Sustainability leads to accolades

Published 4:04 pm Sunday, August 22, 2010

Lehman’s Orchard Apple Raspberry Michigan Hard Cider won gold at the Indy International Wine Competition. Photo submitted by Lehman’s Orchards


One local Niles fruit grower is finding the method of sustainability is proving to be immensely successful.
Lehman’s Orchards, a Niles orchard family-owned and operated since 1929, recently won accolades for its hard cider, and with several notable fruit wines also available, Lehman’s is setting itself up to be a contender in the southwest Michigan wine industry.
Steven Lecklider is the third generation owner of the orchard and said the movement into fruit wines and hard ciders was not only a means of finding new product to keep the business growing, but an effort in sustainability as well.
Lecklider’s grandparents ran a “u-pick” operation for years, he said, “from early 1940 to when they passed away in 1986 and 1992.”
Around that time, Lecklider said he returned to the Niles area and the farm and eventually took the helm.
He’s since planted several varieties of crops on the farm’s 50 acres including apples, pears, cherries and blueberries.
“It’s sort of just kind of evolved,” Lecklider said.
Lehman’s has evolved into selling to customers nationwide, including commercial stores, farmers’ markets and online.
And, following a desire to foster an interest in sustainability, Lecklider began using fruits that were left over from harvests for a new product on the farm: fruit wines and hard ciders.
“You harvest the main crop for your customers but then there’s always a little extra that never quite either sold or was picked,” he said. Lecklider estimates that portion of fruit to amount to about 10 percent of his harvest.
“You hate to waste that part of the crop,” he said.
So now, he doesn’t.
After entering the 2010 Indy International Wine Competition, Lehman’s Orchard Apple Raspberry Michigan Hard Cider won gold and the farm’s Apple Blueberry Michigan Hard Cider won bronze.
Winemakers from around the world sent their best wines and ciders to the competition. More than 50 judges from throughout the United States, Europe and Canada tasted, analyzed and scored the various beverages.
It was the first time Lehman’s Orchard has entered its hard cider into the competition.
“They’re both flavored at about the same residual sugar level, about 1.5 percent,” Lecklider said. The fruit used in the orchard’s wines and ciders “is actually found at our farm,” and added to the already fermented cider for enhanced flavor.
Already offering customers a variety of freshly and locally made product, including peanut, almond and cashew butter, pure honey, trail mixes and dried fruit the fruit wines and hard ciders are just another avenue Lecklider is pursuing to its fullest potential.
“I’ve added a fresh cider mill to the operation so I’ll be pressing my own cider,” he said. “So we’ll be vertically integrated.”
And Lecklider will eventually move into grape wines. He’s already planted grapes, a process that he said can take about four years for a good crop.
“That’s going to be evolving,” he said. The farm is already two to three years into it’s growth. “We’re well on our way.”
Asked what he thought makes for a successful orchard, Lecklider’s answers somewhat explain the success of his foray into wines.
“I think it takes a tremendous amount of work and dedication,” he said. “But also, you’ve got to … wear many hats. All of the possible ideas for the products have to be considered.
“You can’t be afraid to fail but you also have to eliminate some of the ideas that really don’t work anymore,” he said. “You can’t be afraid to change.”
A movement of increased interest in local produce and shopping locally has also helped business, Lecklider said.
“People want to know where their food comes from, they want to put a face on the product,” he said. “I think there is a huge interest in buying local. I think that’s here to stay.”
Lehman’s wines are available online and at Martin’s Supermarket on South 11th Street in Niles.