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Serving: IN

Orchard continues family tradition through tough times

Slideshow: A late spring freeze shortens the fall season for Indiana orchards.

Extremely cold winter temperatures and a single late frost in the spring can impact the rest of the year for the entire agricultural industry. Like many farmers and orchard owners, Perry Kirkham, Lafayette, Ind., experienced many hardships that affected the normal operations of Wea Creek Orchard as a result of the Mother’s Day 2020 frost. Kirkham is also an employee at Purdue University as the coordinator of National Institutes of Health Research Development.

“At first, the blooms did not appear to die right away, but we realized the orchard was impacted more than we thought by the severe Mother’s Day frost,” Kirkham says.

Only 50 individual apples were salvageable from the crop, and all apples were marred with a frost mark, which prevents them from fully developing. The frost also severely affected the orchard’s peach crop. Only two peaches survived the frost, and the orchard also lost all of its pumpkins due to drought.

“Damaging frosts happen, but they tend to be more common in late March through the middle of April,” says Beth Hall, Indiana state climatologist. “To have one be this cold after the first week in May is unusual.”

Unfortunately, there is no way to avoid a frost so severe and late. The rate at which the climate is changing is fast enough to cause disruption, according to Hall. She says people shouldn’t be surprised to see severely low temperatures dispersed within a gradually warming climate.

“The late seasonal timing was obviously a shock — particularly to early growing plants,” Hall says. “Typically, low temperatures in May range from 45 degrees F to 55 degrees F, so to get into the low 20s is quite unusual.”

Wea Creek Orchard typically has crops that yield 5,000 pounds of peaches, 300 bushels of apples and 40,000 pounds of pumpkins.

Respond to challenges

The peach crop was actually affected by cold winter weather. Kirkham knew they were going to lose their peach crop in January when the temperature reached a low of minus 20 degrees F.

With consumers counting on them to have a crop, Wea Creek Orchard turned to other options.

“We were concerned what we were going to do, because we enjoy having children being able to pick apples, so we reached out to our friends who had 20% to 30% of their apple crop,” Kirkham says. “The moral of the story is that orchard people are really good people. Since they shared what they had, we were able to have a record-breaking year.”

The orchard was able to sell apples, pumpkins and peaches as a result of purchasing from friends and general outsourcing for produce, which helped draw crowds. Wea Creek Orchard also hosts many events and festivals throughout the year, which attract more consumers.

“I will probably end up buying close to $30,000 of product this year. It’s not something I am extremely happy about, it’s just how things are,” Kirkham says. “You just have to do the best you can.”

The sunflower crop yielded extremely well this year. Only a crop at Wea Creek Orchard for two years, sunflowers were extremely valuable this year due to the loss in revenue in the apple, pumpkin and peach crops. Wea Creek Orchard sold 10,000 sunflowers this year.

Wea Creek Orchard a popular venue

Wea Creek Orchard is not just an orchard. It’s also a venue for many events throughout the year, such as weddings, receptions, parties and meetings. There are also many festivals and gatherings held at the orchard, such as the Sunflower Festival, Fall Fest and Indiana Makers Market.

The Sunflower Festival, held in July, helps financially until it is time for the fall season. The Sunflower Festival was an idea that former intern and now part-time employee Mariah Schaeper brought to life in 2019.

“I would say my greatest accomplishment at Wea Creek Orchard would be starting the idea of festivals,” Schaeper says. “What is great about festivals is that they bring in new customers, and through word of mouth have spread our name farther than ever before.”

Schaeper’s husband, sister, mother and father are all involved in the orchard in differing ways.

“The Kirkhams are more than just the family I work for, because they’re part of my family now,” Schaeper says. “I am so grateful for who I work for because if I ever needed anything, they would always be there for me.”

Schaeper got married at Wea Creek Orchard in June and is still very involved in the events held at the orchard.

“Typically, we host an average of 25 weddings a year since 2011,” Kirkham says. “Every single wedding is unique, and we schedule the weddings to one a weekend, so the venue is available Friday to Sunday for guests.”

Weddings have also helped the orchard financially when crops are not in season. Kirkham says his favorite part of hosting weddings and other events at the orchard is seeing the families come back and visit year after year.

New opportunities

Wea Creek Orchard is also partnering with 21 Petals of Lafayette to form a garden center called 3rd Day. The entity will specialize in certain types of roses, dahlias, peonies, mums and fruit trees. More information can be found on either 21 Petals’ or Wea Creek Orchard’s Facebook page.

“We believe this opportunity will help us get through the lean times in the spring, when there are not any crops coming in, and will give us an opportunity to work with our close friends at 21 Petals,” Kirkham says.

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources registered Wea Creek Orchard as a documented archeological site. Artifacts found on the property could date back 10,000 years. Wea Creek Orchard is classified as a Hoosier Homestead Farm, which means it has been owned by the same family for over 150 years. The orchard is owned and operated by three families who are descendants of pioneers who purchased the farm in 1855.

Click through the slideshow to see photos of the orchard.

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