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Local orchards face delays, but expect similar apple harvests to past years

Weather conditions earlier this year put a slight delay on apple season but should not impact the output of local growers this fall.

For orchards both large and small, this year’s apples are growing about a week behind recent years due to the lengthy winter and cold, wet spring.

Wayne Geist, co-owner of Bushel & A Peck with wife Lisa Geist, oversees around 20,000 trees and 32 apple varieties in rural Chippewa County. This year’s production is a tad behind others, but Geist said the recent daytime sun and rainy, cool nights have helped the fruits grow.

Connell’s Family Orchard co-owners Rick Connell and Steve Connell said this year stands slightly behind average compared to the previous six years. The brothers are the sixth generation of Connells to own the 161-year-old orchard in Chippewa County that offers more than 30 varieties of apples. They currently offer six types and should have a few more within the next week.

Jon Chapman has co-owned The Glass Orchard just south of Eau Claire for two years with Dawn Passineau. Chapman said the four-acre orchard, which opens its fall season on Friday, is about a week behind schedule compared to last year.

Three of the orchard’s nine apple varieties are currently available.

For most orchards, business will begin ramping up this weekend and continue for the next several weeks. The Connells said the busiest time will likely be late September and early October, though the orchard usually has the most varieties available in mid-October. Geist said his season essentially lasts from mid-September to the middle of October.

Chapman said it has been challenging to figure out how to make an orchard productive in a timely fashion. All of the work is done by hand, so it is a time-consuming process to prune the trees, which entails ridding trees of branches and vegetation so apples can grow better.

Geist said the toughest challenge involves the unpredictability of Mother Nature. Rick Connell agreed and said any year without a weather disaster like hail or spring frost bodes well for the fall. Fortunately, growers didn’t deal with frost that can harm apples when they are most vulnerable, nor was there any damaging hail.

Rick Connell said technological innovation has made it easier to plant, as the company now has about 5,000 trees. Geist agreed, noting that he uses integrated pest management to help the fruits grow. He said this year is on pace to be one of the most productive in his seven years working the business.

Wheaton mulls split from fire district

The Chippewa County town of Wheaton will hold a meeting Thursday night to discuss possibly leaving the Chippewa Fire District.

Wheaton Town Board member Wayne Miller has served on a five-member committee that has been exploring the idea of pulling out of the fire district, which is comprised of Lake Hallie and the towns of Lafayette, Hallie, Wheaton and Howard.

“It’s been building for a while,” Miller said. “I think some of the districts have grown more residential. We’re a more rural setting. As far as fire (service) goes, nothing would really change, because we own the fire station. It would be the same firefighters that would come. We’ll have more say of the financials, and how much we’d put into it.”

Thursday’s meeting will begin at 6 p.m. at Wheaton Town Hall, 4975 Highway T. The agenda for the meeting includes a presentation by the committee studying the issue, feedback from town board members and comments from all interested parties. However, the town board won’t make a final decision until a future meeting, according to the agenda.

“We’re going to give the board the recommendations and the results of our research,” Miller said.

It is unclear if the proposal has support from other town board members.

“I’ll keep that for the vote,” said board member Alice Droske. “I know where my decision is, and I’ll state that when we vote.”

Town Chairman Mark Blaskowski didn’t return calls. Town board members Ken Books and Bud Beckwith both declined to comment.

Lafayette Town Chairman Dave Staber, who also is president of the Chippewa Fire District Board, said he didn’t want to comment on issues within the town of Wheaton.

“I would encourage residents of Wheaton to attend that meeting,” Staber said. “This will impact them on their EMS response time and insurance ratings.”

The Chippewa Fire District formed in 1978 and took over ambulance service in 1990. When it was formed, it also included the towns of Tilden and Eagle Point. However, those municipalities left the district in 1996; they have been receiving ambulance service from Chippewa Falls since 1990.

Each municipality pays a portion of the district’s roughly $1.5 million budget. The district has nine full-time employees and about 120 volunteers, operating four different stations, including the new main facility that opened in Lake Hallie in summer 2014.

Determining the share of each municipality has been contentious in recent years.

In 2014, Staber argued that Lake Hallie wasn’t paying its fair share. The village had established two different tax increment financing districts in 2003, and the equalized value of those sites — which includes the Walmart shopping center — were not counted toward the village’s share of the fire district reimbursement. If those areas were included in the equalized value, Lake Hallie’s overall value would increase by about $70 million. Staber said that would have increased Lake Hallie’s share, and in turn, dropped the bill of the other municipalities.

Lake Hallie officials filed a claim in Chippewa County Court to have a judge decide the portion each municipality would pay. In April 2016, Chippewa County Judge Roderick Cameron ruled that the municipalities will pay an equal share based on equalized value with no exceptions — such as the TIF districts.