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Just dropping by: Tom Dooley Orchards

Twenty different apple varieties offered, plus homemade pies and other baked goods

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September 19, 2023

F7_TIQb9CHYWAUPUN – If you like apples and good, old-fashioned baked goods – and I certainly do – a trip to Tom Dooley Orchards in Waupun would be worth it.

Located on the southern edge of Fond du Lac County, Tom Dooley Orchards offers 20 apple varieties – some I’ve never even heard of – plus homemade pies, other baked goods, jams and jellies, gifts and even a playground for the kiddos.

I began my journey by chatting with owners Sue and Mike VandeSlunt and then picking a few apples.

When he and Sue purchased the orchard in 1995, Mike said, “I didn’t know much about growing apples.”

“We learned on the fly,” he said. “The previous owners allowed us to learn under them for about a year before we took over. Every year, we learn something new.”

Almost 30 years later, Tom Dooley Orchards has 24 acres and approximately 8,000 trees.

“Right around that third year, the trees support fruit,” Mike said. “The first two years, I keep the fruit off so the tree can grow to its structure.”

Mike said the rich soil is the main reason Tom Dooley Orchards does so well.

“There are several inches of topsoil on top of a clay base,” he said. “That clay helps keep the moisture in. I don’t have an irrigation system, but most years are okay because of the soil makeup.”

Based on the apple I chomped on, I’d say the area has very good soil for growing purposes!

Sue said from Labor Day to Thanksgiving, “it’s crazy busy.”

“For those three months, it’s all hands on deck all the time,” she said.

But, the work doesn’t stop after the season closes.

“Once the leaves fall off – probably like the beginning of January – we’ll start pruning,” Mike said. “That gets us to about the beginning of April. By the end of April, new trees are being planted. By Mother’s Day, the trees are in full bloom. It’s not just a seasonal job – it’s all year long.”

More fun
After the chat with Mike and Sue, I tried my hand at bagging apples.

There’s more to it than simply putting apples in a bag.

After the apples are harvested and washed, they are inspected – in this case, by yours truly.

“We want the customer to get as many apples as they can, so we pack them into the bags tight,” Sue said. “We check for any blemishes and only give the customers the best apples. If they’re not quite up to par, we’ll use them in other ways – maybe for baking.”

I’m happy to say that Sue told me I did a good job, and my bagged apples are somewhere on the Tom Dooley Orchards shelf – waiting to be claimed by a customer who has no idea I did the work!

I then moved into the caramel apple room – with my hair net in place. 

After carefully putting the speared end of the stick into the middle of the apple, I dunked the apple into a warm, gooey pot of melted caramel.

Rich chomps on an apple while he stands with Tom Dooley Orchards Co-owner Mike VandeSlunt. The Business News Staff Photo

I had to work fast because the caramel hardens quickly.

After removing the excess, I rolled the apple in crushed peanuts – yummy.

Finally, heading into the basement of the facility, I felt as though I was transported into a scene from Betty Crocker’s kitchen.

There had to be about a dozen ladies – all decked out in hairnets and aprons – down there, mixing apples, making and rolling the dough and baking.

I felt a bit intimidated being surrounded by some of the best bakers in the Waupun area, but I gave it a go – trimming off the excess dough around a pie tin and trying my hand at fluting.

I quickly learned fluting is the process of pressing a decorative pattern in the top edge of the pie crust before it’s baked.

“Rich, I’m fairly certain you are the only male who has ever fluted a pie down here – great job!” Sue said.

It didn’t look too bad if I do say so myself.

Again, just like my bagged apples, my fluted pie was heading to the oven for baking and then to the shelf for purchase.

A love of apples
As they say, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

My love for apples dates back to my childhood – mainly from my dad, the loudest apple eater who has ever lived.

Apple trees were plenty on our 162 acres of land in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, though I couldn’t tell you what variety they were.

I want to thank the VandeSlunts for their hospitality to me and The Business News Staff.

I had a great time and look forward to coming back soon.

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