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Farming is a non-stop business for one Merrill family

Multi-generational farm family has found ways to balance work with busy life

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June 10, 2024

MERRILL – Running the family’s multi-generational farm was not something Olivia Telschow said she had planned on doing.

However, when her father became ill nine years ago and needed someone to help run the farm – family, she said, does what is necessary to help.

Telschow said her two siblings were physicians and not able to give up their practices, which left her.

Working as a registered nurse at the time, she said she was in a better position to make a change.

“I always wanted to come back to the farm,” she said. “I knew I probably would be job-shadowing or being mentored by my mother, who was the baker here and the businesswoman. I never expected to take on my dad’s role as the farmer.”

Telschow said her father was an agronomist – a crop scientist who studies plants and how they can be grown, modified and used to benefit society.

“That’s what he loved, but I took on that role initially and fell in love with it, too – I love the science of it,” she said. “To this day, I still manage all of our crops and the apples – all the farming needs.”

Telschow said when she took over, a new era of Helene’s Hilltop Orchard was born – one that complemented what her parents had created.

A look back

The farm – which was originally started as a dairy farm by Telschow’s maternal great-great-grandparents in 1919 – had been handed down to family members through the years.

At one point, Telschow said, her great-grandparents took it over, then it skipped a generation, before it was eventually sold to her parents in 1979 on a land contract. 

The name was then changed to Helene’s Hilltop Orchard.

“My parents – Dave and Helene Pagoria –  (best described as agricultural visionaries) were two city kids from Illinois who thought it would be romantic to have an apple orchard and a little hobby farm,” she said. “They moved here when my (maternal) great-grandmother sold them the farm.”

Telschow said her parents began by planting apple trees. 

“They quickly made every mistake every young person could make in farming,” she said. “But, in 1993, they had their first good crop. They opened the orchard to the public and offered a ‘you pick’ experience, which was the first time people were able to go into an orchard and pick their apples themselves.”

Helene’s Hilltop Orchard was originally started as a dairy farm by Olivia Telschow’s maternal great-great-grandparents in 1919. Submitted Photo

Telschow said she is not sure how many people were there or how many pounds of apples were picked – they measured success based on the number of minivans parked in their yard. 

“If there were six minivans, it was a good day,” she said. “People wanted to come and pick apples. At that time, my parents had more than 20 acres of apple trees. I can’t begin to tell you how many pounds of apples that would be, but there was no market for that many apples.”

Telschow said that led to a lot of waste.

“That’s what created the bakery,” she said. “My parents figured having a bakery on the farm – (which was) started (sometime) between 1992 and 1994 – and baking apple pies was one way of eliminating, or at least reducing, a lot of waste and better utilizing their product, so they made apple pies.” 

Meanwhile, Telschow said things on the farm continued growing, as did Helene’s Hilltop Orchard’s success.

Making it her own

In 2017, after running and managing the farm for a couple of years, Telschow said she purchased it from her parents.

Like many business owners, she said she wanted to put her own stamp on it, and since then, has done that.

“I knew after I bought it, I wanted to respect the vision my parents had for the farm, but yet I needed to find my passion and make changes that reflected who I am,” she said.

In 2018, she said her husband, Mark, closed down his trucking company and became the farm’s first full-time employee.

Today, their number of employees varies between 16 this time of year and 75 during the fall, going into the holiday season.

Change doesn’t always come easy for people, but when she bought the business, Telschow said she had to accept it. 

“From the moment I purchased the farm, I had to learn to embrace change,” she said. “I bought it when things were changing in the world altogether. The labor force was having shortages, there were supply chain issues and then COVID-19 came along in 2020, making those things more challenging.”

The ups and downs, Telschow said, taught her to embrace change and the ability to pivot.

“We opened a drive-thru operation (during the pandemic) and created an online store – both of which are still up and running,” she said. “Every year, we do that in the winter. It allows customers to get our products when they want them. The convenience aspect of it is important for them. I’m glad COVID pushed us to pivot into that direction.”

During January, February, March and April, Telschow said customers have the opportunity to shop at the bakery’s online store and pick up their orders on the second Saturday of the month.

“They don’t even have to get out of their car – a big plus if the weather is bad,” she said. 

The bakery, Telschow said, has also expanded what it makes – it’s no longer just apple pies, which was a top-seller for many years.

