Dustin Anderson spent the morning of Monday, May 11, floating between customers at his home just outside downtown Carlton.
Anderson helped Richard Alan load solar panels into his trailer to expand his existing array at his Washburn, Wisconsin, home. From there he heads over to help grab 10 apple trees from cold storage for Kathy Wagner and her son, Charley. The Wagners drove up from their Longville, Minnesota, home to pick up their online order and take their dog, Fly, on a walk through Jay Cooke State Park.
The flurry of activity selling fruit trees and solar panels is a far cry from the business Carlton’s “Apple Tree Guy” planned to start nearly a decade ago.
Anderson planned to start a winery on the property he purchased more than nine years ago on Kettner Road. He dabbled in amateur winemaking as a student at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and after a few years began looking for a place to plant grapes and expand his operation into a profitable business.
Anderson and his wife, Andrea, put together a business plan, purchased their Carlton property, planted grapes and started clearing land, but a problem emerged. After all that work, they realized they wouldn’t sell enough wine to keep the enterprise afloat, much less turn a profit.
“The amount of bottles of wine that I would have to sell in order to keep the doors open was just insane,” he said.
About eight years ago, Anderson wanted to put in apple trees. Anderson ordered about 100 apple trees from a wholesaler, but the trees showed up before he had his fence finished to keep out deer or other wildlife.
“We sold most of them that first year on Craigslist and ended up making enough to pay for my fence,” Anderson said. “So I thought we might try it again the next year.”
The next year he sold nearly 700 and topped 1,200 the following year. Last year, Anderson sold more than 4,000 trees to customers across Minnesota and Wisconsin. He has even built a small barn using snow to cool the space to keep trees dormant waiting for sale.
This year Anderson said he expects to sell about 3,000 trees because the COVID-19 outbreak has affected his business like so many others in the area. He’s also had to modify how customers pick up their orders.
In past years, most customers have shown up on one weekend in the spring to pick up orders. Sometimes as many as 500 people have shown up in one day, with traffic backing up to Third Street in Carlton.
This year, he has tried to limit the number by spreading the pick-ups over three weeks and limiting the number of customers arriving at the same time.
‘The Solar Panel Guy’
As the apple and fruit tree business grew and expanded, Anderson began developing a secondary business — solar panels.
Two years ago, Anderson, 39, went into sudden cardiac arrest. His wife found him unconscious on the floor of their Carlton home. He survived the health scare after several procedures that included inserting a pacemaker in his chest.
“When I got out of the hospital, (Andrea) said that I needed a hobby, and every hobby I have I tend to turn into a job,” Anderson said.
At first Anderson wanted to install a windmill in the orchard he is cultivating on his property, but realized northern Minnesota doesn’t receive consistent enough wind to make it worth the expense. However, the idea led him to research solar power and how he could construct an array on his property.
“I found an auction online for solar panels,” he said. “I decided to just bid $500 to see what happened. I didn’t hit the reserve but they still gave me $5,000 worth of panels for $500. So they arrive and now I have to deal with them.”
He taught himself how to install the panels and an inverter to hook the system up to his home and the power grid. Customers began asking questions about the array and how it worked, which led to a new revenue stream.
“Now my apple tree customers would see the solar panels and I’m proud of it, so when they ask I’m happy to tell them about it,“ Anderson said. “So now I started the business called the ‘Solar Panel Guy.’ We sell just the panels and inverters for the do-it-yourself people. It was surprising that there was a niche here that people needed.”
With the array in his yard acting as a billboard, Anderson said he has sold nearly 2,000 solar panels in the past year.
While solar installations done by companies can cost $25,000 or more, a system built with his panels can cost as little as $5,000, he said. In addition, his power bill — when he has one — can be as little as $7.