One of the newer members in the Minnesota apple orchard scene, Sweetland Orchard was founded in 2009 by Mike and Gretchen Perbix. Visitors to Sweetland, located in Webster, will find an apple orchard that offers something different from the busy, family attraction-oriented experiences of larger orchards. The Perbixes are passionate about the apples they grow and the hard ciders they press and ferment — and they love to share this passion with orchard guests.
If you enjoy a more low-key, pastoral orchard setting where you can relax and enjoy delicious things to eat and drink, speak with Mike and Gretchen about apples and cider, and visit with a turkey named Greg, then Sweetland Orchard is the perfect destination to put on your fall list this year.
Not the Typical Apple Orchard Dream Story
Normally the story of how an apple orchard came to be starts with a man’s vision. Not so in the case of Sweetland Orchard. It was Gretchen who first had the dream of owning her very own orchard and when she eventually met her husband, Mike, she found a partner to share her dream with.
Gretchen’s love affair with apples began when she was a child and this love was instilled by Alice and Gary McDougall, owners of McDougall’s Apple Junction (Alice was Gretchen’s elementary school music teacher). In 2007, Gretchen and Mike visited the McDougall orchard every few months to meet with Alice and Gary to learn all they could about the apple orchard business.
At first, Gretchen and Mike hoped they might take over the McDougall orchard once Alice and Gary retired. But the McDougalls, like many independent orchard owners, decided McDougall’s Apple Junction should remain in the family.
While this could have been a disheartening setback for the Perbixes, it gave them the opportunity to find their own orchard location where they could bring to life their unique vision of an orchard and cidery. In November of 2008, Gretchen and Mike drove to Webster and visited the site of Bob’s Bluebird Orchard (which had previously been taken off the market).
Even in the late Minnesota fall, when orchards are going dormant for the fast-approaching winter, Gretchen felt they’d found the right location. In a 2016 Make MN story, Gretchen said “It was all brown, but it felt really good.” Sometimes the heart just knows when it’s found home.
In 2009 the sale of the land was finalized and the Perbix’s dream was officially about to become a reality.
A Dream Gets Legs
In 2010 the Perbixes were busy laying the foundation for the apples they would grow and use for cider-making. It was a time of planning, pruning, and planting. In the beginning there were 50 varieties of apples growing at Sweetland Orchard. Later the number would be closer to 70 varieties.
From the beginning, cider was a focus for the couple — the orchard they bought even came with a cider press. In 2010 the hard cider experimentation began with that year’s apple harvest and the Perbixes learned what yeast and apple pairings produced the best results. The apples harvested in 2011 went into production for cider, licensing was acquired, and in 2012 Sweetland Orchard began selling hard cider.
Back in 2012, hard cider wasn’t yet what it would become in Minnesota — essentially, the market didn’t exist at the time. Within a few years, that would change and the demand for locally produced hard ciders would explode. Mike and Gretchen have been champions for the Minnesota hard cider industry. Sweetland Orchard has the distinction of being one of the founding members of the Minnesota Cider Guild.
In 2018 Sweetland Orchard, along with a small number of other orchards, began participation in a study with the University of Minnesota’s apple breeding program to test cider apple varieties. The Perbixes are also committed to adopting sustainable apple orchard growing practices that rely more on landscaping and organic methods to keep the soil and environment healthy. They’re aware that, at times, there is a need for chemical sprays, but they use them as minimally as possible.
Taking a cue from orchards in England, hogs were added to the orchard. They’re not pets, however — the hog meat is available for sale each year, although it sells out very quickly!
The Apples of Sweetland Orchard
Since apples are the Perbixes passion, you can expect to find some amazingly delicious (and even some hard-to-find) varieties. The apples listed on the website are Duchess of Oldenburg, Pristine, Viking, State Fair, SweeTango, Zestar, Paula Red, Ginger Gold, Honeycrisp, Haralson, Honeygold, Cortland, Ruby Jon, Wolf River, Fireside/Connell Red, Bonnie Best, Golden Russett, Airlie Red Flesh, Prairie Spy, Northern Spy, Keepsake, Red Free, Kingston Black, Spartan, Macoun, NW Greening, Egremont Russett, Regent, Dabinett, Liberty, Apricot Apple, Wealthy, and Goldrush.
For fans of crab apples, there are the Centennial Crab and Chestnut Crab.
Again, you can’t get these apples as u-pick, but rest assured that the quality of the picked-for-you apples will be second to none.
More About That Cider They Make
Sweetland Orchard bottles hard cider under several different labels and each one has a unique twist to it.
