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WCCO Viewers' Choice For Best Apple Orchard In Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- It is apple season in Minnesota, and most of our apple orchards are in full swing. They offer everything from apple pies to ziplines to entice customers.

But which orchard has the winning combination? Chris Shaffer introduces us to the Luce Line Orchard in Watertown, Minnesota, where attention to detail and scenic beauty are just the beginning.

There is nothing like dusk in the orchard. The quiet symphony of nature can be a powerful force in soothing one's soul.

"I like to go for walks and be alone sometimes," said orchard co-owner Terri Traen. "And even though we're geared towards families and kids, we wanted it to be for adults as well."

Traen, well known for her long stint at KQRS radio, and husband Rich Pawelk, who grew up on a farm in the area, bought the picturesque, 155-acre plot back in 2004.

"It didn't look like this when we bought it," Rich said.

Luce Line Orchard
(credit: CBS)

Which is to say the very least. The 100-year-old house had no water or electricity, and the barn was ready to collapse. But over a couple of years, with the help of their three kids and their spouses, they whipped the place into shape. But the farmer in Rich could not let the ground go dormant any longer.

"I couldn't get it out of my blood, and we couldn't farm the conventional way, and I had worked at an apple orchard for a few years, so I thought we could plant apple trees," Rich said.

And so, again with the help of family and friends, the planting began.

"Planted the first in 2007, and by 2012 we had 10,000 trees," Rich said. "And by 2013, we had 6,500 grapes. Not bad for not knowing what we were doing when we started."

And all their hard work was starting to pay off, boasting a building clientele and one of the most scenic orchards in the area.

"It makes me proud to see what Mom and Dad have done," said their son, Reed.

But their will was about to be tested.

On the night of July 17, 2015, a tornado tore through the Watertown area, destroying nearly half of their apple trees.

"The kids wanted Rich to check out the apple crop damage, and he was trying to absorb the loss of 5,000 trees and he started to cry," Terri said. "Rich never cries."

"Obviously, it let us know how many friends we have because people came out of the woodwork the next day," Rich said. "Close to 250 showed up. It was overwhelming."

Luce Line Orchard's Reed Pawelk, Terri Traen and Rich Pawelk
Reed Pawelk, Terri Traen and Rich Pawelk (credit: CBS)

With a seemingly insurmountable amount of cleanup in front of them, and a little more than a month before the start of their season.

"We opened September 1, and you would have never known short of the stumps," Rich said.

Traces of the storm still exist along their beautifully appointed nature trail, like a sign that tells the story of how their apples were found in a neighbor's yard nearly a mile away.

"It's just amazing how nature has covered it up," Terri said.

As Terri makes her rounds past the corn tent, and the many tucked-away reflection areas, she pauses to greet the donkeys, cows and the rest of the menagerie -- which are all part of the family, by the way.

"Our animals are the luckiest in the world and they don't even know it," Rich said.

And, in the words of any good farmer, Rich says they are not the orchard's owners.

"We're just caretakers. Take care of the land and it will take care of you," he said.

In addition to the corn maze, hay rides and lots of kids activities, the orchard also serves great food on Saturdays and Sundays.

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