Dave Pagel stands with his trusty pal outside his business, Dave Pagel Produce, in Berrien Springs. Photo by Kathie Hempel

Archived Story

Fresh from the tree — in January?

Published 7:24pm Wednesday, December 29, 2010

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Growing up in Canada it was almost a winter mantra and since here too I live in a region blessed with orchards I imagine most of you have heard the same.

Baked apple, apple pie, apple crisp with ice cream rate among some of my favorite winter comfort foods. That is why I was thrilled a few years ago when a dear friend introduced me Dave Pagel’s “little side door.”

Stella had been getting her apples there for years. But it was February. And here she is rambling on about apples “fresh from the farm.”

We drove out Red Bud Trail to the corner of Shawnee Road between Bridgman and Berrien Springs. I had passed the corner many times as our family doctor is located in Bridgman. I had seen Pagel Farms and was even familiar with the building on the corner where there was always large wooden boxes stacked outside, however, I had never even noticed “the little side door” with the small “OPEN” sign.

Outside we were met by Buddy resident watch dog and official greeter. Inside we met Tracy Bauer. This apple expert pointed out the many varieties still available as behind her other workers were busy washing, sorting and packing apples for wholesale.

Tracy showed us Honeycrisps, Red and Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Jonathans, Ida Reds, Galas and Macintosh apples galore. We even had the choice of buying first quality such as those that would travel to markets and the half bushel bags of seconds for only $5 .

I was amazed to learn that the fresh crisp right off the tree apples were available generally between August until mid-May. This is possible due to the low oxygen storage rooms which keep the produce at a temperature that is just above freezing. As the company website states, “you know you can purchase apples in April that taste as if they just came off the tree.”

Great fresh taste! Low price and great value. How could I not share these folk with you?

I met Dave Pagel in their breakroom just before Christmas. He explained that he grew up on the fruit farm just down the road. After graduating from Michigan State University in 1976 with a degree in agriculture, he joined his father and brother on the farm.

Pagel and his wife Sue have two sons, Jeremy and Nate, and two daughters, Ashley and Hannah. The eldest son, Jeremy, is currently following in his Dad’s footsteps as he studies agriculture at Michigan State University. He plans on joining Dad in business after graduation.

For most of the year the company employs 15 people. Prime picking time runs from late August through October.

In the past 32 years Dave Pagel Produce has grown and now sells apples, peaches and nectarines from more than 30 Michigan farms. Bauer who has been with Pagel for 10 years talked about how the business has grown.

“When I first started we did it all by hand. Each year Dave has found new technologies that have allowed us to work far more efficiently,” she said.

Bauer walked me through the plant where I watched as the huge wooden boxes, I had only seen stacked empty outside were fork-lifted with loads of apples over the washer for the start of their journey. Two woman sat on a platform above the other machinery to begin the sorting of the apples.

Those with even the most minor flaw head down one belt to the “second’s grader,” where they will either be bagged for sale at the side door or sent on to be made into juice or cider. The number one apples are graded further according to size and color.

Closest to the side door is the bagging machine where five ladies busily bag the apples for the wholesale customers. While apples comprise about 99 percent of Pagel’s business, they do sell peaches and nectarines in season through the early fall.

My apples are pulled from the large crates of seconds. I love the smell of the place. Buying my apples in the midst of all this activity in a building surrounded by orchards just feels right to me. I know what I am getting was grown by a neighbor.

Though Pagel says his son may one day decide to create a separate “more fancy” retail store, for now they are pleased to welcome those who like Stella and I wander in the side door.

In the break room there are all the signs of a business to whom its neighbors and community mean a lot. There is the sign that says “Dave Pagel: Commissioner,” designating his current position as a Berrien County commissioner. He served on the local school board. Plaques thanking the Pagels for support of Five Pines Christian Ministries that operates a camp in nearby Berrien Center where the Pagel children camped and counseled growing up are framed on the wall as well.

Pagel is philosophical about his community service.

“We want our lives to mean something and have free choice as to how we use that great opportunity each day,” he said.

What a wonderful thought for a New Year!

To learn more about Dave Pagel Produce and for lots of interesting information on the different varieties of apples and hints (like it takes six to eight apples to make a 9-inch pie and that 1 bushel of apples will net you 3 to 3 1/2 gallons of cider) you may want to visit his website at www.pagelproduce.com.

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