A growing farm fueled by family and the community.
Around 1936, Hugh MacQueen bought a bushel of apples from one of his only neighbors on a gravel road in Holland, Ohio. That next year, MacQueen Orchards had five acres of trees planted, which has grown to more than 200 acres over the years. Hugh passed down the farm to his son Robert, and now Robert’s son Jeff MacQueen runs the orchard.
What’s the best part about being located in the Great Lakes region?
We’re surrounded by the Toledo area, so everybody from Toledo wants to come out to the country and pick some apples. When we were here back in 1936, we were the only ones on our road basically. Now, we’ve got housing developments all the way around us. People love to see our 200+ acres of land. We’re kind of like a diamond in the rough here.
Every year our business is growing and our retail market is getting bigger. The people here really want to see us succeed and stay here, so they work with us to ensure that happens.
What differentiates your orchard from other orchards?
We have a full bakery and sweet shop. We’ve got a year-round Christmas shop in our market. The homestead house my grandfather built and where my dad was raised – we turned that into a two-story gift shop. We also have pick-your-own apples and you-pick pumpkins.
We have a fall festival called the Apple Butter Stir. That consists of around 100 craftspeople, kiddie rides, chicken and rib BBQs and a lot more.
Do you have a favorite aspect of the festival?
We’re set on a hill, so I like to stand and look at all these rides we bring in – Ferris wheels, fun houses, pony rides, horse and buggy rides – and see all the families having fun. For the petting zoo, we have a bunch of birds in cages, so you can walk in and be with all the birds. We know a guy who brings in a camel for camel rides. We have music going all day. It’s really cool. We started this 38 years ago and it’s gotten bigger each year. People park over a mile each way down the roads just to come in for the festival.
What are some of the typical questions you get from people who visit your orchard?
Some people think after the apples are picked, we take the rest of the year off and wait until the apples grow again. There’s so much going on behind the scenes people don’t realize, though.
We usually run our packing line until April or May, five or six days a week. After harvest, we have to get the trees ready. We’ll be winter pruning the trees all the way until August. So, we’re constantly working. We also plant new trees and train all the young trees we planted over the last two to three years. We train the trees on a tall spindle (imagine grapevine wire). We’re constantly spraying and thinning the apples, which helps us get higher quality fruit for our customers.
How have you streamlined traditional farming techniques?
About six or seven years ago, we invested in an automated grading system. We wash our apples, sanitize them, dry them and wax them. They all go through a color sorter, which takes each apple, rotates it 360 degrees and takes a picture. If a store wants mostly red apples, we can dial that into the computer.
We also put an automatic jugger into our cider mill. We put the jugs onto the conveyor belt, then the jugger automatically fills them and caps them. We just have to take the jugs off the conveyor belt and put them into boxes. Before, we physically put the jugs under the spigot, waited until they were full, and screwed the caps on by hand.
We have a squeeze box so the apple cider-making process itself isn’t as work-intensive. The squeeze box is like an accordion, so we just dump the apple pummy (smashed apples) in there, press a button, and it squeezes all the juice out.
We got all of that out of New Zealand; their technology is very sophisticated.
How has Fresh Forward helped your business?
We used to have personal relationships with small local grocers. Since becoming a Fresh Forward member, we’ve been able to grow our commercial partnerships to larger retailers.
We had a failed apple crop this year, so Fresh Forward has helped us pick up the slack. We’re repackaging for the USDA, putting 11 different items in boxes and sending that to food banks. This work has allowed us to keep our packing house staff employed.
What is the top skill necessary to be — or become — a farmer?
This year is the first time since 1936 we’ve had this poor of a crop. Our biggest fear a lot of the time is the weather because it has such an impact on crops. So, maybe patience and understanding.
You have to have the love for it and the drive – the work ethic. It’s not a 9-to-5 job. From August through November, we’re here all week, working up to 14 hours a day. We never look at time. There is no time. You just keep working until you’re done for the day, go to sleep, and go after it again the next day.
I started on the farm when I was in grade school after classes and came here right out of high school to work on the farm full time. My father did that and my sons have done the same, helping out as much as they can, all week or at least on the weekends.
What’s your favorite kind of apple?
It depends. It goes by variety when I start picking because I’m usually out in the fields. When we first start picking McIntosh, I’ll start eating those. When we start with Gala, I love Gala. Then after, I’ll start eating Honeycrisp. I’d say those three are my favorites, though.
Do you grow other produce as well?
We grow peaches, too. About forty years ago, we started with 60 acres of peaches. It seemed like every year we had a peach crop. But nowadays, we seem to get frozen out of our peach crop. We’ll continue to grow peaches, but we’ll only ever have 12 acres of them. My dad once told me years ago: don’t plant any more peaches than you can afford to use. So that’s our rule of thumb. If we do have peaches, they’re in our retail market at the end of July through August. They’re delicious and people love them.
We grew pumpkins this year, right in the same orchard with our apples. People could visit for you-pick and pick apples and pumpkins at the same time.
Fresh-picked apples just off the turnpike
The Ohio Turnpike runs through MacQueen Orchards, making it an ideal day trip for those in the Great Lakes region. As Jeff says, the market gets bigger and bigger each year with baked goods and other treats – pies, donuts, bread, cookies, sauces, Christmas items and more. This 4th generation farm continues to overcome challenges and thrive as a family business.
Fresh Forward is a family farm cooperative representing members who grow, package and distribute apples and other produce across the Great Lakes region. Founded in 1957, our vertically-integrated organization continues to lead the way in buyer education, product brokering and purchasing, quality control and safety standards. We foster strong partnerships with produce growers who have cultivated their land for generation after generation. Together, we remain rooted in our commitment to deliver fresh, healthy produce to our consumers’ plates.