Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Fruit & Nut Trees

Tom Vorbeck

by Kathy Bond Borie


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.

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