Linda Beyer Struye is the fourth generation of apple growers on her farm and orchard located along the southeast shore of Lake Winnebago where on 139 acres, twenty acres of apples and twenty acres of pumpkins are grown every season.
“My grandfather bought the land in 1866,” Linda began “he planted the first of the apple trees of what would become the orchard, and it’s my understanding the pear tree that’s near the house is one he planted as well. My mother and father, Emil and Evelyn Beyer eventually took over the orchard, planted more trees, and raised some beef cattle, and cash crop alfalfa. I was an only child, so thank goodness I had my cousin Suzanne Beyer (Lemke) next door to help with the chores (laugh). It was a wonderful childhood, wandering and exploring the farmstead and orchard barefoot all summer, I’d leave in the morning, and not come back until night! I followed my father around more than my mother, hammering nails, working outside…growing up on a farm is a wonderful experience.”
It was 1939 that the Beyer family began retailing apples, the same year Linda was born.
“Some of the windows that are still in the red brick building across the parking lot are from one of the buildings at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago,” she said.
After college, Linda worked for two years before meeting her future husband.
“I married a Belgian fella’ and we lived in many different places around the world including Europe,” Linda said “before moving back here to run the business.”
The Beyer’s were still selling only apples when Linda and her husband returned from Africa in 1972.
“We started growing and selling strawberries too,” Linda said “to augment the apple income.”
When Linda and her husband parted ways in 1985, Linda maintained the business on her own.
“We eventually stopped raising strawberries, and started growing pumpkins,” she said “that was in 2000, and that’s when I began developing the farm into an ‘agri-tainment’ business.”
The decision was made to transform The Little Farmer from a quaint and simple pick-your-own apple orchard, and take things to the next level.
“It came down to either going all wholesale, and investing in all kinds of expensive equipment to start waxing all the apples,” Linda said “and putting those tiny labels on each one…because that’s what supermarkets require, or selling retail. I chose retail. Back in those days it was difficult dealing with the supermarket folks, I have to say it out loud…but especially as a woman, they were tough cookies. It was a very cut-throat business, so I decided to market things myself. It’s gradually grown to what it is today which is beyond my wildest dreams.”
Linda had belonged to a farm market organization with tendrils from Great Britain to Mexico, Canada and here in the U.S.
“I toured in the off-season and saw what other people were doing,” Linda said “noticing a trend toward this style of business with an orchard, and a bakery making pies. I started making them here in the house, until I made a temporary kitchen in the apple house. We had a little hand-crank peeler, and made the pies. Which eventually led to taking the leap, and built the pie kitchen. We went from one small oven to the walk-in oven that bakes 60 pies at a time. Apple, peach, pumpkin, cherry and blueberry pies. Depending on the demand, and at the peak of the season, we’ll make 400 to 500 pies a day. They’re always baked fresh that day with the goal being that it’s still warm when you buy it.”
They employ 124 seasonal workers, and eight full-timers.
“I’ve sort of bowed out,” Linda said “still keeping my hand in some of the accounting, but I live nearby and am able to keep an eye on things.”
That’s when Theresa Mayer, daughter of Suzanne, and manager of the farmhouse chimed in.
“She keeps an eagle-eye on things,” Theresa laughed. “Linda approached me six years ago, wondering if I would be interested in transforming the farmhouse into a retail cafe-type coffee shop. At that time the house had stood empty for four years. We put a game plan together. The first couple years we didn’t have much in the way of food, but the barista, the coffee shop began to take off. This will be the third season that we’ll have the kitchen, and the Apple Blossom Cafe, up and running. Our garden supplies many of the vegetables we use, and everything we make is pretty much from scratch.”
In addition to running and maintaining the house and cafe, Theresa does landscaping, planting of flowers around the property, and pruning the apple trees. She and Alicia Petrie, who manages the arts and crafts barn, make their pilgrimage to Minneapolis every winter to attend conventions and shows, looking for new ideas and deciding on what to bring to the shop for the next season.
“Stained glass windows were installed in the craft barn that we’d gotten from a church in Fond du Lac,” Alicia said “and when the sunlight shines through and illuminates the space, it brings a warm and beautiful feel to the barn. Within we sell both retail and consignment items. The barn also has another purpose in that when grade school tours come though, they have their lunch up there, plus it’s a host spot for birthday parties, and luncheon groups, and there are a couple companies that come here and conduct retreats. It’s a relaxing atmosphere.”
“We kind of have three ‘divisions’ within the business,” Theresa said “with Jill Daleiden taking care of the apple house, making the jams and jellies, apple sauces, the from-scratch caramel, and the bakery. Jill Chou and Jill Daleiden have been around for 20-plus years. Jill Chou used to do all the school tours, and now Alicia Petrie has since taken over. Jill Chou is still active as our incredible sign painter, she continues doing the caramel apples for school tours and events, plus helps out with landscaping. Jeremy Klemp is our crop and maintenance manager; spraying, harvesting, and general farm and machine maintenance.”
“This is an ‘everybody-pitches-in’ kind of management,” Linda said “not heavy handed. It’s really neat, because I think most if not all of the people who work here really do care.”
The Little Farmer has anywhere from ten to fifteen different bakers who’ve been working on recipes over the years for all the different muffins and pies.
And let’s not forget about the caramel apples!
At that time they used Nestle caramel.
“We’d normally place our order for a couple ton of caramel in January,” Linda said “until one year, expecting our delivery in July…it didn’t come, and it didn’t come. I finally called my vendor and they matter-of-factly said, ‘Oh, we’re not making that anymore.’ Now we were up a creek! It was panic time. Luckily I had some good friends in the industry from Illinois who had been making their own caramel for years, and they offered to show us how they do it. We bought a caramel making machine, and haven’t looked back.”
There are 17 different varieties of apples growing at The Little Farmer.
“And we just planted the 18th which will be ready to bear fruit in 3 years,” Theresa said. “Next year we’ll be planting another three new varieties.”
“There are many different varieties,” Linda said “ but a problem we have is that many of them are classified as ‘club’ varieties, and people like me aren’t allowed to grow them, because the apples actually have a patent on them, and you have to belong to this large group of growers, and pay a substantial amount of money in order to have the rights to grow that apple. It keeps those varieties out of the hands of growers like me, and available only in grocery stores. In my opinion, I think it’s something of a price control mechanism.”
The season will begin, and The Little Farmer will open in early August when the apples are ripening, and the peaches they receive from Michigan have arrived. During their peak of the season you’ll count 3000 vehicles in the parking lot throughout an average weekend day.
“I do worry when so many people are here on the busy weekends,” Linda said “don’t get me wrong, I love all the folks, but sometimes the service suffers a little because of the numbers.”
“When we’re open the playground is there for the kids,” Alicia said “we bring in goats and other animals, the corn maze opens after Labor Day. And brat fry’s every weekend through Halloween organized by different non-profit groups. We’re pet friendly, have hay wagon rides, pick-your-own apples, or buy them already picked.”
And near the end of the season, donations of apples to the Salvation Army and food pantries are part of what the Beyer family has always done.
“My folks used to do it, so I just kept it up,” Linda said.
We’re in the heart of our summer, but Linda Beyer Struye and her staff are readying The Little Farmer for their sesquicentennial season, and are waiting for you to visit.
For more information call 920-358-9538 or visit mytlf.com