California produces more apple varieties than does any region west of the Rocky Mountains, according to the Apple Journal, a trade publication. But as the state is consumed by residential, commercial and industrial development, the number of acres planted in orchards and the production of apples has declined.
Pockets of growers catering to retail and commercial production of apples are now centered around such towns as Tehachapi, where growing apples has for decades been a robust industry. The small businesses that grow and sell the region’s apples are run by families. Their customers are families that make picking and eating Tehachapi apples an annual entertainment event.
On plots of land that range from a couple of acres to 10 acres or more, orchards sprout thousands of apple trees. A fall harvest, which spans an average of six weeks, beginning in September, yields boxes of apple varieties that bear names such as Jonathan, Jonagold, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious and Gala.
Alice Knaus has lived in Tehachapi since 1966 and has sold her apples from her 8-acre Knaus Ranch at 19042 Cherry Lane since 1970. She has watched generations of families flock to her mountain community in the fall to breathe the fresh air and spend the day picking apples.
Many customers come from Bakersfield, Lancaster, Ridgecrest and Southern California, but John Pulford, another long-time Tehachapi grower, also reports selling to many out-of-state visitors. He claims the attraction is the quality and diversity of the apples found in the Tehachapi Valley, as well as the desire of people to “reconnect” with the growing experience.
“At first, the people who came here did a lot of canning,” said Knaus, reflecting on her nearly half century of apple growing. “Now we see more families that come just to pick some fruit and have some family fun doing it.”
Knaus, who operates her seasonal ranch with the help of her children and friends, makes more than 900 trees available for her U-pick customers, many of whom return year after year for the traditional harvest.
While the annual Tehachapi Apple Festival, which will be held this year on Oct. 13 and 14 in downtown Tehachapi, helps promote the local industry, most customers are attracted by word-of-mouth recommendations or by the many roadside signs that sprout up in advance of the fall harvest.
The operating hours and selling season of most of Tehachapi’s family apple businesses are dictated by growing conditions, including weather and rain.
Pulford, whose orchard is located at 19440 Highland Road, noted that cold weather this winter may slightly delay the harvest. “We will have to wait and see.”
Most growers have been sufficiently quick-thinking and innovative to have survived California’s years-long drought by installing water conservation systems to protect their trees and fruit, Pulford said, noting that he expects 2018 to be a good season for his 10-acre orchard, which produces 19 varieties of apples.
One of the few apple businesses that operates year-round in Tehachapi is Moessner Farm Café & Store at 25000 Bear Valley Road. Mike Moessner sells apples grown on a few trees on his property, but also sells handcrafted sandwiches and food items prepared in his café that is open Friday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The café and store, which features indoor and outdoor seating, sells more than 29 varieties of jams, as well as pastries, cookies and even sauerkraut.
Moessner, whose family business has been a valley “tradition” for more than three decades, notes that most Tehachapi apple growers sell a variety of goods and vegetables from their fruit stands and stores during the harvest season.
The approximately dozen apple growers in Tehachapi define what it means to “add value” to agriculture. Their apples leave the community in a variety of forms — boxed as whole fruit, as well as in cider, butters, crisps, strudels and mouth-watering pies.
And when the last fruit is picked from their trees and visitors wave goodbye to Tehachapi, most of the growers hang “gone fishing” signs on their gates; turn off their lights; and leave their orchards to grow apples for the next season.
First-time apple season visitors can find an orchard to visit by simply driving around the Tehachapi Valley and stopping at the many roadside stands. In addition to the Pulford and Knaus orchards, Tehachapi retail orchards include: Dries Farms, 22710 Highline Road; Freitag Orchard, 1412 Robin Lane; Hartnett Farms, 21850 Highway 202; Kolesars’ Apples, Highland Road and Casey Drive; RB Family Orchard, 1437 Casey Drive; HA’S Apple Ranch, 20916 Stueber Road; Tangleweed Farm, 21192 Old Town Road; Foothill Farms, 21916 State Highway 202; Apple of the Earth Farm, 221850 State Highway 202; and Ruhman Orchard, 1431 Robin Lane.