Hard cider business is one way this family farm keeps changing

Diversity at Schultz Fruitridge Farm means more than 20 varieties of apples, grapes, peaches, asparagus, and more. Bill Schultz talks about the latest innovation for the farm: turning its apples into hard cider. 
The air is crisp, the skies blue with plump white clouds, and a chill in the breeze hints at the coming fall. It’s apple season.

During the months of September and October, Schultz Fruitridge Farms at 60139 County Road 652 in Mattawan is busy with its apple harvest. With 20 varieties of apples, they are one of the most popular U-pick places (or buy apples in their on-site shop) for the greater Kalamazoo community. Pickers move through the apple orchards with rosy cheeks, as if blushing in reflection of the ripening fruit.

Honeycrisp, Gala, McIntosh, Cortland, Empire, Fuji, Red and Yellow Delicious, Ida Red, Roma, Goldrush and more, all beckon from the acres of orchards. The Schultz family farms 250 acres of fruit and apples are only one of their many fruit and vegetable crops.

There are vineyards of grapes, peaches, asparagus, blueberries, cherries, pears, pumpkins, squash, sweet corn, but if that’s not enough to whet an appetite, sweeten it with maple syrup and honey. On a separate ranch located in Schoolcraft, called Gravel Canyon Bison Ranch, the Schultz family raises bison for meat.

“What makes us successful, what keeps us here so long when other farms aren’t,” says Bill Schultz, third-generation farmer, “is our diversity. When one crop fails, another survives.”

Bill Schultz is operations manager at the Schultz Fruitridge Farm, and he’s never considered any other occupation. The family farm, he says, is his passion. It has to be, he notes, because farming is hard and unforgiving work. “And you can have one night of frost or bad weather and lose an entire crop.”

That concept of diversifying to survive is one that crops up regularly in farm plans as the family gathers to assess their future. Sometime around 2012, the Schultz family started talking about another way to branch out: hard apple cider.

“It’s value added,” says Schultz. “I did some traveling a few years ago, and I found really good hard cider in the United Kingdom, way better than ours in the United States. So I thought, why not us? Why not here? If anyone should be doing hard cider in this area, it should be us.”

The idea for a microbrewery was born, and the family named it Texas Corners Brewing Company, or TCBC. Brewing the hard cider on the farm and adding their own apples, they developed three flavors: Apple, Apple-Dry, and Apple-Cherry, priced at $5.50 for a 16 oz. bottle at 6.4 percent alcohol.

“These are not sissy beers.” Schultz smiles.

By 2014, TCBC is brewing 1,500 gallons of the hard ciders on the farm. But why not add a tasting room? Why not a restaurant?

Indeed, why not. The Schultz family noticed a white church (although it hadn’t been used as a church for some 25 years) in nearby Texas Corners on the market. Located at 6720 Texas Drive and set up on a small incline, the building is currently under renovation to become a taproom and restaurant, featuring the TCBC hard ciders, but also other Michigan beers. A large red apple is perched atop the steeple, hinting at what is to come.

“We want it to be a family venue,” Schultz says. “Sit-down dining, but also a large community table. We have the chef lined up, and our menu will feature pizzas, burgers, sandwiches and salads. We want to incorporate as much farm-to-table as possible, so food will be seasonal.”

The development of the microbrewery and restaurant has not been without its setbacks, but the Schultz family was raised on overcoming obstacles. Licensing for both wine and beer took time, township ordinances needed to be drafted, and at one point, a car crashed through a building on the property requiring its demolition. Should all apples and stars align, however, the hope is to open the new tap room before the end of this year.

The plan is to also add more cider flavors as the microbrewery expands. “Cider is very versatile,” says Schultz. “We might add such flavors as black current, blackberry … We grow it. We harvest it. We press it. I’m proud of that. There are probably fewer than 25 percent of people in the industry that grow their own fruit. We’re taking out the middle man. That’s better for the farmer and the customer.”

Capacity for the new tap room will be 70 persons, with 12 pull-tower taps of ciders, beers, and wines at the bar. Schultz says the criteria for the new ciders that will be offered “will be the ones I want to drink twice.”

Schultz produce, however, is found at many more places than on their farm, in their brewery, or at the local farmers market. This, too, is part of the diversification that keeps the Schultz Fruitridge Farm thriving while others might struggle. Much of the fruit is raised for commercial production as well as direct sales.

“You’ll find our fruit at Western Michigan University, Bronson Hospital, and local restaurants such as Zazio’s, Food Dance Cafe, Full City Cafe, Zeb’s, Bold, Chinn Chinn’s can’t get enough of our asparagus,” says Schultz. “We have 185 acres of grapes this year, and they go to Welch’s and St. Julian Winery.”

In total, the farm now covers 500 acres, but started with only 80 acres in 1951, when family patriarch Victor Schultz, a WWII fighter pilot, and his wife Dorothy heard about the farm’s success with a peach harvest during a summer when others’ crops failed. The Schultz family has been growing and diversifying ever since. The farm market, located on the farm, is open from May to October. Other farming operations occur year-round.

“Not every day is easy,” Schultz acknowledges. “But it’s all worth it. The last decade has been especially challenging; climate change is real and has hurt us substantially. It’s why we have to keep adapting. But we are very connected to the land here. We take care of the farm and the farm takes care of us.”

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and correspondent for WMUK 102.1 FM Arts and More program. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos by Susan Andress