By Beccy Tanner
Jean Drach is apologetic as she answers the phone.
No apples this year for sale.
And the peaches that she and her husband, Larry, sold, they were brought in from Colorado.
But the heirloom tomatoes were awesome. It was a good year for tomatoes.
She credits two late freezes and blistery hot summer temperatures for this year’s lack of produce.
But this is just one year.
The couple have had lots of good years and have plans that next year will once again be bountiful.
Beginning in 2006, it was the couple’s dream to farm. They started an orchard with five acres.
Drach’s Farm & Orchard is located three miles east of the US-281 and K-19 intersection.
“We didn’t really know anything about crop farming or cattle, so my husband said let’s put an orchard in,” Jean Drach said.
That first year, the apple and peach trees were nothing more than sticks.
“We didn’t have much knowledge about fruit trees,” she said. “We thought we put them in the ground, and we’d have apples and peaches. But no.”
It took time and investigation and testing to see what varieties grew best in Stafford County.
“We did our research, especially on the peaches of what ones would grow in this area.”
The first year they planted 100 trees.
And then, planted another hundred.
“And now, with some of the storms, we are down to 168,” Jean said. “It’s just the two of us.
“It took us 10 years for the apple trees to start producing.”
The orchard has 20 varieties of apples; four different types of pears; as many varieties of peaches and – she emphasizes – in good years, also pumpkins.
There are also blackberry bushes.
The secret to much of their success all these years, she says, belongs to the sandy soil of Stafford County.
“It makes good, good planting for the trees because the water just absorbs down into the roots,” she said.
They have also grown potatoes, watermelon and cantaloupe.
“Now, that we’ve grown a little older we are not doing those as much,” Jean said.
Like most farmers, the Drachs have discovered the Kansas weather – like the weather experienced this summer – can mean the difference between a good year and a poor one.
“It was unpredictable,” Jean says of the summer’s storms and heat. “We also feel that climate change is here because we are seeing a difference. In good years, each apple tree can produce up to 1,000 apples.”
Last year, the Drachs made 300 half gallons of cider.
This year, the apples split on the tree before they were ripe.
In years past, droves of people come out and pick apples and school groups come to explore and taste.
Their orchard is a feel-good, neighborly oasis in a sea of wheat fields and prairie grass plots.
They’ve had pumpkin festivals and pumpkin hunts, in fact it’s called the Great Pumpkin Hunt (similar to Easter Egg hunts) in the orchard.
She encourages children to try the different varieties of apples to see which ones entice their taste buds the most.
“They get to walk the five acres and they are pretty pooped when they get back on the bus,” she says chuckling. “It’s (the orchard) turned out to be more than we ever thought it would be.”
And, that’s a good thing.
It’s a good thing area families and social events in Stafford County.
Typically, during the summer months, customers operate on the honor system. Refrigerators in a shed on the orchard grounds are filled with produce, customers are welcome to select produce from the refrigerators and pay for them by dropping their money in a mailbox behind the refrigerators.
“I have never heard anything negative about our orchard,” Jean said. “It’s been so nice.”
Some locals even consider it a stopping point as they do their regular chores.
“One more thing about the refrigerators, we keep pop, candy and Little Debbies for all the guys that are farming near by, or who check the tank batteries. One neighbor — there is a dirt road that goes between us and their house, she takes her grandkids down every Friday night and the boys get their own pop and candy and that makes their day because there’s nothing like that around here.”
It’s also true for the bikers who participate in the annual Bike Across Kansas and other bikers who use the route.
“We have a sign up for them and put a picnic table up for them,” Jean said.
The sign says “Bikers Welcome,” but really anybody is welcome.
“They stop, eat peaches, and take pictures. It’s great.”
One evening when a terrible storm came up, a biker called the Drachs and asked if he could spend the night in their orchard.
Of course, he could.
Some travelers have even left gifts for the Drachs – more soda pop and even Danish rolls.
It’s become a refuge for travelers near the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge.
In the meantime, the vision each year for the Drach Orchard continues.
“Hopefully, next year we will have a better crop,” she said.