I planted Minneopa Orchard in 2018. A couple years later I began this website with my brother Ryan. He’s the website expert, but he’s run a number of backyard garden & orchard experiments himself!
Ryan and I grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota and have memories of helping out with planting and harvesting from an early age. Now, with Minneopa Orchards, we have the chance to share the experience of growing your own food! My wife also grew up on a farm and has fond memories of picking and preserving foods from corn to beets to strawberries. We both got to know where food came from all through our childhoods.
In 2009 when my wife and I moved to the Minnesota countryside with our four children (now eight – and I’m going to be a grandpa soon!), I didn’t have to think twice. We tilled the ground to plant a garden and started planting apple trees.
We wanted to give our kids the same experience of being involved in growing produce and knowing where their food comes from. Eating your vegetables is a lot more exciting when you’ve planted them and watched them grow!
A Family Affair
Growing our own food has always been a family affair. The kids love to plant, weed, harvest and ENJOY the crop.
Everyone has their own favorites too. Tristan always loved sunflowers and pole beans because they grow so tall.
Another kid loves eggplant and radishes. One loves to pick raspberries (even with the mosquitos we have in the summer – she gets all bundled up even though it’s 85 out!).
The three little boys look forward to planting peas every spring. And they love picking plums when it’s time to finally take everything that’s left. (And mom & dad love the plum wine from the Mount Royal plums!)
My 16 year old daughter recently planted all the seedlings for the year with me. She’s gotten really good at figuring out exactly how much 1/8 of an inch measurements are to plant seeds! She loves seeing the plants sprout up and taking care of the seedlings.
Since we live in Minnesota, I learned early on that most plants need to be started indoors since it’s still so cold in the spring. We make our basement into a makeshift greenhouse every spring with heated mats and growing lamps! The tomatoes and peppers later in the summer are totally worth it.
We (my wife and I) want the kids to learn how to work, be outside, and understand where food actually comes from.
This is where it started for us. It’s 35’x37′ – so almost 1400 sq ft of space.
In year one, I learned that even our family can’t eat 18 zucchini plants’ worth of zucchini (that’s zucchini on the right in the picture below). We learned that watermelon (foreground, same picture) doesn’t grow well in the rich clay-based soil we have here. Well, it grows just fine – it just doesn’t grow WATERMELONS!
We learned about spacing plants – how little they are to start can be so deceiving. Especially the tomatoes. I planted them so close together that when they started to get some disease it ran through and ravaged them VERY quickly. We found our favorite varieties of every plant with a lot of trial and error. Everyone loves 4th of July tomatoes and they take up most of our tomato space in the garden now!
We’ve settled in on what grows best here in Minnesota. We plant a lot of tomatoes, swiss chard, kale, green peppers, bush beans, peas, beets, squash, cucumbers, and rhubarb. We’ve tried 100 other things, but those are the staples.
Lettuce is great, but it’s all ready at the same time. The chard and kale are amazing because they produce all summer and into the fall. Some things (like potatoes and corn) just take up too much space for a backyard garden, so we leave that to the larger-scale farmers!
The squash doesn’t need to use up valuable garden space. We can plant those on the edge and let them grow out into the grass. My son dabbled in trying to grow giant pumpkins for a bit, but our soil never allowed for that.
Mid-summer to fall harvests happen on Saturday mornings, and everybody gets a bucket and an assignment. The kids are old enough now that they’ve started taking over some of the harvesting all on their own! They love bringing in buckets of fresh produce to make into something delicious.
My oldest son even started exploring outside of the garden. He read a few books on foraging in Minnesota and found some wild leeks in our woods. We made some delicious potato leek casseroles in early spring with those! I also found some asparagus growing around the area and like to pick that on my way home from work.
I fell in love with apples not because of the fruit, but rather the trees. I love pruning and caring for the trees. Shaping them into the most productive and healthy version of themselves is one of my favorite spring activities. The whole family loves to see the trees blossoming, and the kids love the apple harvest!
Now, that’s not to say we don’t have a lot of trees and fruit to deal with. We have 14 apple trees (Honeycrisp, Honey Gold, Zestar, McIntosh) and 4 plum trees (Mount Royal, Toka, Superior) at the home place. Our kids love to play outside and pick apples straight from the tree as a snack in the fall!
