Apples, pumpkins, kids keep orchard tour guide hopping

October 6, 2008

It's 8:30 a.m. on a Friday and Ruth Butterfield, 46, is putting out fresh-baked sugar cookies and jugs of chilled apple cider, fulfilling one of her most important duties as a tour guide at Beasley's Orchard & Gardens in Danville--feeding hungry patrons.

Oh, she'll walk groups of 20 or so around to the stand of trees where apples grow, through the post-Civil War barn where they're made into cider or packaged to sell, and even into the walk-in refrigerator where they're stored.

But the cookies are a welcome finale.

Butterfield works at the orchard three or four days a week every fall, leading an average of two tours a day. Most are school groups, but some adults come with their church groups or on nursing-home outings, too.

Beasley's grows an array of produce--watermelons, cantaloupes, corn, tomatoes, zucchini and peppers--but this time of year, apples and pumpkins draw the crowds.

On this day, the first group, from a Bridgeport preschool, arrives at 9:20 a.m. They're a little behind schedule, which can complicate things for Butterfield later.

"It gets a little crazy around here," she admits.

With both the pumpkin patch and apple orchard on the agenda, Butterfield grabs a stool to help the children climb onto a wagon that will save them a long walk in what can sometimes be a muddy area.

The wagons are a bit too high for even the adult chaperones to gracefully jump onto, so most accept her help. When she's made sure everyone's on board, she swings the stool onto the wagon and jumps up in a practiced maneuver.

This is Butterfield's sixth year working at Beasley's after staying home to raise her three children; before she became a mom, she worked in sales.

Like all the tour guides, she had to learn the produce business. The main part of her apple education came from watching other tour guides until she felt comfortable enough to lead tours through the 165-acre orchard.

Although she spends most of what she makes each season in the orchard store, she says $8.50 an hour is fair pay for what she does.

When the tractor stops at the pumpkin patch this Friday, she hops down and again offers the stepstool. About half of the group uses it, but many--adults included--jump down, too eager to wait.

Interacting with the children is a perk for Butterfield, which is obvious as she tells them about "pumpkin-patch feet," a way of high-stepping to avoid tripping on vines. When several children stumble, anyway, she holds down a high vine with her foot to make it easier for them.

After each visitor selects a small pie pumpkin, they climb back onto the wagon and it's off to the apple trees. On the way, Butterfield fits in a short lesson.

"Do you know what season it is?" she asks.

Between shouted answers of "Apple!" and "Fall!" she refocuses the group, then holds up a variety of fruits and vegetables, asking the students to identify them. They do pretty well, until she holds up a purple pepper.

Only one student shouts the answer. Butterfield loves moments like these, where she can share something new with the children. Inner-city groups are her favorites, since many have never seen an orchard before.

When this group gets to the apple trees, she carefully shows the children how to twist an apple off the branch. Beasley's usually doesn't allow people to pick their own apples because it damages the trees, but tour groups are allowed to pick one from a designated row.

The preschoolers stay in a tight group while they search for their apple. One parent confides to Butterfield that she's looking for the perfect one. The trees are so full that they're tilting to one side, which she said makes the quest even more difficult.

They walk through the shed-size refrigerator where workers are retrieving apples, then into the barn to watch as they are cleaned, sorted and packaged.

When the tour is over, Butterfield is in charge of snack time for her group, bringing out the cookies and cider. The teachers help pass around the sweets while she pours glass after glass of apple cider, almost mimicking a bartender's smooth movements.

While the children eat, the teachers come up to pay--$8 for each student and parent because they did both the apple and pumpkin tours. Butterfield handles her least-favorite part of the job using only a small calculator, but writes out receipts with her customary smile, anyway.

Some of the children are staying for lunch, but before she can help get their meals from the refrigerator, Butterfield's second tour group of the day arrives. She drafts some help from other orchard staff and goes to meet two of the second-grade teachers from Indianapolis Public Schools' Sidener Academy.

She's been worried about this tour all day, since the academy students are in an accelerated program.

This also is a larger group, so she and fellow guide Michelle Catellier each take half the students. At 11:26 a.m., she starts her spiel--beginning at the end so the two groups won't overlap.

The tour is similar, except in the way Butterfield addresses the students. This time she talks about pollination instead of seasons and asks them more specific questions, like what their favorite types of apples are and what they know about how they grow.

As the children move through the orchard, Butterfield holds two girls' hands and listens to them talk. When they pick their apples, one of the girls hands Butterfield a piece of the fruit, saying it's for her.

Butterfield accepts it with a smile despite the orchard's strict one-apple limit--which she usually enforces.

Despite her concerns, "they were just like any other group," she says. And out come the cookies.

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