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Couple Pick Apple Orchard Business after Military Careers

F-15 Eagle

When Jim and Laura Leffel talk about roots, the word has a double meaning -- family and business.

The couple and their two children have traveled around the world with the Air Force before landing as owners of Leffel Roots Apple Orchard south of Eau Claire.

Jim was raised on a Colby-area dairy farm while Laura was raised in the Twin Cities. They went to UW-Madison before both entered the Air Force -- he as an F-15 pilot and she as a civil engineer.

"I was transitioning out of the Air Force, and we knew we wanted to come back to Wisconsin," Jim said. "We came back for the people, the seasons, after having been everywhere."

"We came and looked at the orchard in the middle of November during a blizzard," Laura recalled. "Everything was white. We realized Jim was going to retire for sure and just kind of took a leap of faith because we really didn't even see the apple trees because they were covered with snow."

The Leffel family, which includes teenagers Otto and Anna, bought the former White Oak Farms Orchard at W2369 Maple Road, just off Highway B. Former owner Jim Mosel is helping the Leffels during the transition.

"He agreed to stay on a year to mentor Jim on how to do the trees and other phases of the business," Laura said. "That gave us a sense of security that we wouldn't just blindly be going into this."

The 40-acre property has 9 acres with about 2,000 apple trees -- Cortland and Honeycrisp -- with another 500 trees of five other varieties scheduled for planting next year.

"I love it. I really do," Jim said about the family's new venture. "There are long days, yes, and the uncertainly kind of stuff, but I love the manual labor and being outside.

"We moved quite a lot, and this will give us more stability," he added. "I traded in an airplane for a tractor. I miss the flying because after doing it for so long, the cockpit was my office and I knew how to do. But this lifestyle is better."

The couple have family members in the Athens and Siren areas but have grown in recent months to have a very fond impression of the Eau Claire area.

"For me, the people here are the nicest people we have ever come across anywhere that we have lived," Laura said. "Everyone is just super friendly."

That friendliness has been evident when the Leffels attend a farmers market or go to a store for supplies, advice and conversation.

"Everyone is so talkative here," Laura said. "When I go to grocery store I can talk to someone for an hour and not even know them."

The orchard is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The store offers a variety of apple-related products, including apples with Packers and Wisconsin logos. Customers may also pick their own apples while an apple slingshot with target offers a bit of outdoor entertainment.

"We have bigger plans for next year," Jim said, referring to special activities and events. "We're getting through the learning process this year."

The Leffel Roots logo, a tree with roots displayed, has great meaning to the family and business.

The roots refer to the Midwest base; the 13 leaves represent the locations they've lived, including Germany and Japan; and the 21 leaves are for the years of marriage and years in the military.

"For me, the most surprising this has been all the details; all the small stuff going into it," Jim said. "I knew it would be hard work and long days during harvest. I just enjoy all this so much. It's great."

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