The Big 100
By ANDREW MCGINN
After 100 years, it’s impossible to say what might actually compel the Deal family to walk away from the apple business.
It would have to be something unbelievably extraordinary — like a tsunami or a North Korean nuclear strike — and even then there’s a good probability that Deal’s Orchard would return a couple of autumns later with a new go-kart track or an 18-hole miniature golf course.
After all, the family has endured blizzards, fire, hurricane-force winds and crippling freezes, only to come back each time bigger and better than before.
“I sometimes wonder if they’d be amazed or say, ‘You stupid fool,’ ” owner Jerald Deal said recently of his father and grandfather.
The original 160-acre Deal farm — located a mile south of the present-day orchard — was recognized this summer as an Iowa Century Farm. Jerald’s grandfather, Frank Deal, who in 1917 planted the first 16 acres of apple trees, probably never heard the term “agri-entertainment” once in his lifetime.
But over the past century, Deal’s Orchard has become a bona-fide “agri-entertainment” destination for thousands, a sort of homespun Disneyland that provides the backdrop every fall for countless family photos.
It used to be that Labor Day weekend marked the start of the orchard’s busy season.
That’s still true — there are apples to pick and 35,000 gallons of cider to press — but now there’s a corn maze to prepare and a giant “jumping pillow” to inflate for kids.
“I enjoy the production part more and the farm part more than the entertainment,” confessed Benji Deal, Jerald’s oldest son. “But young kids will like that for maybe 10 minutes.”
When Jerald and wife Cindy — both 1969 graduates of Jefferson Community High School — took over the orchard in 1974, it sold only apples, cider, sorghum, honey and a few pumpkins.
“Deal” is now arguably the first name in fall family entertainment.
It’s become a farm “where people can come out and get a cool experience,” said Chris Deal, Jerald and Cindy’s middle son.
“You hear people becoming more and more removed from agriculture,” Chris said.
The orchard’s Fall Festival the second weekend in October, initiated in 1982 as an open house, can draw upwards of 15,000 people.
A pedestrian walkway tunnel constructed this summer underneath K Avenue holds even greater promise for the site’s future.
Diversification has allowed the family to better withstand Mother Nature’s unpredictable mood swings.
The jumping pillow — the focal point of the orchard’s family fun zone, Apple Acres — was new in 2012, or as Jerald puts it, “the year we didn’t have an apple crop.”
A wicked freeze that April decimated the family’s 45 acres of apple trees.
Typically, Jerald said, Deal’s will harvest between 15,000 and 18,000 bushels of apples annually — enough that Deal’s apples and cider can be found in Hy-Vee and Fareway stores as far away as the east side of Des Moines.
In 2012, they could only harvest 150 bushels.
A one-time elementary school teacher, Cindy had been pushing for years for a jumping pillow, which is like a bouncy house without walls.
The loss of the apple crop in 2012 nudged the rest of the family into action.
“It became a necessity,” Cindy said, “so if people heard we had no apples, people would still come.”
Whether it’s ingenuity or just simple Midwestern perseverance, the Deal family has never been one to surrender to hardship.
When the Apple Barn, the family’s retail store, burned down in April 1982, a new Apple Barn was built in time for fall — and the first Fall Festival.
Then again, things don’t get much worse than they were in 1940.
That was the year Frank Deal and son Forrest, Jerald’s dad, reaped their biggest-ever harvest: 5,000 bushels of apples.
“They had apples all over the place,” Jerald said, adding that Deal apples were squirrelled away that fall all through town, including the basement of the bowling alley.
And then came Nov. 11.
Temperatures in the 50s that morning across Iowa soon gave way to snowdrifts as high as 20 feet.
The infamous Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940 wreaked havoc on the state’s orchards. At Deal’s, the sap froze inside the trees, splitting each at the trunk.
The blizzard forever altered Iowa’s landscape.
Before, Iowa was second only to Michigan in apple production. Almost every farm at one time had apple trees on it.
But, as Jerald explained, it takes 15 to 20 years for an apple tree to produce enough fruit for a decent crop.
With the state’s apple trees in ruins, most farmers instead replaced their orchards with fields of faster-growing corn and soybeans.
Frank Deal, on the other hand, “loved apple trees,” Cindy said.
The family replanted 34 acres, but wouldn’t begin harvesting apples again until the mid-1950s.
Today, Deal’s is one of the largest apple orchards in the state.
“We’re still a peon compared to other orchards (in other states),” Jerald said. “But we pride ourself on being a family operation and production orientated.”
Son Benji, 39, a 1996 graduate of Jefferson-Scranton High School, admittedly wasn’t so sure he wanted anything to do with the family apple business.
“I saw all the stress my parents went through,” he explained. “They were totally dependent on agriculture.”
He vividly remembers the derecho that pummeled Greene County in the summer of 1989 with straight-line winds in excess of 80 mph.
The family was able to harvest only 5,000 bushels that year, and every single apple was damaged by hail, Jerald said.
“I didn’t want to do that,” Benji said. “I don’t enjoy stress.”
He instead taught high school math for 10 years, but has since been working at the orchard almost full-time. He’s responsible for introducing hard cider to the orchard’s product offerings in 2010.
Deal’s Orchard in 2014 won a Value-Added Producer Grant of $20,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take its hard cider to the next level.
Deal’s hard cider is now on-tap at about a half-dozen locations in Des Moines, including the Iowa Taproom and El Bait Shop.
Chris, 32, a 2003 graduate of Jefferson-Scranton, was less apprehensive about joining the family business.
“I loved growing up on the farm,” Chris said. “It was such a unique childhood. I can’t imagine a cooler childhood.”
Even though he still also works as a mechanical engineer, Chris and wife Tracy relocated from Ames to the property adjacent to Apple Acres last summer.
Jerald and Cindy’s youngest son, Rob, 30, helps at the orchard when he can.
“If anything,” Chris said, “we felt pressured to not come back.”
Jerald remembers being required to return home to work on the farm every weekend as a horticulture student at Iowa State University. He didn’t want the same restrictions on his sons.
“We’re very happy we’ve got two of the sons back with us,” he said.
“We’re happy our family still wants to come back and see us,” he added.
It goes without saying it’s not the same orchard that Frank Deal and his sons Forrest and Lynn knew.
Giant slides and human hamster wheels at Apple Acres aside, all of the apple cider is now pasteurized thanks to a nationwide outbreak in 1996 of E. coli linked to unpasteurized apple juice.
It was found then that “drop” apples — apples picked up off the ground — could be contaminated by E. coli carried in the waste of cattle, deer and sheep.
Those “windfall” apples today have only one use: As fodder for the oversized slingshots at Apple Acres.
At its core, though, Deal’s Orchard is unchanged from 100 years ago.
Of course, what they do with the apples might be subject to debate.
“They wouldn’t like the hard cider,” Benji said of his grandparents. “Grandma was not a fan of drinking.”
Located just west of Jefferson, Deal’s Orchard will hold a Century Celebration on Sept. 30, with gifts for the first 100 kids in Apple Acres and cake at 3 p.m.
The orchard’s 35th annual Fall Festival will be held Oct. 14-15.