The bakery’s apple cider donuts have since taken the top spot.

“We make our own apple cider and use it in the donuts,” she said. “People love them, but we are still well-known in this area for our apple pies. They’re huge and are made from scratch. We grow the apples, harvest and process them and then make the pie crust ourselves – we make the filling all ourselves, and we hand-crimp the pies.”

In addition, Telschow said, the bakery offers 120 different items, including sourdough bread, croissants, bagels, shepherd pies, caramel apple bread, cranberry-orange nut bread, pumpkin and asiago bread, apple cinnamon bread, quiche, soup, frozen chicken pot pies, baguettes, three-cheese asiago loaves, muffins, cookies, turnovers, gluten-free goodies and more. 

She said they also produce thousands of dozens of Christmas cookies during the holidays. 

“As you can imagine, we do a lot of Thanksgiving pies, but we also do Christmas cookies,” she said. “Last year, we made 7,500 dozen Christmas cookies, all of which were hand-decorated. We spend our summers at the Farmer’s Market of Wausau where we sell our bakery items, so there is a lot of work that goes on inside the bakery.” 

Other changes

Telschow said Helene’s Hilltop Orchard created Thursday Night Sunset Dinners – which are “beautiful five- and six-course meals we have a chef prepare using food that comes directly from the Farmer’s Market and area farmers, along with the crops we produce.”

“It’s become quite a tradition – we’re in year five for that,” she said. 

The orchard, Telschow said, is also a full-service venue and offers a full line of events.

“Whether it’s a casual grilled lunch, a buffet for a corporate outing, an interactive artisan dining experience, a food and wine pairing meal or a full-on dinner, our dedicated staff is here to help you plan the perfect event,” she said.

Helene’s Hilltop Orchard, Telschow said, also hosts private parties, such as bridal showers, engagement parties, tea parties, etc.

“We also have a lot of agri-tourism activities in the fall,” she said. “And we like to celebrate Wisconsin Agriculture in our barn cellar. We’ve renovated the original dairy barn (into a barn cellar).”

Olivia and Mark Telschow

The upper level, or the hayloft of the original dairy barn, Telschow said, houses a gift shop. 

“It has all sorts of different seasonal-type products, and we continue that into the Christmas season…,” she said. “We love to travel, see unique things and try to bring back those experiences to central Wisconsin. We want people to enjoy living here and being part of the community and not have to search out these activities. So, there’s a lot of moving parts throughout the farm.”

The bakery is open six days a week from Labor Day weekend through Halloween, then from mid-November through Christmas, it’s open Fridays and Saturdays only.

Finding ways to balance everything

When Mark started full-time, Telschow said, it became apparent that they were drowning in the workload. 

“It is a never-ending circle,” she said. “In all reality, it’s 20-plus hours a day, 362 days a year. We knew we had to do something with the farm we would enjoy and make all of this hard work not always feel like it was so much hard work.”

Around the same time, Telschow said, is when they expanded the bakery.

“We hired a chef right out of culinary school who had interned with us,” she said. “She has been a wonderful addition to our team… That also freed me up from working in the bakery to be able to do much more of the management aspect of the business – that has been a huge improvement.”

Helene’s Hilltop Orchard, Telschow said, also started offering take-and-make meals. 

“We have a catering line where we do corporate parties, private parties, tea parties, showers, etc.,” she said. “It’s opened the door for us to expand and use our licensing to the fullest capabilities.”

Mark, Telschow said, is the jack-of-all-trades on the farm – which today is 40 acres, 14 of which are apple trees.

“The remainder is agritourism, pumpkins, blueberries, sunflowers and other miscellaneous crops,” she said. “Mark (also) designs and builds all sorts of beautiful furniture for displays. Anything we need, he can build it. So, everything here has a personal touch – it’s a reflection of who we are and where we’re at in that moment – but also where we’re at in our lives.”

Telschow said their youngest child will be a senior in high school in the fall – their other children are adults.

“We want them to come home and spend time with us…,” she said. “When you see two or three generations of families together in the barn cellar having a (hard cider), talking with each other, that’s exactly why we did it. We are trying to connect people, connect them to their community, connect them to the land and not just keep them, but keep them happy here.”

More on Helene’s Hilltop Orchard can be found at

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