Lessons from the Apple Grower: A Visit to Whistling Well Farm

The departure of summer is much easier to cope with when you have the knowledge that fall brings beautiful gifts of crisp air, celestial blue skies and apples. Ah apple, you are the perfect fruit. On the inside, you are a lover’s tango of both tart and sweet tenderness nicely protected by a crunchy thick skin on the out. We Minnesotans are lucky to have such a plethora of locally-sourced apples to choose from. Even better, the growers love selling apples so much that many share their orchard yards with us, thus creating an ultimate feel good opportunity for folks to be in touch with the fruits of our land.


Founded in 1972 and located in Denmark Township (Hastings), Whistling Well Farm is operated by Charlie Johnson and his two sons. Pull into the driveway and you will see Mr. Johnson’s house and will be greeted by Emmy the springer spaniel and a number of barn cats. You won’t find long lines for tickets, nor will you have to pay money to feed the turkeys and chickens. You won’t see, nor smell, diesel tractors to pick you up to take you to the apple trees, but rather hay filled radio-flyer wagons beg of you to take your children for an old-fashioned walk.


Curious about growing and storing apples and what it means to become a farmer, I sat down at Mr. Johnson’s kitchen table to ask a few questions and walked away with a few lessons worth sharing.


Lesson 1: Remember What Makes You Feel Good And Chase That Feeling

Newlyweds Carol and Charlie Johnson spent two years (1965-67) in the Dominican Republic teaching an the International School as part of a reconstruction project following the revolution. US companies were contracted to help teach the locals how to to conduct sustainable farming practices. The Johnsons’ were moved by the high levels of happiness the locals displayed when they were farming and working the land and vowed to their students that they too would someday own land. In 1972, they fulfilled their promise and dream by purchasing 65 acres of land that became Whistling Well Farm.


Lesson 2: We Do Not Live In Isolation; We are All Interdependent

An action miles away impacts what happens in our back yard. For example, Whistling Well Farm was so named because of the mysterious whistling sound emitted by the well. Research and determination traced the sound a few miles back to bluffs on the St.Croix River. When the wind blows eastward, it flows through the bedrock of the bluffs and pushes onward and upward through the farm’s well creating the whistling sound. Mr. Johnson’s latest project, a book titled, Emmy and the Mysterious Whistle - An Apple Farm Adventure, is due out in August 2012 and follows the orchard dog around as he tries to uncover the mysterious whistling sound heard on the farm.


Furthermore, Mr. Johnson continuously referred to all the other silent partners of his orchard business which are essential in order for local economies to thrive. For example, one cannot mention apples without giving proper accolades to the University of Minnesota. The University has helped move Minnesota from a non-apple producing state to number 16 in apple production in the nation. The University is committed to finding more apple varieties that thrive in our cold-weather climates and provides extensive development and marketing support to all the orchard owners with the goal of bolstering our apple economy. It takes a community to to ensure that food remains tasty, safe and localized.


Lesson 3: With Proper Storage, Apples Can Transition Into the Winter

Late harvest apples such as the Honeycrisp, Harrelson and Snow Sweet can survive in cold storage as late as March. The ideal storeroom or cooler should be set at 36 degrees and have a high level of humidity. An arid climate will cause the apple to lose moisture and shrivel. If using a refrigerator to store apples, then place apples in an open plastic bag and place wet paper towels in the bag and re-wet the paper towels every few days. If keeping the apples in a storage room, then store in a wooden crate packed with hay or wrap each apple in newspaper and then adjust temperature and humidity accordingly. Remember to inspect all apples prior to storage. Remove badly bruised or cut apples. As the saying goes, “one bad apple spoils the bunch”. An open-sore apple will leak an ethylene gas which will then spoil the rest of the lot.


Lesson 4: Never Take Anything For Granted

Every farmer knows they are at the mercy of mother nature. Mr. Johnson tells stories of hail or strong winds which can destroy hundreds of trees within a matter of minutes. Mid sized growers are at the mercy of the harsh elements of nature, which is quite a life-changing and humbling experience according to Mr. Johnson. We consumers need to remember to be grateful for the crops we do receive even if the apples vary in sizes or have a few bruises and scrapes, for this is the trade off for supporting our local growers.


As with nature, there are other life circumstances beyond our control such as death. Having recently, lost his wife of 45 years and business partner, Mr. Johnson could not tell his story without mention of her and reminded us to never take anything for granted whether it’s your loved ones, a healthy community or access to good food.


Whistling Well Farm is a Midwest Food Alliance certified grower located at 8973 South St. Croix Trail, Hastings, MN 55033. Apples are also sold on weekends at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market, the Bayport Farmers’ Market (Mondays) and the River Market in Stillwater.                                                                                          

The children’s book Emmy and the Mysterious Whistle, highlighting farm life and showcasing area geography and history will be available August, 2012.


Leigh Ann Ahmad was dragged kicking and screaming to the Cities by her husband; having been born and bred in Cleveland, Ohio, she just could not fathom how colder could be better. Now, five years and two kids later, she cannot imagine a better place to play and thrive. She’s a reformed carb-aholic, wannabe writer, social justice advocate, book- club geek, veggie grower and local foods connoisseur.