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After a cancer diagnosis, a family apple orchard owner weighs what’s next

older man by sign on side of the road
Wasem Fruit Farm, one of 775 family apple farms in Michigan, according to the state, has been in the same family for three generations. This year, amid record sales and crops, co-owner Bruce Upston is training a potential buyer to take it over. (Bridge photo by Paula Gardner)
  • Michigan apple orchards are jammed with fruit and customers this fall
  • Amid expansions and consolidations, one family-owned orchard south of Ann Arbor still does business as it has for generations
  • With a cancer diagnosis, and no next generation to take over, the owners think they’ve found a succession plan

MILAN—Fall isn’t the time to rest if you’re running a Michigan apple orchard — when your signature crop is bursting from 30 acres filled with trees.

The parking lot at Wasem Fruit Farm in Milan remained full one recent weeknight until the doors were locked a little after 6 p.m. Co-owner Bruce Upston, 77, moved pallets around and washed the cider cloths after four hours of pressing fruit. Bookkeeping waited for him at home.

Yet, Upston acknowledged, “I’m not as active as I used to be.”

The work is different this year. For one, the orchard southeast of Ann Arbor may hit record sales this fall, thanks to a peak crop and waves of customers who — especially after the pandemic — want to experience the seasonal rite of apples, pumpkins, cider and doughnuts. But with workers harder to come by, Jan Upston, Bruce’s wife and the orchard’s co-owner, is “doing even more” than usual, Bruce said, to keep the retail shop at the front of the barn filled.

And then there’s the matter of finding someone to take over the farm, founded by Jan’s grandparents. Like many small business owners, the couple didn’t think much about a succession plan. They stopped planting new trees a decade ago, but it wasn’t until spring that they got close to a deal to sell the business that seemed like a good fit.

Around the same time, Bruce Upston learned he had pancreatic cancer.

So this fall, Upston, who estimates he’s only taken one sick day since the 1970s, might take a nap during the day. And he’s still hoping to hire a few more workers to get through the busy culmination of the season, which typically ends in November.

As he balances all of this, he greets customers at the Wasem barn and at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, many of whom he knows by their orders if not their names. The relationships fuel him, he said, to pass on knowledge about running an orchard. 

“I’ve had so many people say, you know, ‘We're just so glad you're there,’” Bruce said of the business. “And that's what I want to have happen. That it continues.

“Wasem Fruit Farm farm isn't just about our family …  It's about this community.”

Seemingly everyone in Michigan has memories at an apple orchard, most originating from a fall visit. There are 775 family run apple farms in the state, the nation’s No. 3 producer of the fruit.

The nearly 15 million apple trees in Michigan make apples the largest, most valuable fruit crop in the state. Orchard visits also boost agritourism — using agricultural-related experiences as economic drivers. A 2013 study from Western Michigan University found that orchards represented 12 percent of the state’s revenue from agritourism. 

tree
Michigan has about 15 million apple trees that fuel a seasonal ritual: visiting apple orchards. (Bridge photo by Paula Gardner)

Wasem is among the roughly 200 “u pick” sites, where visitors head out to the orchard to choose their own favorites from the branches. 

Some orchards are larger and still expanding, adding attractions and options for visitors or operating from multiple locations, like Blake’s of Armada that recently acquired the former Erwin’s Orchard near South Lyon. 

Hard cider offers another expansion option, as places like Blayne’s Apple Valley Farm in Saginaw County and Spicer’s Orchard in Fenton, which now also provides apples to a related winery.

But other orchards are more profitable when used to grow new homes, like what is likely to happen to Big Red Orchard in Washington Township after this season, Crain’s Detroit Business reports.

So transitions aren’t new to apple orchards. 

But when it comes to finding someone to take over a multi-generation family farm, and retain it the way it’s been run for decades or longer, that’s different. Farming represents many risks, from weather to costs, plus market variables and difficulty finding workers.

“It’s got to be in somebody’s blood,” Bruce Upston said. 

He said he never had to question whether the farm was right for him. “I really always wanted to farm,” Upston said.

apple in crate
Wasem Fruit Farm had about 10,000 apple trees at its peak. (Bridge photo by Paula Gardner)

He met Jan at Michigan State University, where he studied agriculture economics, and started a job in banking — making loans to farmers — when he returned to Michigan after four years in the U.S. Air Force. 

The work is in Jan Upston’s blood, too. Her grandparents founded Wasem, and her parents took over, running it themselves until Bruce and Jan joined them in the late 1970s. 

The couple now runs the 10,000-tree farm year-around, relying on store sales and twice-weekly sales at the farmers market when they have the staff to make it work. Besides apples, they grow pears, plums and tart cherries, doing the planting and pruning and deciding every aspect of growing and production.

Wasem is one of the most traditional orchards in the state, bypassing the festival or Halloween events that drive business at many many others, activities that can smooth over a less robust growing season. Not much has changed at the farm since Bruce Upston decided to branch into doughnuts, which now results in sales of up to 500 dozen during October weekends.

someone buys doughnut
Bruce Upston added doughnuts to the options at Wasem Fruit Farm in the 1970s. On October weekends, staff will make up to 500 dozen. (Bridge photo by Paula Gardner)

This season’s record-setting sales and plentiful crop kept Jan Upston too busy to talk to a reporter last week, as she powered a tractor or lifted crates to sort apples where their son Craig Upston — visiting for a month from Colorado to help out — bagged them.

Neither Craig nor his sister, who lives in Phoenix, is interested in taking over Wasem. But Craig said he recognized the opportunity to keep it going by selling the operations to another family.

The planned sale to another couple is proceeding on faith, Bruce said, with contracts probably in coming months. 

“I told them that I’ll do anything I can do to fully support them,” Craig said of the couple likely to take it over.

Apples on Shelves
Wasem grows 20 kinds of apples. Honeycrisp may be most popular, Upston said. (Bridge photo by Paula Gardner)

And he expects his parents to stay around, since they live a bit west of the orchard on the same unpaved road. The training is likely to give way to just helping out, he said, doing the things that keep an orchard humming during the nonstop work of fall. 

That is Bruce Upston’s vision, too, as he pushes himself this fall. Initial chemotherapy treatments looked promising. Later test results were less clear. One of the upshots of treatment: he can no longer taste the apples he brings to harvest. 

Upston said he never looked forward to a retirement that didn’t include the farm and its apples.

“Someone once asked me, 'What do you want to do for the rest of your life?’ And I said to them, well, maybe own the orchard for another 10 years or so and sell it, and work for whoever bought it the rest of my life. 

“The timeline got changed,” he said. “But that’s still what I want to do.”

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