Special to the Citizen
Five years ago the area that is now Weston Orchard & Vineyard in Weston was just a pasture overrun with hedges, locust and cedar trees.
When Erik Olson decided to move south from Nebraska City, Neb. and start the vineyard and orchard he knew it would be a challenge but was excited about owning and operating a family business.
His experience of running two orchards in Nebraska for more than 20 years and living on one of the farms proved to be valuable when he and his family began planning their own business.
“One of our sons is in college majoring in agribusiness and thinks he might want to come back into the farming operation and we decided at that point to look for a location that would be conducive to fruit growing and start our own business,” Olson said.
After choosing Weston for their new venture their top priority was building their huge barn for retail space in the tradition of older wooden structures in Weston and Platte County, such as the tobacco barns in the area, so they would better fit into the community.
The challenge has been starting from scratch, Olson said. One of the two businesses that he ran in Nebraska had been in operation since the late 1800s and the other since 1925. They were very well known and had name recognition. Olson says growing fruit and vegetables is the easy part, but starting from scratch is very different.
“Marketing and getting people to just know where you’re at with technology changing all the time and learning new avenues getting the word out — it’s hard to keep up,” Olson said. “That’s where the kids come in.”
He and his wife Kilee operate the business. His youngest two children are in high school and the oldest two are in college. They employ eight people, but in the fall they need between 15 and 20 workers.
For the last year the weather has been the biggest challenge for the family.
“We can’t control the weather but everything else is manageable,” Olson said. “The weather has been fine for apples, peaches and blackberries, but strawberries really struggled this year with the amount of rain we had in May and early June. It also wasn’t conducive to strawberry growing with the rougher than normal winter. We had to delay planting.
“Planting usually begins around Sept. 1, but with the temperature around 95 degrees and windy with little rain it was hard to keep the plants alive. Going into a colder-than-normal winter and a super wet spring was kind of a one-two-three punch so we ended up with maybe 25 percent of our strawberries that we saved.”
Since 85 percent of the crops are picked by customers, one of the most rewarding parts of the business for Olson is watching families pick the crops together.
“It lets kids see where their food comes from and it allows them time together to have fun,” he said. “With people working hard to support their families, time together is really precious and we want to provide a nice place for them to come that’s family oriented.”
The orchard offers lots of activities for children including a giant bounce pillow, farmyard sports, racing in the culvert, “rat races,” hay rack rides, pumpkin patches and events for all seasons.
The Olsons are hoping to add a petting zoo.
The orchard also serves as a popular venue for weddings, baby showers, birthdays and family reunions. Companies also rent the barn for thank-you events for their employees.
Inside the barn the family sells a wide range of products including jams, jellies, pies, ice cream, fudge, slushies and honey.
They rent bees for 10 days in the spring, which helps pollinate the crops. The business draws a lot of military personnel from Fort Leavenworth who source out honey for allergies. A lot of their customers also come from Platte City and Kansas City.
With four acres of vineyards, one of the most popular spots in the barn is the tasting bar for wines. The business offers many varieties, including cherry, apple and raspberry, along with fortified wines.
“Fortified wine is apple wine distilled and mixed back with apple wine and soaked in cinnamon, so it’s got a little higher alcoholic content,” Olson said. “We call it ‘apple pie.’ We sell to several breweries and wineries in the area and we hope to have hard cider on tap.”
In the fall, caramel apple pie and cider donuts are popular and the barn’s cider room offers customers an opportunity to watch the cider being pressed.
Olson says peaches are the most popular fruit sold, followed by apples and pumpkins.
“The Loess Hills along the Missouri River with its wind blown soil is one of the three best places in the world to grow things,” he said. “It’s great soil. The other two are the Yellow River in China and along the Rhine River in Germany. All have excellent fruit-growing soil.”
He likes that people come to the orchard to have a fun time, and it brings a smile to his face that the business helps create many family memories for people.
“I’m blessed in starting a new business and working with, and encountering good people,” he said.