Story by Jeff Hudson
Photos by Michelle Hueser
Dennis Courtier grew up roaming the apple orchard that his parents first planted in 1949. Since buying the orchard from his parents in 1978, Dennis isn’t the only one who has grown. From a literal Mom & Pop operation, he has grown the business into a multi-orchard, multi-product corporation with partnerships stretching from Nova Scotia to Washington State. While this might sound like a big city conglomerate with Armani suits roaming the cubicles, it is actually Lake City’s own Pepin Heights Orchard with a rather simple business model: to make a tasty apple.
Dennis heads up the organization, but he is quick to credit the people who surround him as the reason for the orchard’s success. When asked what role he plays, he quickly replies “There’s a very clear division of responsibilities. They’re responsible for doing things right and I’m responsible for making sure we’re doing the right things.”
To insure that Pepin Heights is continually doing the right things, Dennis spends his days visiting the orchards, traveling the world to find what others are doing, and constantly re-evaluating what Pepin Heights is doing to make sure decisions are consistent with the goals and philosophies of the company.
Visiting the Orchard
Dennis leads us across the bluff-top orchard land he’s known all his life. But this may not look like the orchard one would expect. In fact, it is more reminiscent of a vineyard with shorter, sinewy trees replacing their taller and bulkier ancestors. As Dennis weaves his way through the orchard, he explains that the thinner trees provide the leaves on the interior of the tree with more access to the sun, which in turn feeds the surrounding apples.
Because of the heavy load of fruit weighing on a smaller root structure, the trees cannot stand on their own. The solution is simple: all of the trees are supported by a fence of sorts that runs the length of each row, contributing to the vineyard-like appearance.
As Dennis leads us down “HoneyCrisp Avenue,” he talks with the energy that fuels his search for a great-tasting apple. Clearly, one of the surest ways to offend Mr. Courtier is with a bland apple. To insure that Pepin Heights is always producing a tasty apple that provides value, he is constantly conducting research, both in developing new apple varieties and testing others from around the world.
Along with more sophisticated marketing and research, Dennis believes mightily in good old-fashioned taste. “If I get to the point where I know where an experimental tree is and I look forward to coming back, that is a good sign.”
Traveling the World
Although he grew up in Lake City and lives there today, Dennis believes he needs to be out and about to keep abreast of the apple world. As we talked to him, he was one week removed from a trip with the International Fruit Tree Association to China.
Through his travels, Dennis learns not only about other apple varieties but also other markets. For example, Pepin Heights produces an apple called Sweet 16. Never heard of it? Don’t worry, most of us in the Midwest haven’t. Dennis explains that the sweeter taste does not generally resonate well with the northern crowd (we tend to prefer a more acidic taste) but is a big hit in the south, where sweetness is the expected norm. Because the apple grows well here, Pepin Heights ships almost all Sweet 16’s to the south, using partnerships from the relationships Dennis has developed over the years.
Evaluating the Business
Dennis makes one thing abundantly clear: he is not a flower child who talks to each individual apple, boosting its growth potential along with its self-esteem. He is in business and the goal of the business is to turn a profit. That being said, good business to Dennis means being a good steward of the land and producing a quality apple.
That concern is what drives Dennis to constantly evaluate and re-evaluate the quality of the entire business, from the research all the way through to the final production.
Just as Dennis eschews volume production for its own sake, he casts a skeptical eye on quantitative research. He learns more from watching an individual’s face as they bite into an experimental variety and listening to them describe the experience than in reading objective market data. Therefore, Dennis spends much of his time in the research and marketing phase watching focus groups and talking with individual consumers. He sees his competition not so much as the orchard down the street, but as snack giants Hershey and Frito-Lay. In other words, Dennis wants his apples to be a contender when the average 10-year-old kid (or at least that kid’s mother) is choosing a tasty snack.
When the research is completed and a variety goes into production, this commitment to quality and environmental responsibility follows the process until the apple comes to literal fruition. Being one of the bigger apple producers in the nation, Dennis takes Pepin Heights’ responsibility as a steward of the land very seriously. He sees this as the best way to sustain long-term production. “An apple orchard is a complex ecosystem into which we reach with the specific purpose of producing a perennial crop. Biologically, there is a ton of stuff going on in that ecosystem, and as much as possible we try to work with the natural balance of things and to disrupt as little as possible in meeting the goals of the crop.” This philosophy in practice is called Integrated Pest Management, where blanket pesticide solutions are avoided in place of careful determination of when and where action might be needed. Using advanced computer modeling and not-so-advanced insect traps to detect problems, Dennis and his staff can suggest alternate solutions such as the use of predator species.
Through it all, Dennis is committed to providing a quality product at a value. That is not to be mistaken for a low price, as there is an important distinction to be made between value and price. As Dennis explains, “Value is not a price point. Value is whether it’s worth what you paid for it. The world has enough people willing to cut corners. I won’t do it.”
DETAILS: Find a retailer near you – Pepin Heights products are available in many local grocery stores and co-ops. Go to www.pepinheights.com and click on “About Us” and then “Find a retailer.”
Order online – Order online and Pepin Heights will ship gift boxes of fresh, hand-picked apples to most places in the U.S. and Canada.
Visit Pepin Heights’ store – You can visit Pepin Heights’ Lake City store to sample the different apple varieties as they come into season and take some fresh-from-the-orchard apples home with you. Check out their gourmet caramel apples and other apple products, as well as items from other regional producers, such as baked goods, cheeses and wild rice. Just take Highway 61 south through Lake City. The store will be on the left-hand side of the road on the south side of town. Find directions online or call Pepin Heights at 651.345.2305. The store is open every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., now until the end of December.