First established by the Sponsel family in 1971, Minnesota Harvest has been a favorite fall destination in the Jordan area for 50 years. Originally a corn and soybean farm, the Sponsels transformed the land into a 25,000-tree orchard within five years — it was the start of what is now a very successful apple business.
In 2009, USA Today even included Minnesota Harvest in their list of “10 Best Places to Pick Apples!”
Keep reading to learn all about Minnesota Harvest!
An Apple Orchard’s Journey
In 1970, the Hastings land that would be the future home of the Minnesota Harvest Orchard was planted with corn and soybeans. Dr. Kenath Sponsel (“Doc”) and his wife, Mildred (“Mid”), along with their eight children purchased the land for the purpose of creating an apple orchard.
In the orchard history that daughter Susan wrote for Minnesota Harvest’s website in 2011, it says, “What better way to keep their six boys out of trouble?”
Clearly, there was more than enough work to keep the six boys (and two girls) busy because within five years 25,000 apple trees had been planted and the apple harvests were starting to come in. Susan also wrote about how her father, Doc, actually had to stand in the doorway of the orchard’s building and try to convince visitors to try the golden apples.
That’s because it seems that in the mid-1970s Minnesotans only ate RED apples, not yellow ones. But the yellow apples must have caught on because visits to Minnesota Harvest became a popular fall activity for the next several decades.
In 2005, Minnesota Harvest was sold to a developer, but the developer then extended a five-year lease to John “Topper” Sponsel, allowing him to continue operating the orchard. Sadly, Topper passed away just three months later.
Other interested parties took over the lease, but their focus was primarily on short-term interests. The Sponsel family continued to be involved with the orchard through the end of the lease and into 2011.
In 2014 the orchard had grown to 40,000 trees, many of which were varieties that Topper brought to the orchard during his tenure. At this time it still appears the Sponsels were involved in the orchard, although to what extent and what role is unknown.
In 2019, Skip and Terri Cook were named as the operators of Minnesota Harvest in a Belle Plaine Howard article. Their son, Cody, also helped at the orchard on breaks from his college studies.
The Cooks were aware there was a lot of Sponsel history and tradition associated with the Minnesota Harvest orchard. “We want to keep the nostalgia going,” Terri told the interviewer.
Today the Cook family still runs the orchard, which has fared well during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many other Minnesota orchards that have seen an increase in visitors during apple season, the need to find safe, family-friendly activities has resulted in a renewed interest in apple picking and apple orchard activities.
Today the 300-acre orchard is run by Skip and Terri Cook, who are mindful of the Sponsel heritage that has made Minnesota Harvest a favorite apple-picking destination for generations of apple lovers.
John “Topper” Sponsel was a bona fide apple lover from the start. At 18 years old it was clear that apples had gotten into his blood and were a passion for him. He didn’t just plant and care for apple trees — he bred, developed, and named new varieties that are only grown in Minnesota Harvest’s orchard.
The names he picked show that he was a poetic craftsman, but that he also had a sense of humor about the apples he created.
Topper’s Apples are Bessie Junn, Cold Gold, Creme d’Licious, Doc (an homage to his father), Golden Earl, Golden Haralson, Kleinheart, Live Music, Nectarapple, Pineapple, Roxtar, Sponselli, Sugar Shack, Tiger, and Vika. He also developed a crab apple he named Scott Co. Crab.
Other apple varieties listed at Minnesota Harvest include: Connell Red, Fireside, Haralson, Honeycrisp, Malinda, MN 1622, Scarlet O’Haralson, Spartan, Wealthy, Paula Red, Zestar, State Fair, MN 1661, Red Baron, Viking, Goodland, Hazen, McIntosh, Cortland, Mid-Red 1606, SweeTango, First Kiss, Renaissance, Honeygold, Liberty, RedKist, Sweet Sixteen, Redwell, Regent, Prairie Spy, Keepsake, and Northwest Greening.
Crab apple varieties available are Chestnut Crabapple and Golden Crabapple. Plus, there are also pears and plums grown at Minnesota Harvest!
There are wonderful descriptions that Topper wrote for twenty-seven of the apple varieties found at Minnesota Harvest and they are well worth reading. His words clearly convey the passion and enthusiasm he had for apples during his life.
Normally, an obituary wouldn’t be something to include in an article like this. But the comments readers left are unmistakable proof of the impact John “Topper” Sponsel made in the lives of those who were fortunate enough to meet him. These heartfelt, posthumous messages are a tribute to an apple artist.
What To Expect On a Trip To Minnesota Harvest
While the trail horse rides from the Sponsel days are part of Minnesota Harvest’s past, the orchard of today has its own charming features that still make it a worthwhile trip.
Minnesota Harvest offers u-pick apples, so spending an afternoon in the orchard hand-selecting apples is the first thing you can expect during a visit. There’s a page on the website that offers picking tips you can read in advance of your visit. There’s even a tip sharing the proper technique for picking apples like a pro!
For children, there’s an Orchard Barnyard where you’ll find goats, sheep, and even peacocks. There’s also an “apple gun” that’s very popular, particularly with teens (and the occasional dad).
Flower lovers and photography buffs will enjoy the sunflower fields found at the orchard. The fields are staggered at planting so there’s always a section in bloom for picturesque photo ops.
How much more “fall” can you get than a bonfire? Minnesota Harvest Orchard posts their upcoming bonfire events so guests know when to plan a trip to enjoy the sight, sound, smell, and feel of a roaring fire on a crisp autumn evening.
For adult enjoyment, there’s the on-site cidery with five different ciders to offer. Flavors include Crisp Apple, Cranberry Tart, Cherry Apple, Bourbon Lite, and Bourbon Iced.
Visit the bakery and general store for scrumptious pies, donuts, and apples (as well as caramel to dunk those apples into). If stone-fired pizza is your thing, you can get that at Minnesota Harvest, too.
A Venue For Special Events
On the homepage of the website, you’ll find that Minnesota Harvest makes a wonderful location for a wedding reception to be held in the barn.
The photos on the website highlight the beautiful interior that can accommodate up to 250 people. There’s also an apple lodge that holds up to 100 people and is available for smaller wedding receptions.
For those who want the full “apple orchard wedding” experience, there are three locations on the property for wedding ceremonies to take place. Guests are taken to and from the ceremony sites via orchard “limos” (tractor-pulled wagons).
There’s also the option to have an evening bonfire for weddings that take place later in the day. Graduation parties, corporate events, and even Red Hat Ladies tour groups are some of the other events that can be hosted at Minnesota Harvest.
An Enduring Legacy
Doc Sponsel passed away just nine years after he and Mid became the owners of the land that would one day be known as Minnesota Harvest Orchard. During Doc’s nine years with the orchard, he instilled a love for apples in his son, Topper, who then carried on his father’s work for nearly three decades.
Doc’s wife, Mid, lived to see the orchard thrive and grow into a beloved apple destination for generations of Minnesota families. Mid passed away in 2004, leaving behind a family apple legacy that would experience another loss the following year with Topper’s death.
While the journey of Minnesota Harvest has taken some twists and turns, thankfully it seems to have found its way into the hands of owners who honor the history of the orchard and bring their own love of apples to the business.
Visit Minnesota Harvest Orchard!
It’s not the Minnesota Harvest of the Sponsel days — and it shouldn’t be! Orchards take on the nuances of their owner/operators and the Cook family has made Minnesota Harvest Orchard into their own unique vision for today’s orchard visitors.
Ready to add more destinations to your fall must-visit list? Discover more Minnesota apple orchards!