Let’s just start by saying that Kercher’s Sunrise Orchards is open and busy.
Some have heard “Kercher’s closed.” What people mean is the road C.R. 38, better known as Kercher Road. And yes, it’ll be closed right next to the orchard and market as the bridge is rebuilt.
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So when people say “Kercher’s closed,” they mean “Kercher Road is closed,” not the orchard that has been in business since 1922.
“Unfortunately, our name is on the road,” said Maureen Kercher, whose husband Tom is the fourth generation to grow apples and son Bill is the fifth.
The phone has been ringing and the Kerchers and their employees are assuring people that yes, they’re open and the apples and pumpkins look great.
September and October are when orchards make money. It’s when classes come on field trips, when families come to fill baskets with apples, pick out pumpkins and take annual family photos.
When the bridge closed in mid-September, the orchard was eerily quiet for a day or two. Then people started coming again. The annual fall festival last weekend was busy despite intermittent rain.
Business is down about 20 percent, which Maureen said answers the question of how much drive-by business they got. “The regulars: They’re great. They come,” she said. “We’ve got the best customers always.”
They’ve advertised and printed signs. They’ve posted to Facebook and asked others to share the posts saying they’re open (and thousands have).
People are helping spread the word and coming to help, she said. Many of them are on field trips coming to see Mrs. Apple.
That’s what Maureen is better known as to as many as 5,000 students from across the region who visit with school groups annually.
On Tuesday, a homeschool group from Berrien Springs, Mich., was in the orchard learning about why apples are delicious, how yellow jackets are mostly harmless and the different ways people gnaw on the fall fruit.
“We love it every time,” said Sarah Newell, the director of the group. She praised Mrs. Apple, who in turn said how much she loves the kids and teaching them.
Newell’s daughter Katelynn explained how much she loves the orchard. It’s her favorite, she said. It’s the only one she’s been to, but she doesn’t seem to see much need to explore when Mrs. Apple is there to answer her questions and she can pick her favorite fruit. “This is beautiful land to me,” Katelynn said.
The Kerchers agree. They don’t have 500 acres of apple trees anymore. When Chinese apples started coming on the market years back, they got smaller and diversified. Tom and Bill spend a lot of time overseeing the growing and marketing of vegetables. This year, they have 700 acres or so of specialty crops, including 80 acres of cabbage, Maureen said.
Kercher’s is one of the largest growers of sweet corn in northern Indiana. They have 100 employees, including migrant pickers and some from Haiti who have found their way to work here.
The 4-year-olds don’t care about that stuff. They just want to pick an apple, drink cider from a bottle shaped like one and give Mrs. Apple a hug. They want to go on a hayride, pick out a pumpkin and will even indulge their parents who want to take a photo.
Kercher’s Sunrise Orchards has joined the club of businesses challenged by road construction. When it happens, a business owner has the choice of lamenting the loss of business. Or he or she can stay upbeat, be creative and see it as a bump in the road.
The Kerchers, even as the road bearing their name is closed for over a year, are doing the latter. “I’m so excited for the bridge,” Maureen said. People will be able to walk or bike across the $4 million structure.
Since C.R. 38 is being widened, they got an old house next to the bridge in a land swap and are dreaming about what it can become. Their glass of cider is half full, not half empty.
A bridge and road being closed doesn’t change how good the Honeycrisps were this fall or how sweet the peaches have been. Nor does it change the story of how W.W. Kercher lost his job when a furniture store burned and decided to buy 40 acres along the Elkhart River to turn his hobby into a business. It doesn’t change how his son Max was a classmate at Purdue with Orville Redenbacher and the family was best friends with the Studebakers. It doesn’t change how Bill, part of the fifth generation, left a job with Ford Motor Co. in 2010 to move home and join the family business.
The Kerchers have been growing apples a long time and don’t intend to stop. There are photos above the cooler in the shop showing W.W., Max, Bill, Tom and Bill. The one on the far right is of Max Kieffer, a toddler who is part of the sixth generation.
Kercher Road may be closed, but Kercher’s Sunrise Orchards is open. And likely will be.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.