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Tony Alexander's Wrenshall orchard displays 'the fruits of his labor'

Tony Alexander surveys the bounty of one of the apple trees in his orchard in rural Wrenshall. Alexander and his wife, Melody, have opened the orchard as a "You Pick, We Pick" operation for the first time this fall. They also grow grapes, cherries, plums, raspberries and pears and have a large vegetable garden. Wendy Johnson/

Tony Alexander has worked long hours all his life, fended off hardship, and managed to make ends meet. Today, he's blessed with the fruits of his labor - 258 apple trees, all of which require long hours of work, occasional hardship and a constant struggle to make ends meet. But there's little doubt that Alexander is enjoying what he does.

As co-proprietor of Alexander's Orchard, along with his wife, Melody, he opened a "You Pick, We Pick" operation for the first time this year at the couple's "hobby farm" situated along County Road 4 in rural Wrenshall. The operation is the latest endeavor in a lifetime of hard work for Alexander, who got his start just three miles down the road....

He was born in 1950 and grew up on the family's 160-acre farm where his parents milked a herd of dairy cows by hand and harvested loose hay because they didn't have a baler. Though there were seven kids in the family, it was Tony and "Pop," as everyone called his father, who did most of the farm work.

When Alexander married Melody in 1969, the two moved to Cloquet for a couple of years before moving back to Wrenshall for good in 1971 and eventually building a house on their 20 acres of land.

Alexander worked in production and later in the electrical shop at Conwed Corporation in Cloquet, and after the company was sold to USG, he remained there for several more years.

In the meantime, he set in to become a "gentleman farmer" which, much like today's apple orchard, seemed to take on a life of its own.

"We started out with some horses, and then we invested in a couple of steers, then a couple of milk cows, and then a couple more milk cows, and then we bought some calves," he said. "We ended up with 19 head of cattle on just 20 acres. We also raised pigs and chickens for a while and had a big garden, so we had our own eggs, our own pork and our own beef. One day we had a friend over for a steak dinner, and he said, 'I'll bet the only thing that didn't come from this place is the bread,' - and he was right! My neighbor used to say we did more on 20 acres than he did on 500!"

Alexander also leased neighboring land from time to time as well as some additional acres near Barnum for haying.

"I was working shifts at the time," he said, "and I'd get home off of midnights, milk the cows, have breakfast, go to Barnum and cut hay until about 10 or 11 a.m., rake it, and then my wife would come out and we'd bale it. Then I'd go home and do chores again, have supper, load up my car with produce to sell and then sit kind of mesmerized in front of the TV until I went back to work. If I was lucky, I'd maybe get a couple of hours of sleep. Then I'd do it all over again. I look back on it now and wonder why people have to get so much sleep!"

Alexander was later working as an electrician for Minnesota Power when a serious home accident sidelined him five years ago and eventually led to his early retirement.

"I nearly died," he related. "I was out cutting firewood, and I picked up a log, threw it on the wagon and it bounced back and hit me in the head. It blew my eye out, broke my hand and smashed my face. At the time, I didn't realize what had happened. I remember picking up some wood and noticing that my arm hurt. Then I stood there and looked out across the pond and thought, 'Boy, it's getting dark out early...' That was the last thing I remember until I woke up at St. Luke's Hospital."

Alexander was in a drug-induced coma for three days, and doctors were able to save his eye but had to put a stainless steel rod and eight screws in his skull and more in his arm.

"On day nine, I decided it was time for me to go home," said Alexander. "The doctor said I couldn't, but I told him I had firewood to cut and deer season was coming up - I hadn't missed deer season in 50 years! The doctor said I wasn't going to do either one of those things, but I ended up going home the next day. He wanted me to do three weeks of physical therapy in Duluth, but I told him I'd do my therapy at home. While I was off work, I cut six cords of wood and shot four deer!"

Though Alexander did return to work briefly, he retired at the age of 56.

"Now," he said, "Melody works 40 hours a week at an assisted living facility, and I'm the 'wife.' I do the dishes, I do the clothes, I do the cats, I do the dogs, I do the garden, I freeze the produce, I tend the orchard and I cut the firewood."

It was in 1999 when the Alexanders became orchard growers, totally by chance. On a trip to St. Cloud to visit their daughter and her family, they stopped by a greenhouse that sells apple trees and decided to buy a few and plant them on the land behind their house where they once grazed cattle.

"After that, it got to the point that every time we drove over to visit our daughter, we'd stop and get four or five more apple trees," said Alexander. "Right now, we have 258 of them in our orchard!"

This year, they also bought 100 raspberry plants and 20 blueberry plants from Mother Nature and Co. in Saginaw, and along the way they've accumulated several varieties of grape vines, pear trees, plum trees, cherry trees and cherry plum trees as well.

Currently, they grow 18 different varieties of apple trees, including the popular Honeycrisp, Wintersweet, MacIntosh, Cortland, Prairie Spy, Red Duchess, State Fair, Paula Red, Fireside, Wolf River Red and Yellow, Haralson, Sweet 16, Honeygold and Red Delicious, all of which take a great deal of time, effort and TLC.

"If you look at the whole package, right now we have about $20-grand tied up in the apple orchard," Alexander admitted, "when you factor in the trees, fence, water line and mowing equipment. This spring we lost 10 trees, and when you lose a tree that's been in for eight years, you're losing $250 or $300. We also have to put up with blight, insects and bad weather."

Alexander said he's been told there are five apple orchards north of the Twin Cities, in addition to several in St. Cloud, and theirs is among the smallest. In the past, he has sold some of their apples to local markets and others who heard about his orchard by word of mouth. This year, he bought a business license so customers can actually come and pick their own apples at the farm.

All of their apples are classified by a system of "red, white and blue" to make things easier for pickers.

"August apples (red) aren't keepers," explained Alexander. "September's (white) are a better apple and a better keeper, and October's (blue) are the apples that are going to keep best."

Alexander said he would like to try making apple cider as well, but he has thus far been unable to locate an apple press.

Alexander's Orchard is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and on Saturday from 7 a.m. to noon

"After all," he admitted, "a person needs a little time off."

And just what does he do in his time off?

"Right now, I'm building a garage!" he laughed.