US-24’s Orchards

Scheduled for 2013 publication in Missouri Life magazine.


The more time I spend on Missouri’s highways, the less I understand why anyone would ever drive on interstates at all. Take the stretch of US-24 in west-central Missouri extending about 20 miles to either side of MO-13, like a stick figure with his arms spread for a hug. It’s a gorgeous and picturesque trip through orchard country, and at the cost of about 10 mph of speed limit, it knocks the socks off the same stretch of I-70.  I spent a half-day meandering this run of road about an hour east of Kansas City last fall.

I began my drive in Buckner, Missouri, at Sibley Orchards. Sibley’s stand is the largest of the roadside markets. No joke: It is big enough that the orchard and barn can be rented out for weddings and banquets. I asked about picking my own apples, but the cashier told me Sibley didn’t do that with apples, only berries. Undaunted, I picked out a bag of Granny Smith apples for the road.

Sibley’s stand is a couple miles north of Buckner, Missouri. Before turning west on US-24, I stopped for a cup of coffee in Buckner. While I waited, I “checked in” on my Foursquare app (one of those smartphone apps that tells your friends where you are and what you’re doing and who you might be with and that sort of thing) and Foursquare told me I was the “first of my friends to check in to Buckner, Missouri.” I was not surprised by this. Buckner is small. I suspect if I were to check in to Buckner on Foursquare often enough to be named Foursquare’s Mayor of Buckner, Missouri, I also stood a good chance of being named the actual mayor of Buckner, Missouri.

The drive from Buckner to the family-run Rasa Orchard, near Lexington, is deeply pretty. It’s rolling farm country, with long sweeping views and regular appearances by cows and calves. I’m a huge sucker for calves; something about those perfect tiny cows with the placid faces makes me want to stop the car to pet them and scratch them behind the ears, so I was very happy with this drive. But there’s another view to take, a slightly unsettling one: This stretch has an air of better days behind; with faded signs for farmstands and berry-picking, and more than a few signs that just say “CLOSED.” I made this trip in September 2012, so I assumed it was the heat and the drought, and made a mental note to ask someone along the way.

Rasa Orchard is pretty as can be, neat rows of trees heavy with apples up against the long driveway, and a little red farmstand at the end of it. The woman behind the register was wielding a flyswatter with amazing intensity and lethal accuracy, but paused in her insecticidal effort to tell me that they did not allow people to pick their own apples. Huh. They did have bagged apples for sale, but having completed only two of the apples from the bag of Granny Smiths I had picked out at Sibley, I was unable to rationalize a second bag.

West of here is the Baltimore Bend Vineyard & Winery, a former cider mill and flea market that was turned into a vineyard in 1997 and opened as a winery in 2003. (It takes a few years for the juice of a vineyard’s grapes to become the basis a winery.) The Baltimore Bend Conservation Area (named for a riverboat that sunk at a particularly heavily trafficked bend in the river) lies across the highway, and welcomes camping and other forms of outdoor recreation. I stopped my car and went into the winery in lieu of pitching a tent, settin’ up a campfire, and getting’ out the ol’ fishin’ pole, or whatever it is outdoor recreators do. (I’m an indoor recreation guy.)

Ann Orear at the winery couldn’t have been nicer, and asked me if I was allowed to do a little wine tasting while I was working. Ms. Orear, dearheart … why do you think I went into journalism? My tasting notes follow:

  • The 2006 Cynthiana is a dry, full red; very earthy, and very tannic. It’s comparable to an older Malbec. I was disappointed to have nothing to accompany it but Saltines; it is a wine that calls for a heavy grilled meat, like a ribeye. (I’m not sure it would work as well with cheese; it needs both the fat and the smoky char to really show it off.)
  • The 2011 Viognoles manages the rare trick of being a mostly dry wine with heady aromas of tropical fruit, particularly pineapple. Imagine the juice from a fruit cocktail, but just barely sweetened, like an off-dry Riesling. This would be an exceptional picnic wine for a hot day, or as a pairing with very spicy food.
  • The Jubilee (NV) is an apple wine, and instantly made me wish I had a piece of apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It needed the buttery crust and the dairy to temper the sweet edge, but the crisp bite of the Jubilee tastes cleanly of apples without the distracting carbonation of most hard cider. This was a wine, not a wine-style novelty beverage, which is hard to pull off with most fruit wines.

