What could be more American than apple pie? Loading up family and friends on a crisp fall day and heading to an orchard to pick the apples for that pie, that's what.
Central Illinois offers plenty of places to go for apples and other fall fun. Plus, orchards are good spots for enjoying the outdoors and tucking away any COVID worries, as Jeff Broom, co-owner of Broom Orchard in Carlinville, points out.
"With COVID, the demand for apples was just astronomical," Broom says. "We got a lot of new customers that found us as a safe place for families to be outside, and we are really optimistic for this year." Other orchard owners agree.
Whether you seek to fill your freezer with apple pies or pick a peck for eating fresh, nearby orchards are ready for you. Here is information on several, including website addresses to check operating hours, directions, apple varieties and other offerings.
Jefferies Orchard, Springfield
Co-owner Pam Jefferies says apple season runs from Sept. 1 until the orchard closes the day before Thanksgiving. The orchard's own Golden Delicious and Russet are big sellers with many repeat buyers. "We have a lot of customers who have been coming here their whole lives," she says of the orchard that began in the 1920s.
Jefferies Orchard, 1016 Jefferies Rd, makes its own cider and sells apple varieties from other orchards, lots of fall vegetables and more than 50 varieties of pumpkins. U-pick is not available for apples or pumpkins.
The orchard will host an apple festival the second weekend in October with activities for children, including pumpkin painting. Caramel apples, apple butter and other products will be for sale, and a miniature horse will be around for photos. (www.jefferies-orchard.com)
Apple Barn, Chatham
The Apple Barn, 2290 E. Walnut St., Chatham, also does not offer U-pick apples from its 1,400 trees, but customers can buy filled bags in the store. Most popular among the orchard's 12 varieties are Jonathan and Honeycrisp.
Apple season runs from the end of August to mid-October, but co-owner Lance Hedrick says other fall items including pumpkins, decorative gourds, cornstalks and straw bales – "anything to make your house look festive" – are for sale longer.
The Apple Barn also offers baked goods and other food items and is open year-round. Weekends are the busiest times, but Hedrick says the Apple Barn is humming seven days a week in the fall. (https://applebarn.net)
Broom Orchard, Carlinville
Jeff Broom agrees that fall weekends bring the crowds to his 50-year-old orchard. His 45 acres of apple trees yield 24 varieties, and U-pick is available and popular around Labor Day through the fall.
"We really emphasize that customers get some bags, grab a wagon and head to the marked rows," he says. "They embrace that and really like it." The most popular varieties are Jonathan, Fuji, Golden Delicious and Jonagold.
Customers can buy picked apples, Broom's own cider, Amish-made apple butter and other goodies at the country store. Broom's also has six acres of pick-your-own pumpkins and earlier crops such as peaches, nectarines, plums, blackberries and sweet corn.
Broom's will host an apple fest Sept. 25-26 and a pumpkin fest the second weekend of October. Both events will feature crafts, food, pony rides, wagon rides, a corn maze and a petting zoo. A free playground is available any time. (www.broomorchard.com)
Okaw Valley Orchard, Sullivan
Three generations help grow the 1,500 mostly apple fruit trees, according to Okaw Valley Orchard co-owner Jennifer Mitchell. Her family makes their own cider and runs a bakery to sell apple dumplings, pies and doughnuts at the orchard's store, open from mid-August until the day before Thanksgiving.
The most popular variety among the 30 offered is Honeycrisp, but Yellow Delicious still sells well, Mitchell says. Customers also seem to love the orchard's cider slushies.
Mitchell says the orchard's U-pick option is limited because new plantings are replacing many of the oldest trees. "Our goal is in the future to have a ridiculous amount of U-pick. We are growing the orchard with that in mind."
She also says the orchard offers a free playground and picnic area to provide a "nice family atmosphere outside." (www.okawvalleyorchard.com)
Curtis Orchard, Champaign
Randy Graham, his wife and in-laws open this popular spot near Champaign from July until Dec. 23. The family started the orchard in 1980 and added a country store, bakery, café, pumpkin picking, corn maze, pony rides, mini-golf, obstacle course, giant slide and goat petting zoo. The outdoor activities, most of which have a $2-$5 admission fee, go through October, and Curtis offers live entertainment on Saturdays and Sundays in September and October.
In addition to apples and activities, crowds come for the homemade cider, slushies, apple fritters, doughnuts and other baked goods, Graham says. To avoid the crowds, go on a weekday or before 10:30 on weekend mornings.
Honeycrisp is the most popular of the orchard's 30 varieties and also the most difficult to grow, Graham says. All of the hard work of running an orchard is worth it, however, because "we get a lot of support from the community, and our customers become like family." (https://curtisorchard.com)
Tanners Orchard, Speer
The orchard, 30 miles north of Peoria, began in 1947 with the fourth generation involved now. The 11,000 trees yield 17 apple varieties, and the orchard sports more than 20 acres of pumpkins and other fruits and vegetables.
But apples draw the most customers, and there are a lot of them. "On a busy day in good weather, we get between 4,000 and 9,000 people," says co-owner Marilyn Tanner. Customers can ride a wagon to pick their own apples from Sept. 1 until sometime in October, depending on weather and availability.
A fourth of the apples Tanner sells are Honeycrisp, a contrast to the orchard's earlier days when Red and Golden Delicious were popular.
Other highlights are the farm market and bakery, where visitors can pick up award-winning cider and apple doughnuts. Families flock to the Back 40 Fun Acres, which include a playground, outdoor games, Saturday pony rides, straw bale maze and sandbox in a grain bin. "We have a large variety of activities and have tried to include something for 2-year-olds up to grandparents," Tanner says. (www.tannersorchard.com)
Mary Bohlen, a Springfield travel writer, spent most fall weekends for more than a dozen years picking apples in her husband's "hobby" orchard and appreciates the work that goes into growing good apples.