Change is a Challenge

New owners of The Apple Works embrace the task of transforming an old farm

By Glenda Winders //  Photography by Angela Jackson

The winds of change are blowing at The Apple Works in Trafalgar. Sarah and Nick Brown, who owned and operated the orchard for more than 30 years, have retired, and Lauren Dunbar and Paul Galloway purchased the business. They’re transforming some parts of the operation – and leaving others just as they are.
“The orchard is such a part of people’s lives,” Dunbar said. “They bring family members and friends and they make it an event or they remember being here as a child or it’s just a place they visit year after year, so it’s important to keep that for people. I also love it when people come who have never been here before.”
Galloway is a sixth-generation apple grower from the “Fruit Ridge” area near Sparta, Michigan. He is also trained to repair heavy
equipment, and that’s what he was doing in Indiana when he met Dunbar.
Dunbar was a divorced mother of five and just closed a construction business that she started after graduating from Lawrence Central High School at the age of 18. She is originally from northern Michigan, too, and the two formed a friendship that “snowballed” into something more.
“As our relationship grew, we were looking for something to do together that also included the kids and something we could grow together as a couple,” Dunbar said.
When they heard The Apple Works was for sale they went for a visit, but the farm didn’t initially resonate with them. However, when they came back two years later, Dunbar said it was like it was meant to be.
Galloway’s mother was known as the Apple Queen in Sparta, a title she earned because of her knowledge of apples that was gained by living next to a 100-acre apple orchard for most of her life. His grandfather sold apples to the very first Meijer grocery store in Grand Rapids. After his death, Galloway’s uncle, who had traveled around the country pruning trees, took over the orchid.
“I did the grunt work around the orchard,” Galloway said. “I learned to plant trees, fertilize, set up orchards and do drainage work, all from my family.”
In 2022, they spent the busy season of fall shadowing the Browns before taking over the business in January 2023, and Dunbar said they were incognito — no one knew they would be the new owners, but they wanted to learn everything they could from people who had been in the business for so long.
“We wandered around looking at things and seeing what we could improve with flow because the September and October season here is just chaos,” Dunbar said. “It’s important for us that when we do open the doors for the public, it’s successful and we make it enjoyable for everyone. We just jumped in with both feet.”
One thing they learned is how different growing apples in Indiana is from growing them in Michigan. For one thing, the climate in Indiana is warmer and the season starts earlier. For another, there aren’t as many orchards in Indiana, so there aren’t many growers to communicate with or share information.
“With the closest orchards being over an hour away, I can’t just call my neighbor and ask if he has the same problem we are having,” Galloway said.
But he likes being here all the same.
“What’s nice is that its country, but we’re 30 minutes from downtown Indy,” he said. “And where I grew up, it was a two-hour ride to go to the tractor supply and back. The local John Deere dealer has been great to us and so have the people in Greensburg, where we go to get New Holland tractor parts.”
One of the first things the couple did after assuming ownership was fence and gate the property. They’re also looking at new storage options so apples can be kept longer. In addition, they are upgrading the playground and adding two greenhouses. They have also purchased new tractors, new sprayers and new harvesting equipment, as well as pneumatic tools and electric saws.
Galloway said he will spend the coming months filling in spaces where more trees can grow by spading up trees from other parts of the orchard and moving them around. He also wants to plant more trees and increase their berry acres. Currently, they grow blackberries, asparagus, cherries, tomatoes and pumpkins, in addition to apples. Someday, blueberries may be included.
Farming techniques have changed over the years, too. While all of the picking at The Apple Works is still done by hand, instead of setting up a ladder by every tree, workers now use a man basket on the tractor. They’ve recently finished setting up a trellis system — a network of wires to support small trees much like the ones used in vineyards. Galloway has also topped three rows of new trees, so they will grow more branches. During the winter, he will spend most of his time pruning, averaging three cuts on each of their 10,000 trees that represent more than 70 varieties.
