NORTHPORT — There may not be any Kilcherman apple cider this year. But the family hopes the heirloom apple business will endure.
John and Phyllis Kilcherman closed their Christmas Cove Farm on Aug. 5 after 44 years of growing heirloom apple varieties. But they hope someone will buy the orchard and continue their tradition of selling cider and antique apples to an appreciative public.
John, 89, and Phyllis, 86, purchased the land more than 60 years ago. The Kilchermans continued farming long past average retirement age because they love the land and the process of farming.
“It ain’t work if you love it,” John said Monday. “It’s really kind of fun if you enjoy that work.”
The farm, 11573 N. Kilcherman Rd., is just north of Northport and about five miles from the tip of Leelanau Peninsula. The couple bought the property more than six decades ago and began farming cherries, strawberries, and mainstream apple varieties. A bit later, in the mid-1970s, they began collecting rare heirloom apple varieties. Christmas Cove Farm became known for offering a huge selection of unusual apples.
Each variety of heirloom apple features a unique taste, appearance and history. That diversity fascinated the Kilchermans. They added varieties including Rambo, Saint Edmond’s Pippin, Wolf River and Zabergau Reinette. The orchard today produces 240 kinds of apples.
The 66 acres for sale are listed at $525,000 through Real Estate One’s Erica Slater Marshall and Gordon Hodges. The acreage is planted mostly in apples and cherries. Hodges said Monday that the property already has attracted interest from potential buyers both local and from Ann Arbor and Detroit.
“The all know about it. They’ve been here,” Hodges said of the potential buyers.
Everyone who so far has expressed interest, he said, envisions continued operation of the farm.
Maureen Mawby, one of the Kilchermans’ three children, said the apple operation remains a strong business with a loyal clientele.
“This is like a tradition for them,” she said of customers who return every autumn to buy apples and jugs of fresh cider. “It’s been a place they’ve been coming to for years and they just love the whole experience.”
Working on the farm is a family tradition for the Kilchermans.
“All three of us adult children, and then all of our children, have worked on the farm,” Mawby said. “Everyone in the family has actually worked on the farm, either selling the apples or making the cider, or helping pick the apples.”
The Kilchermans will retain their home, associated outbuildings and 22 acres adjacent to other family property. John and Phyllis plan to continue living at the farm, Mawby said. Health issues started the Kilchermans thinking about selling the orchard.
“It’s been a process, for the last year or maybe two years, they’ve been thinking about it,” said Mawby. “They realized that the time is coming when they’re just going to have to stop.”
The family hopes that whoever buys the operation will make good use of the fruit now developing on the trees.
The Kilchermans each year sell relatively common apples, like Ida Red and Golden Delicious, to wholesale clients. They also have sold apples to Tandem Ciders in Suttons Bay.
But the heirloom apples are what make Christmas Cove Farm a destination for autumn retail buyers.
Another part of the shopping experience at the farm is John’s collection of 10,000 glass pop bottles. He assembled the collection over two decades. It features soda brand names including Castle, Crass, Pep Up, Squeeze and Thirsty. John is keeping — for now — the collection, which lines the walls of a barn to a height of 15 feet.
The Kilchermans also are holding onto at least one antique apple tree. The tree, rooted near their home, produces Stark apples.
The variety first was recorded in 1867. Phyllis Kilcherman discovered the variety in a book in 2007. She traced its origins and found that it likely originated on the Delaware, Ohio, farm of John Main, Kilcherman’s distant relative on her mother’s side. It took two years to locate and collect a cutting.
Phyllis planted the tree next to their home to keep the family legacy close. Five years later, it produced its first fruit — five Stark apples.
John and Phyllis are letting go of most of their acreage, which includes a pond and some hardwoods. But letting go isn’t easy.
“They really, truly love the farm,” Mawby said. “They love selling the apples. Once a farmer, always a farmer. Farmers are those kind of people that never quit.”