‘Taking its toll’: Corey Lake Orchards grapples with financial challenges, burnout ahead of 2023 market season

Macintosh apples starting to leaf at Corey Lake Orchards.

Following one of the most challenging years in the 60-plus history of Corey Lake Orchards (CLO), the farm team has made several difficult but necessary changes in preparation for the grand-opening of the market season on May 5. 

Opening day for CLO will be Friday, May 5 from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. with the farm kicking off the season with unique Mother’s Day gifts, seasonal rhubarb hard cider, and a fresh batch of homemade pies. On Saturday, May 6, the orchard will be hosting the Doing it with Donuts for Blake fundraiser for one of the farm’s Three Rivers High School employees, Blake VandenBrink. CLO will donate the net proceeds from donut sales that day to help cover costs for VandenBrink to compete as a finalist in the an international tuba competition in Arizona.

Early sweet cherry blossoms blooming at Corey Lake Orchards.

2022 brought various obstacles for the Corey Lake Orchards team to overcome, beginning with vast cost increases. These significant price increases affected everything including labor, fuel, fertilizer, chemicals, raw bakery goods, shipping costs, and even packaging. According to CLO’s weekly newsletter, farms are already low-margin businesses, and these price increases had an impact on the orchard’s financial stability, forcing them to reexamine the operations for 2023. Running the farm for the 2022 season also came with issues regarding material availability as the staff struggled to get what they needed and when they needed it, oftentimes having to make more expensive substitutions.  

An unprecedented and destructive hail storm in June 2022 caused significant damage to nearly all CLO crops, only adding to the list of challenges facing farm staff. This forced CLO to build new relationships with other farms in order to provide produce to customers.  “It broke our hearts to see our land and the surrounding lake community ravaged by the storm’s intensity,” a statement in CLO’s newsletter said. Due to crop insurance restraints, the payout was reportedly insufficient to cover the farm’s losses. 

These aforementioned factors resulted in stress, fatigue, and burnout for CLO’s farm team. “We pride ourselves on our strength and resilience, but 2022 took its toll on us physically and emotionally. For those of you who visited the farm, especially our ‘regulars,’ you saw this. We truly appreciated how many of you empathized and supported us in so many ways,” staff said. 

Though 2022 shook CLO with unexpected challenges, the staff used it as a learning experience, and have made several changes for the upcoming 2023 season. CLO said they will continue to focus on areas of operation such as providing great produce, a great farm experience, and taking care of the farm family. Staff reportedly realized the importance of taking care of themselves and the rest of the farm team in order to “ensure the farm’s sustainability and be a vibrant part of our local community.” The farm will also continue to partner with other local farms, which in turn supports the farm community. 

A sure sign of spring: Emerging pear buds.

The first change for 2023 will be hours of operation. The orchard will only be open Thursday through Sunday, closed Monday through Wednesday. Additional days may be added around u-pick produce, and the farm asks customers to check the website, Facebook page, or call ahead of time before making the trip. 

A second change will be in regards to bedding plants. CLO has made the decision to not offer vegetable or flower bedding plants this season, and encourage customers to instead visit Schram’s Greenhouse in Portage. Hanging baskets will still be available at the market. 

The CLO bakery will continue offering their signature frozen fruit pies, Moe’s frozen breakfast and pizza strombolis, donuts on Saturdays and Sundays, and slushies. Additionally, the bakery will be adding new muffins, cookies, breads, and other items. Fresh local milk, and local groceries like meat, yogurt, eggs, maple syrup products, and honey will also be available. New spirits including bourbon and white whiskey are under development, and will be joining the orchard’s classic offerings of hard cider, wine, and other spirits. CLO is also planning wine tastings for Saturday mornings, as well as happy hour events. 

A part of spring field and orchard prep work: Prepping the farm truck with spring decorations for family photo ops. 

A popular and favorite pastime amongst CLO customers are the u-pick opportunities, which farm staff intend to continue offering. CLO will be making changes to expand partnerships with local farms to grow some fruits and vegetables for the market to reduce complexity in the diversity of what they grow. Weather permitting, CLO will continue to offer all the normal seasonal fruits and vegetables along with chances to utilize the u-pick options. 

The staff at CLO are grateful for the community’s continued support and are excited to welcome spring with the grand opening on Friday. Updates on crop availability, including the highly-anticipated arrival of asparagus, are located on CLO’s website. 

Beca Welty is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice.