'This is their orchard': Wills family shares orchard experience with Dallas County
The decision for Maury and Mary Wills to open Wills Family Orchard to the community almost came down to an exact moment.
One day, Maury decided to walk to the top of the hill on property that adjoined theirs to the North. He walked through a horse pasture and past the horses that belonged to a country neighbor. It was at the top of the hill where he saw a beautiful scene. He thought it was gorgeous.
“I told my wife, ‘I gotta take you up there. I don’t want you to turn around until we get up there,’” Wills said. “We walked up, had her turn around. What hit us at that moment is, this is too much natural beauty for us to just keep to ourselves. We need to share it.”
Wills has always enjoyed going to orchards as a child and has always wanted to do something with farming. His wife grew up on a dairy farm in Ames and had that farming background.
“When my wife and I were in our 30s, we kind of dreamed this thing up of an apple orchard,” Wills said. “I enjoy fall. It’s my favorite time of year. We just thought we wanted to create a place where people could go and just enjoy being outdoors.”
An Orchard Learning Curve
In the early 90s, and even a time before this, Wills spent time at the library researching how to grow apples. At that time, there wasn’t much information out there on the way he wanted to farm.
“I didn’t really know anything about managing an orchard,” Wills said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to try to do it organically if I’m going to do it at all.’”
Wills wanted to find growing books that were published before World War II.
“It was after World War II that they stepped up a lot of different chemical products that were used,” Wills said. “There were some before, like sulfur products and lime sulfur and those kinds of things.”
During his self-learning time, he contacted a lot of other apple growers. He shared that once you get your feet wet as a grower and start to have some experience, a knowledge base is developed and more specific questions can be asked.
“The apple growing bunch, they’re a great bunch,” Wills said. “I’ve talked with people all over the country about different things in terms of management. Then started going to field days and conferences, taking a lot of notes and reading books online.”
Will’s Family Orchard History
The Wills family started planting apple trees in 1992.
“I pretty much said, ‘I want to make my mistakes on this first 100 apple trees that I plant,’” Wills said. “I haven’t made all my mistakes yet. I’m still planting trees anyway, so I didn’t keep that promise.”
Around 1997, they started getting a handful of apples and began selling them.
“My wife would literally get on the telephone and call family and friends and say, ‘Hey, you know we’ve got apples,’” Wills said. “For those who were brave enough, they’d drive out and knock on our front door and we’d have bags of apples on a table inside of our house.”
A couple years after that, they decided to move the table to their big front porch to sell apples. They eventually had a breezeway and garage built. The breezeway, located between the garage and the house, became their little store.
Inside their store, they had a display cooler, a counter and a couple shelves. They sold apples, a little bit of apple butter and honey that they raised.
Wills believes it was in 2006 when they purchased the 30 acres that adjoined them to the North. They put up a new building at this time. It was in 2007 that they had more of a farm store. They have continued to take steps to enlarge the farm by putting up a second building.
“It has just evolved over these years as we’ve raised our kids,” Wills said. “It’s become a bigger and bigger operation over the years. I can’t say that when we first started, that how we are now, was exactly where we were gonna go, but there were things that occurred along the journey that brought us to where we are now.”
The Wills Family
Within their business name, there is the word family, which was initially referring to their own family. As Wills and Mary were growing the orchard, they were also raising six kids.
“The family all had a part in it and that really has been a special thing about our orchard,” Wills said. “It has been about having our family together with a common goal and common vision.”
Wills and Mary have allowed their kids to take on their own projects and sell their own products in the store. Now that their children are older, the farm isn’t just about their own family anymore.
“It’s about everybody else’s family and their friends,” Wills said. “Wills Family Orchard, the family, kind of takes on another meaning. The definition has kind of broadened to include all the families that come to see us.”
Wills shared that the orchard is a place where families come together, have fun, share good times and memories and take a lot of photos.
“It’s low key and that’s what we want for people, so everybody unplugs a little bit,” Wills said.
Over the years, they have heard many stories from people about why they come to the orchard and what it means to them. Wills enjoys getting to know the people that visit the orchard.
“You have no idea how you fit into people’s lives because everyone has something else going on in their life, good and sometimes heartbreaking,” Wills said. “You meet people where they are and you try to provide hospitality.”
Recent Updates to the Farm
Right before last season, a porch with a roof was added to the original building. Wills feels this area provides guests with a lot of social space for people to hangout and visit. They have also added another John Deere tractor to pull wagons for their hay wagon rides. One tractor belongs to Mary’s brother and the other tractor was from her father’s dairy farm. Both tractors have been restored.
Due to COVID-19, safety measures have been put in place.
“In the retail store, we have a plexiglass there between our cashiers and the customers,” Wills said. “We’ll have hand sanitizers there as you go in the building. We also brought in handwashing units this year that we haven’t had before.”
The foot pump handwashing units are located down by the play/animal area and by the main building. In the play area, they have sanitizing wipes to wipe down handles.
The Growing Season
The organic strawberries are planted first in the springtime. This past year, they started letting people pick strawberries in their strawberry patch. They also make their jams with these strawberries.
“I have hundreds of apple trees coming for next year and we’ll plant some more apple trees and peach trees,” Wills said.
The apples are currently certified organic. In the future, they will probably have a portion of the orchard that has a little bit of both organic and conventional apples, no longer being totally certified.
“That would allow us to have more fruit and more clean fruit to sell,” Wills said. “Certain insects, like Japanese beetle and some other things, are just impossible to manage organically.”
Early June is their target time for planting pumpkins, squash and gourds.
“This year we planted and then we just didn’t get a drop of rain, so we had to irrigate a little bit,” Wills said. “It took forever to get the plants kind of going.”
On Wills Family Orchard, there are 62 acres in total. Approximately six acres are apple trees and four or five acres are pumpkins and gourds. There is almost one acre of peach trees and 1/8th of an acre of strawberries. Sometimes they will plant squash, watermelons etc. About 35 acres is timber.
During a typical growing season, their orchard produces anywhere between 700 to 1,000+ bushels of apples. Wills shared that the big orchards can produce 10,000 to 20,000 bushels. One bushel of apples weighs around 36-40 lbs.
“The whole state [of Iowa] produces less than a quarter of a million bushels,” Wills said. “To put this in perspective, Washington State [produces] upwards of 120 million bushels. They grow apples like we grow corn.”
The Orchard Experience
Wills Family Orchard is located at 33130 Panther Creek Rd, Adel. They are approximately eight miles from each of the nearby towns.
“Take the dusty road along the river, under all the tree limbs that hang over the gravel road,” Wills said. “It’s a very quaint drive. You feel like you’re going out in the country, because you really are.”
The orchard sign greets guests. On the left of their gravel lane, the u-pick pumpkins lay on the ground. On the right, there are trees loaded with apples, ready to be picked. The parking area is located after the pumpkin patch to the left, in front of the big red barn.
“It’s not a concrete parking lot,” Wills said. “It’s a field, which is nice. It’s part of the farm.”
The giftshop barn has a porch roof. The other barn, which tees into the giftshop, is their warehouse where they have their cooler, apple handling, storage and it’s where they bring in the produce.
Inside the giftshop, guests can purchase apples, jams, sauces, a couple different varieties of wine made from their apple cider, honey products, soda, water, frozen apple pies and ice cream.
“We brought them [Picket Fence Creamery] some peaches here a couple weeks ago and they made peach ice cream with that for us,” Wills said. “That has been selling like crazy, flying out of the freezer.”
Other Picket Fence ice cream flavors are also available.
Wills shared that one of their favorite fall treats, that was added about five years ago, is their apple cider donuts. They are made from a specialty donut cinnamon-sugar mix that they get from Michigan.
Apple cider may be purchase by the jug and it’s also offered cold or hot to drink.
“On any given weekend, we have some kind of lunch food for people,” Wills said.
Wills shared that people spend around two to three hours on their farm.
In the play area, they have little water pumps in stock tanks that pump water down troughs where little ducks can race. They also have a corn pool. Their corn maze didn’t grow well this year, due to the drought, so they created a rope maze in the timber.
“We’re trying to add more activities for people to do,” Wills said. “We want to keep it very much farm themed. We really don’t want to have a carnival kind of experience or carnival look with inflatables or anything like that.”
Fees, Dates, Times and Possible Future Offerings
There is not an admittance fee. However, there is an activity fee for certain activities on the farm. Children ages two and under are free. Children older than two, have a fee of $7 plus tax. The adult fee is $5 plus tax.
Their festival weekends are happening now and will continue through October. Their hours are Saturday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday 12-6 p.m.
“At the end of October, we’re pretty much done [for the year],” Wills said. “I don’t know if we’re going to do it this year, but we have been open a Christmas season in the past. People like to buy these kinds of things around Christmas time.”
Growing a business like this, Wills has learned some lessons along the way. He advises to take it slowly and learn from other people, so mistakes aren’t repeated. He also shares that working with the weather is hugely important.
“My wife would be the first one to tell you this, don’t bite off more than you can chew,” Wills said. “Take it one step at a time.”
Will the orchard be passed down to the Wills' children and generations to come?
Wills and Mary’s children have their own professions, but they still continue to participate on the farm. He hopes that the farm will continue in their family.
“I know they like what’s going on,” Wills said. “In terms of actual logistics and figuring all that out yet, we still haven’t done that. We hope it does and I know our kids hope it does too.”
Wills wants people to know that they are here within Dallas County.
“I want people to know that this is their orchard,” Wills said. “People can go anywhere of course, but we’re there for our community.”
To find out more information, Wills Family Orchard is on Facebook. Their website is https://willsfamilyorchard.com/.