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Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Minor

An Afternoon at Uncle John's

Uncle John’s Cider Mill is a mid-Michigan staple that attracts not only students from MSU but families from miles around on a sunny fall day. Apple Orchards, fresh cider and donuts, attractions for kids, live music, and a massive pumpkin patch make it easy to see why Uncle John’s attracts such a crowd on a regular basis.

Uncle John’s Cider Mill was reminiscent of other similar cider mills I have visited before, but as soon as I approached it on the idyllic fall afternoon I was able to go by, the difference was clear. Uncle John’s is huge. Not only were there lines from both directions on the highway, but the (multi-acred) parking lot was packed. There were college aged students there in larger groups, or on dates, families with kids in tow, older couples, and everything in between. Once the initial shock of the place’s sheer size wore off, it was time to actually start exploring what the place had to offer.

The pumpkin field they had was, without hyperbole, awe-inspiring. I’ve never seen so many pumpkins in my life. I must have spent upwards of 30 minutes walking around in search of the singular best pumpkin, and probably only covered 1/3rd of the total area of the patch.

The sheer scale of that field in itself warrants me to wish I had been able to get a more in-depth look into the actual inputs and agricultural side of Uncle John’s, because they have quite the operation going on that I can imagine requires a lot of work and brainpower to keep going smoothly. I would love to know how many pumpkins they aim to grow each year, how many they typically sell, how much waste they have to anticipate and deal with, and how they do so.

Uncle Johns

Now, on the namesake of the place, the apples & cider. As packed as it seemed to be nearly everywhere, it was obvious that the primary attraction people had to Uncle John’s was the cider and donuts. There was a multi-line approach obviously schemed up by someone who is a master of logistics, and behind the counter scrambled dozens of kids and adults operating with clinical efficiency. Outside the window to the right of the line sprawled the field of apple trees that supplied the fruitful bounty. It was clear from my experience at Uncle John’s that they are operating in a way that yields economic sustainability for their organization as a whole. They surely have high input costs, but seem to be doing well. Having seen how many kids they had working in some places as well made me think maybe they were family members, perhaps even of this “Uncle John” himself. And maybe they do it on a family discount to help keep costs down.Having visited in more of a recreational than educational context, I do have a lot of questions still about the environmental sustainability of the operation as a whole. As has already been mentioned, there’s surely high inputs in the way of growing and maintaining the actual crops. But I also wonder about the waste created by guests on a given day and even the impact on the land by foot and car traffic. Uncle John’s I think falls in a similar lane as many other “agri-tourist” destinations, as opposed to being a purely production-centric operation. There were opportunities to take hayride tours, to walk in the orchard, and to see some of the processing taking place with the apples being made into cider. Uncle John’s obviously provides a lot of recreational value to a lot of people, and in that sense, it is an invaluable piece of the community it serves.