Ask Steve Lecklider what’s available for picking at Lehman’s Farm Market & U-Pick Orchard and you’ll get a long answer.

It’s not just blueberries or just apples, it’s a rolling symphony of fruit. This week the answer is: “We are still picking the donut peaches, nectarines, and blueberries. But also started the red haven peaches, and the fall blackberries and raspberries.” Next week, the answer will be different.

Apples aren’t ready for picking yet but are ripening at Lehman’s Orchard. (Photo supplied by Marshall V. King)
Apples aren’t ready for picking yet but are ripening at Lehman’s Orchard.
(Photo supplied by Marshall V. King)

Lecklider was a school teacher and musician who moved from Minnesota to the area to fix instruments at Woodwind & Brasswind. He began helping at the orchard his mother’s family started in 1929. Now he’s the primary grower/marketer/storyteller/winemaker/brewer, working with his parents, Sara Jane and William Lecklider, on the property at 2280 Portage Road, Niles, Mich.

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So when he stands among the 55 acres of fruit trees, raspberry brambles and blueberry bushes, it’s easy to to imagine that he’s conducting.

He can pull donut peaches off a tree and explain how you won’t often find them in the grocery store because of how tender they are.

Steve Lecklider talks about the nectarines and peaches that are ripe at Lehman’s Farm Market & U-Pick Orchard in Niles, Mich. His family’s orchard has 55 acres of fruit. (Photo supplied by Marshall V. King)
Steve Lecklider talks about the nectarines and peaches that are ripe at Lehman’s Farm Market & U-Pick Orchard in Niles, Mich. His family’s orchard has 55 acres of fruit.
(Photo supplied by Marshall V. King)

He checks on the raspberries nestled in rows between the fruit trees. The Honey Crisp apples aren’t ripe yet, but Lecklider explains how the family put in nine acres in the mid-1990s after fire blight took out a lot of trees. That was long before the snappy apple became the most popular variety for Midwest eaters, but the u-pick will be open for a month or even two this fall.

Lehman’s Orchard is known for its u-pick cherries — both tart and sweet — but those are just two of the dozen fruits the orchard lets people pick for a price.

About 100 pickers a day come during the week and double or triple that on weekends. They arrive and grab buckets and head for the berries, stone fruits or apples. It’s common for people to pick multiple fruits in one visit.

U-pick patches are an age-old model, but as a growing number of people want to know the sources of their food, the patches are resurging again. Karen Martens of South Bend, who was gathering blueberries with friends on a recent morning, said the picking is easy, the fruit is fresh and it tastes different than from the grocery store.

Karen Martens (front) and others pick blueberries at Lehman’s Farm Market & U-Pick Orchard. (Photo supplied by Marshall V. King)
Karen Martens (front) and others pick blueberries at Lehman’s Farm Market & U-Pick Orchard.
(Photo supplied by Marshall V. King)

Last summer, Lecklider was taking fruit to Chicago farmers markets three days a week. He’d leave at 4 a.m. and get home at 7 p.m. The markets were changing and he was selling less fruit and more products made with fruit, including jams, ciders and vinegars.

The family had gotten into the “value-added” fruit products when Lecklider traveled to Florida for four months every winter to sell at markets. “We used to package tens of thousands of trail mixes,” he said. Fruits became wine. Jams and salsas were added to the lineup.

Lehman’s Orchard produces hard ciders, fruit wines and other products from the abundance of fruit. (Photo supplied by Marshall V. King)
Lehman’s Orchard produces hard ciders, fruit wines and other products from the abundance of fruit.
(Photo supplied by Marshall V. King)

In recent years, Lecklider has been taking extra fruit and experimenting with a growing range of products. The ciders are quite good and Lehman is even bottling single-varietal cider and vinegar. (The Honey Crisp vinegar is lighter and brighter than traditional apple cider vinegar.)

All this experimenting with value-added products has led to the opening of Lehman’s Farmhouse in Buchanan, Mich., this fall. Construction is underway. Bowling alley slabs are being converted into tables. The wine, cider and beer that Lecklider has been brewing will be served on tap along with a menu that will start small and grow.

As a musician, Lecklider is looking at variables and experimenting. “Probably in my mind I’m always fine-tuning,” he said. Offering the simple beauty of a fresh peach isn’t enough. He’s seeing how that fits together with having an oversupply, how to grow it with few chemicals but yet fight blight, and what to do when they aren’t in season

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While some in the food business — or the world in general — lament that things aren’t the way they used to be, Lecklider relishes how the old mixes with something new. “It’s changing rapidly. You almost have to get used to change,” he said of his business.

He and his family are connecting with families that are seeking freshness and quality, whether it’s on an annual pilgrimage to Lehman’s or coming for the first time.

Karen Martens drops blueberries into a bucket at Lehman’s Farm Market & U-Pick Orchard. (Photo supplied by Marshall V. King)
Karen Martens drops blueberries into a bucket at Lehman’s Farm Market & U-Pick Orchard.
(Photo supplied by Marshall V. King)

Lehman’s Farm Market
• 2280 Portage Road, Niles, Mich.
• Phone: 269-683-9078
• Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday, noon to 5 Sunday
• Updates on crops and products posted on Facebook and Instragram

When they come, they’ll find ripe fruit — and probably a new way Lecklider landed on using it. He’s considering half-meads made with honey and beer that have lower alcohol. Or just pasteurized juices and sodas using a tabletop machine someone told him about.

As the fruit ripens on the beautiful rolling property, Lecklider is a maestro looking for the next way he’ll learn. “I guess that’s what I like about it. It’s multidimensional,” he said.

The results are delicious.

I’m hungry. Let’s eat.

 

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