This summer we were fortunate to have Peter Klein of Michigan’s Seedling Orchard be our guest speak for our Summer Entrepreneurship Program with Wright College and the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. Klein has made a very successful conversion from marketing executive to orchard owner. Check out his web site at www.seedlingfruit. com.
Passion, to the core
BY SANDY THORN CLARK
Peter Klein’s “office” is just as he likes — it’s outdoors; it’s like a giant fresh bowl of fruit boasting red raspberries, pears, plums, peaches and apples; it’s visited by friendly and loyal customers, and it’s appropriately casual permitting his attire of khaki Bermudas, mules and a T-shirt emblazoned with “irresistible.”
Klein, who resides in Roscoe Village, is the gentle mastermind of Seedling Orchard in South Haven, Mich., and the congenial entrepreneur who hauls his vine-ripe, ready-to-eat fruit to many Chicago area farmers markets from Memorial Day through Labor Day and into December.
From January through March, he becomes CEO extraordinaire planning for the next season’s harvest, purchasing 250 new fruit trees annually, and overseeing www.seedlingfruit. com, Seedling’s Web site.
Fruit is more than Klein’s business — it’s his passion.
His voice croons as he discusses apples, his pride and joy. He’s ecstatic, absolutely ecstatic, that his Jersey Mac, Paula Red, Red Cort, Gala, Senshu and Honey Crisp varieties are early this season.
Early on Saturday mornings, he’s at renowned Green City Market on the edge of Lincoln Park chatting with his customers — neighborhood residents with their dogs in tow and pastry chefs from some of the city’s top restaurants including Charlie Trotter’s — about the varieties of gorgeous fruit neatly arrayed in front of him. He willingly slices samples, bags the chosen fruits, notices but ignores the poachers who help themselves to “free” handfuls of raspberries, and answers question after question.
What’s he most frequently asked? Klein runs his hand through his curly light hair; his devilish blue eyes twinkle as he answers, “At other markets, the No. 1 question is ‘How much?’ Here [at Green City], the most common question is ‘Is it sweet?’ ”
The 40-year-old owner of 83 acres of fruit trees (including 2,745 apple trees and 1,692 peach trees) has a pat answer to the “Is it sweet?” question. “If it’s a Seedling fruit, it’s sweet,” he says, no ifs, ands or buts. And this year, despite the lack of rain in Michigan, his fruit is sweeter than ever.
Klein, with 14 years of food marketing experience, bought the 100-year-old orchard two years ago after learning that his favorite fruit vendors were retiring and selling their orchard.
Though initially thinking his decision was “insane,” Klein jumped into the orchard business head first. Seedling developed The Science of Sweetness to ensure the sweetest fruit available. Seedling fertilizes the soil to feed the trees and heavily trims branches that allow the trees to put energy into fruit development and allows more sun to shine on the fruit. “Those huge peaches are the result,” says a proud Klein.
Klein demonstrates a refractometer, an instrument used in the wine industry to measure a fruit’s BRIX index (the sweetness of its juice).
“Sugar in fruit only develops on the trees. Fruit never gets sweeter after it’s picked,” instructs Klein. What’s the perfect BRIX level? “We don’t know yet, but we tingle when we hit 16 percent for apples and 20 percent for pears, but each fruit and each variety will be different,” explains Klein. He’s pumped that his early apples measure 16 percent, up 2 percent from last year’s harvest.
It’s the sweetness and ripeness of Seedling fruit and Klein’s business sense, charm and charisma that have made pastry chefs his devoted customers. “He’s the best!” exclaims Mindy Segal of Hot Chocolate. “I use his peaches, apricots, everything.” After hearing Klein’s seconds-only sales pitch about his golden pears, Segal responds, “I’ll take some for my pear tartlets!”
Kate Neumann, pastry chef for mk restaurant, is enthralled by the sweetness of Klein’s products, especially his blueberries and apricots. “It’s like he has this magical parcel of land that has honey in the soil,” says Neumann who used Seedling strawberries, red raspberries, plums, peaches and apricots on mk’s Summer menu.
She will feature Seedling apples in a Roasted Caramel Apple with Butter Pecan Ice Cream and Creamy Caramel Sauce on the restaurant’s Fall menu.
Klein, who has purchased a cider mill to produce what he calls “varietal” cider (cider made from several varieties of apples), enjoys creating recipes at home on his rare Sundays off though he admits, “I have less fruit at home than you would think. I keep forgetting to bring it home! My wife, Stephanie, says she’s like the shoemaker’s wife.”
The father of daughters Mikaela, 7, and Olivia, 5, explains that one of his tasks is to produce goodies from the blemished fruit he doesn’t sell. “So I’ll take a bucket of blemished peaches and cook them down for 12 to 14 hours to make fruit leather.”
His other suggestions for using good fruit before it goes bad include:
- Make a simple sauce; whirl the fruit and use the sauce for desserts.
- Make jellies and jams.
- Churn it or mix it into sorbets or ice creams.
- Make tarts, turnovers or pies
- Prepare fruit juice or fruit smoothies.
- Dry into chips.
- Make a fruit salsa.
- Make fruit-flavored butters or cream cheeses for bagels, breads, and scones.
- Freeze it until you decide how to use it.
What does the Deerfield native think people should know about apples? “Most people think there are baking apples or eating apples. I think every apple is good for baking and good for eating.”
A customer with a Yorkie peeking from her market basket holds up a perfectly shaped apple and interrupts to ask, “Are these sweet or tart?” It’s the moment Mr. Apple lives for.