Peters Market is at the far end of US-24, as far as this trip goes. (Technically, it’s on US-65, but it is so close to US-24 that you can see it from the top of the wooden climbing-structure in the playground near the parking lot.) The first thing that comes to mind entering the low white barn that is the farmstand is “Man, there are a lot of kinds of apples.”  On one undistinguished weekday in September 2012 there were available Braeburn, Jonathan, Jonagold, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Granny Smith, Early Fuji, and York.  I didn’t ask about picking my own apples at Peters Market; there were “DO NOT ENTER” signs visible all along the orchard’s perimeter to forestall this query.

The farmstand also has pickled things of many types, fruit preserves, apple butter, peach butter, several different fresh vegetables, sweet potatoes by the crate, three kinds of cider (four if you count “hot” as a kind), barbecue sauces, an entire shelf devoted to different sorghum-based syrups, and my favorite part of the whole thing, a glass beehive. The farm produces a great deal of its own honey, (well, okay, the bees produce it and the farm sells it and takes the credit) and one of their beehives is inside the farmstand. It looks like a wood-framed medicine cabinet, like you’d hang over a bathroom sink in a particularly twee bed & breakfast, except that instead of a mirror the front is glass, and instead of aspirin and dental floss it contains maybe 20,000 honeybees. The bees are busily climbing all over one another making wax and honey and an ominous low hum. I found this hypnotic. I may be biased, though; I’m allergic to beestings, so perhaps being six or seven inches from tens of thousands of buzzing little death-bringers is extra-entrancing for me, in a morbid kind of way.

So I had picked no apples.  And I had seen a lot of “CLOSED” signs. And I had had a couple glasses of wine, which meant I was willing to ask questions about these two things.  And at Schreiman Orchard, I found someone to quiz.

Schreiman is not a flashy operation. It’s a family operation. (As nearly all of these are.) The small white roadside stand has sold produce from the orchard to travelers passing by since 1931, and if John Christopherson has any say in the matter, it’ll be there a lot longer.  John and his brother run the orchard now. It’s open from Memorial Day until about November 1, selling berries early in the year, then peaches in July and August, then apples from September til frost. I asked him about picking my own apples. He told me nobody has pick-your-own apples anymore; says the insurance got to be too much. Travelers, it seems, have a hard time with ladders and trees, and the insurance people know it. John told me, “It’s just easier to do it with a crew of guys, with apples and peaches.” (Schreiman does have some self-pick berries early in the year. No one falls off a ladder while berry-picking.)

John and I talked some about all the closed farms; I had even passed one, the Mother Earth orchard, whose sign simply said “See you in June.” I knew 2012 had been a scorcher, but John told me the drought was even worse than the heat, though the early spring may have hurt the September crop the most. “What little produce was under irrigation is all that’s left,” he said, then paused a bit and added, “We were picking apples that had a core temperature of 104 degrees. They were just cookin’ on the tree.”

He shook his head and said, “It was just a weird year. I hope I never see another like it.”

The farmstand business isn’t lucrative in the first place; John has a full-time job in Kansas City. He spoke warmly of the cooperation among the businesses on US-24, telling me that he and a couple other farmers supply the fruit to Baltimore Bend for their apple and peach wines, and that the orchards all helped each other out with storage and filling wholesale orders. I expressed surprise at this cooperation-over-competition mentality, and he said “We all get along.  It takes everybody. Orchards are a dying breed.”

That reminded me of the better-days-behind feel I got from driving on 24 east of MO-13, all the chained gates and faded signs. John allowed that a lot of the orchards had faded away, or gone under, or been sold by heirs to the land who wanted no part of the work of farming.  “There used to be 40 of us, all along 24.”

“How many now?” I asked.

He began to count on his fingers. It took him the fingers of two hands to count the remaining orchards on 24.

But not by much.