The cider orchard is located just a quarter mile away from home – a short walk that’s provided many afternoons of therapeutic pruning and care!
One particular harvest was a bit excessive and led us to plan a little differently for future years! Everyone has a favorite way to use apples and we got to try everything this particular year! One of my daughters loves to make apple pie, and everyone gets involved with juicing.
Our farm is covered in maple trees, so of course, spring time is maple syrup season. Who says growing your own food has to be all vegetables and apples? The kids love getting a break from the kale and swiss chard to make some maple syrup candy!
When I was a teenager I tried making maple syrup with sap from some silver maple trees. I used a Coleman camp stove and a propane tank. I nearly burned my dad’s shop down; he was none too pleased!
I’ve taught the kids to evaluate and tap the trees themselves. These days I don’t even need to get out to do the tapping with them.
At one point when my oldest was tapping multiple neighbors’ trees and making 35-40 gallons of maple syrup each year, we even made a reverse osmosis system to help get through the sap faster.
The syrup is done when it gets about 7-8 degrees F above the boiling point of water. Then it comes in the house for filtering and canning.
The kids love to try making the maple syrup into candy. One year, my son tried making hard candy by pouring boiled syrup onto fresh snow! It didn’t set the best, but it was a special memory for everyone.
Vineyard & Wine
In 2012 I planted 34 Marquette vines in hopes of someday making wine. It’s been an incredible learning experience. there are a lot of things working against the northern grape vine – humidity, bugs, disease, & cold!
I’ve figured out what works over the years and built a good set up for my location. I quickly learned that birds and wasps enjoyed my grape harvest just as much as I did! We figured out some strategies to protect most of the harvest with netting, but there were a couple years where the birds were very well fed.
That said, we’ve had some good years. It’s always a family affair. Grandpa is good manager and enjoys the wine – and the grandkids! Even the dogs like to tag along. Lucky the Labrador thinks that everyone is outside to play with him!
A couple years ago I added another 90 vines – Petite Pearl, Frontenac, and Crimson Pearl – to the vineyard. More work, yes, but we love it. One of my daughters got really good with the Tapener tool this spring and enjoyed working behind me taping up the vines after I made all the right cuts.
I’ve learned a lot about home winemaking and enjoy making the most of the grape harvests. As a scientist at heart, the entire process is fun for me! I love to keep track of what works and what doesn’t, and there’s nothing better than turning a good grape harvest into a delicious wine.
Most nights you can find me and my wife with a couple glasses of red wine. I make some white wine, but it usually ends up as gifts – because why drink white when red exists?!?
For a couple years, my oldest daughter tried beekeeping. She had a learning experience keeping bees in the harsh climate of Minnesota and learned a lot about insect diseases and overwintering!
Beekeeping actually sparked her interest in chemistry. Bees produce all sorts of chemicals, from pheromones to making honey and beeswax! She did a lot of reading into insect chemistry that everyone in the family got to hear about, and ended up majoring in chemistry in college. I’m hoping her chemistry degree can be applied to the winemaking at some point!
We never got quite to the point where we could harvest our own honey, but we all enjoyed seeing the bees on the apple trees in the spring.
In closing, Minneopa Orchards stands as a heartfelt testament to our family’s dedication to the land, the joys of hard work, and the simple pleasure of producing something with your own hands.
Our story is more than just the cultivation of rare apples and the crafting of fine ciders; it’s about the values we instill in our children and the legacy we aim to leave behind.
This orchard, entwined with the rhythms of nature and the seasons, is a living mosaic of our family’s journey—where each apple is not just a fruit, but a story, and each visit not just an appointment, but an experience.
Thank you for being a part of our story; we invite you to keep sharing in the fruits of our labor and the growth of our shared passion.
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Matt Cunningham, co-founder of Minneopa Orchards alongside his brother Ryan, is a steward of the land with roots deeply embedded in the farming life. Raised on a farm with both parents imparting their love for agriculture—his father a farmer and his mother a gardener. Matt’s orchard and vineyard journey has blossomed into Minneopa Orchards – dedicated to sharing the joy of growing food with a community of like-minded enthusiasts.