90 degrees," Tom explains. "The apples color poorly and are quite sour, and the flesh tends to be quite soft. Also pre-harvest drop is severe."

The Vorbecks narrowed their choices and began planting 100 to 200 trees per year. They gambled on which varieties would prove both popular and productive. "I was the first commercial orchard in Illinois to put in 'Gala' - an extremely good variety that ripens a few weeks before the red delicious harvest, which used to mark the beginning of apple season," says Tom. "I planted them in 1979 and had three apples in 1980 or '81. Many times when you have only a few apples on a tree, they are lousy. But even those three were wonderful. I knew I had a winner."

The first week they offered 'Gala' apples for sale at the local farmers' market, only a few people bought them. Then a curious thing happened. The following week, as newcomers tentatively pondered whether to buy some 'Gala' apples, customers from the previous week showed up, raving about the flavor and buying a bushel at a time. This initiated a buying frenzy. In only 2 hours, 23 bushels were sold. Tom had never expected an apple to cause such excitement, and he chuckles at the memory.

A sampling of apples

Applesource Apples

Another early gamble that paid off was 'Fuji', a sweet apple that extends the apple season after the red delicious harvest and has a crisp texture that - like the energizer bunny - just keeps on going. Tom thought demand would be high for this apple too, so he started by taking reservations for the apples even before harvest. Unfortunately the trees didn't keep up with the reservations, and Tom found he had three times more reservations than he had apples. The following year he tried a new strategy. He bought rolls of tickets to hand out at the farmer's market that determined how many apples each person could buy. People lined up in the early morning darkness to get a ticket to buy 'Fujis'. Before the market opened at 7 a.m., Tom had given out 100 tickets. Within 45 minutes, 86 bushels of 'Fuji' apples were gone.

"If I were planting just one sweet apple tree, it would be a 'Fuji'," says Tom. That's praise indeed from someone who has fruited more than 300 different varieties of eating apples, both antique and new. Applesource now offers more than 100 varieties of apples (fruit, not trees), and ships throughout the country. Their specialty is apple-tasting packages containing an assortment of different varieties. They also still do a brisk business selling apples and apple products direct from their orchard.

As varieties become available in supermarkets, the buying frenzy at Applesource may ebb, but there are plenty of tasty apples to generate excitement. Take, for instance, the relatively new apple on the market, 'Honey Crisp'. This explosively crisp, sweet variety from the Excelsior, Minnesota Breeding Station has star potential, judging by the praises from Applesource customers. A bite of a 'Honey Crisp' apple typically brings the reaction, "Best apple I've ever tasted in my life." Tom and Jill would be happy to send you some.

To contact Applesource, call (800) 588-3854 or visit: www.applesource.com/

Article published on September 9, 2004.

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