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Hillcrest Orchard is family-owned, -operated business

By CHRISTINE L. PRATTStaff Writer Published: September 13, 2012 5:00 AM
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With more than 20 varieties of apples, 10 varieties of peaches and fresh pressed apple cider, visitors to Hillcrest Orchard are bound to find the perfect fruit for their taste.

The orchard, started in 1928, is located at 2747 Township Road 444, Sugarcreek, just north of Walnut Creek. Operated by the Hershberger family since 1968, the farm is now owned by Merle and Lela Hershberger, whose seven children can be found lending a hand on the property. They're often joined by other family members who help out year round and especially during the fall harvest season.

"It's a home-owned business. We're a very relaxed atmosphere," according to Lela Hershberger, who said the farm operations constantly are ongoing and part of visitors' experience.

"They can watch us work. Where you buy, we're right there sorting the apples," she said. Cider is pressed on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

No preservatives added, the fresh apple cider is sold only at the farm, she said, noting that because it is unpasteurized, it cannot be wholesaled. Because it's not pasteurized, she said, it tastes fresher.

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Before being made into cider, apples are wash and mashed. They don't use drops, according to Merle Hershberger, who said, "If we don't eat it, we don't grind it for cider."

They also make fresh apple butter, in a copper kettle over an open fire, starting in early November.

"We want people to think local," according to Merle Hershberger. "We are not organic, (but) we do use some organic products and, of course, try to use the minimum amount of spray. We would like to be proven wrong that it is impossible to raise a nice, sellable apple raised totally organic in Ohio."

On the farm's 75 acres are planted 70 acres of apple trees and five acres of peach trees. Of the trees, about 45 acres are producing trees, while there are many more young trees waiting to bear fruit. Currently, there are about 8,000 trees to prune and regularly care fore, but plans are to increase that number in the coming year.

In 2013, the goal is to plant another 3,400 dwarf trees to eventually support a pick-your-own branch of the business. But, even once they're in the ground, it will be another two-three years before the trees bear fruit, said Lela Hershberger, who said the goal is rooted in a desire to "have more things the family can do together."

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Right now, they raise 22 varieties of apples and 12 varieties of peaches. "We have a good crop of apples this year in spite of the frost last spring and the drought this summer. We've been blessed," according to Merle Hershberger. "The all-time favorite apple is still golden delicious. We sell twice as many (golden delicious apples) as any other variety."

This summer the business was remodeled, bringing added convenience to the customer through increased space for the salesroom. Added was a new cider house which includes large windows through which visitors can peek and watch the cider-making process. A scenic observation deck offers a beautiful view of Mud Valley and beyond.

Hillcrest Orchard is open eight months of the year, August-March, and is committed to selling fresh local produce in season and citrus and produce in the winter. During the holiday season, staff busy themselves making custom fruit baskets.

Customers are invited to stop out during customer appreciation week, held annually in December.

And, every day, they can come and enjoy a free apple and free sample of fresh sweet cider, taking in the scenic view while savoring the tantalizing treats.

Hillcrest Orchard is open Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., August-March. For more information, call 330-893-9906.

Reporter Christine L. Pratt can be reached at 330-674-5676 or by email at cpratt@the-daily-record.com.


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