In addition, they’re planning to put up new signage to make farm navigation easier for visitors and even gathering drone footage.
“It’s important for people to understand this is our first season and we’re working to make it the best for visitors when they come,” Dunbar said. “We may not hit it out of the park the first time, but we’re so dedicated to the orchard that we will continue to make improvements.”
Change is happening indoors, too. The gift shop now sells only items made by local artists and craftspeople. In one part are flags made from recycled fire hoses, cutting boards, wooden bowls, candles, T-shirts, wreaths, pillows, crocheted items and much more.
In the food portion, they sell jellies, syrup, breads, pies, honey, apple butter, persimmon pulp and dill pickles — and the list goes on. In the kitchen, the bakers are trying out new recipes for apple fritters and apple doughnuts. Of course, they all sell apples, which are extra flavorful since they don’t have to be waxed here like they must before being sold in grocery stores.
They’re hard at work on other projects, too.
“We have a big agritourism business in the fall,” Dunbar said, “and we are working hard on that because it is so important and such a big piece of what we do here.”
They take part in the Field-to-School Program that Sarah Brown started, and they have been contacted by additional districts to provide apples for their students.
“It’s extremely rewarding to grow food for people,” Dunbar said.
They also host field trips and wedding receptions and rent out their facilities for such events.
Their hours increase during the busy season, when the apples come and the staff of 10 to 12 expands to 24 or 25, with extra people to directing traffic, picking fruit and serving customers. The U-pick pumpkin patch is one of their most popular attractions, and this year a wagon will carry visitors from there and the nearby parking lot to the retail barn.
When autumn comes, so does their famous apple dumplings and cider slushies. Train rides, face-painting and food trucks will also be available for everyone, and live music is scheduled for every weekend through September and October.
The couple say they are making progress, and they give a lot of credit to their employees.
“We have great a staff,” Dunbar said. “We have a handful who stayed with us after the transition. They are very vested, and they love the orchard as much as we do.”
Becky Branscum, a baker, stayed and said the staff appreciates the new owners.
“I feel like Lauren is a good boss,” she said. “She’s open to hearing our experiences. She’s all about working smarter instead of harder and getting us the tools we need. They have remodeled the kitchen, so we have a lot more work space. And she’s very into environmentally safe things, compostable things, so we’re getting rid of all the Styrofoam.”
Brent Johnson, a farmhand, agrees.
“They’ve been putting in a lot of work, too, and it’s admirable to be able to work with the owners. A couple of weeks ago we were all out baling hay together. They’re not afraid to get their hands dirty. It has been nice. It’s refreshing.”
Janet Bess, another farmhand, said they spend the winter months getting ready for the spring, and when the weather is too bad to work outside, they help inside. The employees work year-round, even though the hours the farm is open are seasonal.
“We’re all equal,” Bess said. “We’re a team.”
Dunbar said they are bringing her children, ages 12 to 20, into the business slowly so they can discover what they like to do and not be overwhelmed. One daughter knows how to run the forklift and tractors, while one son helps with the website and another son wants to work on the bookkeeping. One of the 12-year-old twin girls has an interest in the greenhouses and in being outside, while her sister enjoys working with the public.
Today, all of the produce they sell is either grown at The Apple Works or sourced from Galloway’s Michigan relatives who grow peaches, cherries and strawberries. The family lives on a 20-acre farm in Franklin with five horses, three dogs and two cats. To be self-sustaining for the horses, they grow hay. Their days start early.
“There’s a lot to balance with being a farmer and a mom and a business owner and an individual on my own,” Dunbar said. “We’re focused on The Apple Works, but we still have a family that’s our focus, as well.
“What has been fun for both of us is the amount of learning we get to do,” she said. “I think that’s the fun in farming. Every year it’s something new. Already, we’ve had to face frost issues, wind and hail damage, and we’re up for the challenge.”