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Michigan apple orchard creates homey atmosphere

Haley Hansen
Lansing State Journal

Fulton Township — The three miles of dirt road between U.S. 127 and Phillips Orchards & Cider Mill in Gratiot County can be a deterrent for some would-be visitors.

So when Brian Phillips took the lead of the family business in 2008, one of the first projects he and his partner, Gregg Smyth, took on was opening a second market on U.S. 127.

The Gatehouse Market opened in 2010 and has expanded each year.

“It’s pretty out here, and it’s nice, but there’s definitely a limit on how many people will drive those three miles off the highway,” Phillips said.

The Phillips family has been growing apples on their farm since 1852. During that time the family opened and closed a small cider mill, sold fruit to area residents and grew apples for large grocery chains.

Phillips and Smyth launched another chapter in the farm’s history, pulling back from the wholesale market, putting their energy toward selling a variety of fruit directly to locals.

“In a way, we’ve gone back to a formula that would have been in my great-grandfather’s time,” said Phillips, who worked in the automotive industry for 20 years before returning to the 170-acre Gratiot County farm.

The farm sells more than 30 apple varieties along with peaches, plums and pumpkins.

The orchard sells around 15,000 bushels of apples and 25,000 gallons of cider each year, Phillips said. For many visitors, a trip to the orchard is a chance to slow down and get closer to the outdoors.

“A lot of people have some kind of an image or a memory of what a farm should be like, and they want to have a connection to that,” Phillips said.

The orchard and cider mill employs 40 to 50 people each year. Most are seasonal but a handful work year round.

Visitors can take rides on horse-drawn wagons for a few dollars and pick their own apples and pumpkins. The Gatehouse Market on U.S. 127 closes for the first three months of the year. The smaller Orchard Market on the farm is open to visitors only during September and October.

A steady stream of families and couples stopped by Phillips’ Gatehouse Market on a recent weekday afternoon to buy gallons of cider and crunchy cider doughnuts. The shop’s lemon bars and lemon lavender sugar cookies are also big sellers. Everything is made from scratch.

Pat VanNortwick has worked at the orchard for eight years and manages the Gatehouse Market. She directs customers to the right varieties to use in their baked goods and tells them when their favorite varieties ripen.

The simplicity of the space and quality of the products keep their customers coming back, she said.

“It’s still that old orchard feel,” VanNortwick said. “It’s all about the apples and the cider.”

The shop sells exclusively Michigan-made products, anything from handmade wall art and scarves to Bloody Mary mixes and jams.

The small store offered a nostalgic afternoon outing for Kathleen Wertheimer and her sister, Bette Tozer. Wertheimer was looking for the apples she ate as a kid. The sisters said the store also brought back memories of fall afternoons with their own children.

“I feel like I go back in time to a different era,” Wertheimer said.

Pat Blizzard of St. Johns wouldn’t think of going anywhere but Phillips’ to buy the fruit for her apple crisp.

“It’s smaller, more homey,” Blizzard said. “You still feel the family.”

Hearing feedback like that is the best part of the work, Phillips said.

“It bothers me if people aren’t happy,” he said. “It’s personal. It’s not just a job.”