The Scrumpy Line
At first glance, the word “scrumpy” might not be one you associate with cider, or apples in general. In the hard cider world, “scrumpy” describes small, artisan-quality batches of brewed hard ciders made with local apples. It also identifies a particular type of hard cider made in the west of England. In this article, scrumpy cider is described as “the moonshine of hard cider.”
Exploring the etymology of “scrump” a little more, “scrumping” is a late 19th century British word for stealing fruit, apples in particular, from an orchard or garden. At some point “going scrumping” became a way to mean “going to pick apples” (legally, we hope).
So all of that is to say while the name “Scrumpy” might not seem to fit at first, it’s part of hard cider history and, therefore, quite apropos. Described as “farmhouse hard cider,” the Scrumpy line includes Original and Cherry Rhubarb flavors.
Also a farmhouse hard cider, Rustic Apple is a blend of Minnesota apples and fresh-pressed cider. The website describes the taste as “like our cooler smells in the fall: apples in wooden crates.” A must try for hard cider fans!
Rather than the Minnesota apples used in some of the other hard ciders, Perennial is made from heirloom apples and has some extra carbonation added.
Fans of the Northern Spy apple will be ecstatic over the discovery of this hard cider. The Northern Spy was actually the subject of a call on the NPR show, A Way With Words — the caller’s description of the apple’s taste will make you want to find one ASAP.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made its mark in many ways and the cancellation of the 2020 Minnesota State Fair was one of them. Taking things in stride, Sweetland Orchard created the hard cider they wished they were able to enjoy at the fair.
This hard cider is made with Minnesota apples, apple brandy, and has a special flavor from the oak barrels it’s aged in.
Borealis is an ice cider and it’s available in its original form and in an oak barrel-aged form.
This is a fun hard cider because it’s made from very small batches (some of them experimental). When each batch is bottled, the label is marked with the batch number and customers can go online to read all about what went into making the batch of hard cider they either already have at home or are interested in buying.
The Sweetland Orchard Experience
As you might have guessed, you won’t find tractor or wagon rides, petting zoos, or corn mazes at Sweetland Orchard. They’re also not a u-pick apple orchard, but you can buy picked-for-you apples. This is a different kind of orchard that appeals to a different sort of apple lover.
Sweetland is 20 acres of a more natural orchard setting. Visitors praise the beautiful scenery where they can enjoy good food and drink — it’s described as an ideal picnic setting. There are free-range chickens, the afore-mentioned turkey named Greg, and two very friendly and knowledgeable owner/operators who love to talk about all things apple.
For apple devotees with children who might not have been bitten by the apple bug just yet, there’s a kids area in the barn to occupy little ones while the grownups fanboy/fangirl out over apples.
And lest we forget, the orchard is dog-friendly to leashed, well-behaved dogs with well-behaved parents who are sure to pick up after them.
Sweetland Orchard could be just the apple orchard you’ve been searching for!
What’s Available At Sweetland Orchard
The apples and the hard ciders are to be expected as the most popular items that you can buy at Sweetland Orchard. Visitors can pre-order apple tasting kits that can be upgraded to include hard cider, some of the “rarer” apples, as well as dessert ciders. They do take time to prepare so they must be ordered in advance of a visit to the orchard.
Recently Gretchen has introduced Minnesotans to a new addiction — apple cider doughnuts. Apparently, while these are a familiar treat in states like Michigan, these are relatively unknown in Minnesota. Chances are, they’re a baked good trend that will catch on quickly.
If pork from the hogs the Prebixes raise sounds like something you want to take advantage of, you’ll have to get on the waiting list by emailing them (the email address is provided along with all their other contact information at the end of this article).
Small, But Huge On Quality
At just 20 acres, Sweetland Orchard is a fraction of the size of other Minnesota apple orchards. It doesn’t have the carnival-like atmosphere found elsewhere during apple season. But don’t count that against this orchard because this is a true apple lover’s paradise. Apples like the hard-to-find Wolf River, Northern Spy, and Pristine alone are worth a trip.
The Perbixes have been pioneers in the hard cider industry as well as the movement towards more eco-friendly apple farming practices. The apples and hard ciders they produce are the results of their passion for a different way to run an orchard and cidery. Spending a few hours with Mike and Gretchen might just turn you into an apple enthusiast.
Where To Find Sweetland Orchard
If you’re looking for a slightly different orchard experience that focuses solely on a love of apples and hard ciders, then a trip to Sweetland Orchard has to be part of your fall plans this year.
Address: 26205 Fairlawn Ave, Webster MN 55088
Phone: 651-25-CIDER (651-252-4337)
Contact Email: [email protected]