By Ben Kraus
For as long as I can remember and perhaps even before, there has been a part of me that knew I was meant to be an orchardist. Many of my childhood memories are of running through the trees of Aeppler Orchard in Oconomowoc, where my grandmother lived and worked. I remember quietly observing in awe as she capably answered questions from the public on an orchard tour and knew then that I aspired to be like her.
My educational adventures began with a foundation in horticulture and plant production. The opportunity to manage a few apple orchards provided the real-world experience needed to continue my steadfast pursuit of the ideal fruit farm. Of course, nothing is ever as easy as it seems in dreams and my journey took several detours across the state of Wisconsin. But over the years and various other careers in landscaping, irrigation, and vegetable production, I have always found my way back to apples and the desire to live and learn with the trees.
I am drawn to unique histories of heirloom cultivars—those weirdly wonderful, magical trees standing like silent shaggy sentinels forgotten by time, offering fantastic fruits far different from the typical grocery store haul. Nothing is more gratifying than harvesting from a Yellow Transparent in July, except perhaps rewinding years of neglect with a thoughtful winter pruning in an underappreciated orchard.
The orchard is my classroom; my instruction comes from the trees. My goal at Gwenyn Hill is to create an ecosystem that welcomes biodiversity and produces exceptional organic fruit. Over the next few years, I hope to install beetle banks as a habitat for beneficial insects and pollinators. I also plan to explore and implement environmental design aspects linked to the principles of permaculture, developing plant guilds that mimic a natural forest biome and its ability to adapt and acclimate to climate pressures. Where others may simply see rows of skinny sticks, I see the opportunity to create a sustainable, perennial food system.
Ben Kraus joined Gwenyn Hill Farm as Perennials Manager in January 2023. He looks forward to Spring when the orchard looks less like skinny sticks and a little more like trees.