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Michelle Tavarez Butler: “Everyone gets an apple for the road.”

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In the midst of grape country in Acampo, California, there is an apple orchard on Peltier Road. Some people thought it was crazy when Eli Tavarez, a man who had never farmed anything before, planted the Japanese Fuji apple there in 1981. Luckily, no one told the apple trees that they were an oddity or doomed to fail and they took a liking to California. That was 40 years ago, so the apples have proven themselves to even the most skeptical naysayer. 

Technically, the name of the orchard is Apple Valley Orchards (no relation to Apple Valley, California), but I imagine that most people who are regulars of the orchard know it as Eli’s Apples, which is the name of the barn-turned-store where apple lovers that don’t necessarily want to pick their own apples can come and buy the freshest Fujis and Granny Smiths. This is where Michelle Tavarez Butler was when I caught up to her for an interview. Michelle is the heart of the orchard. She also owns it. 

My first impression of Michelle was that she is disarming, laughed easily and the laugh was contagious. She also struck me as the kind of person who truly wants to know how you are when they ask, “How are you?” She seemed utterly in her element.

Three kinds of apples now grow on the property. The first to be harvested every year are the Galas, which not even frequent visitors of this oddly placed orchard know about because they aren’t sold directly to the public and instead are sold to markets. Galas are harvested in July and August, depending on the innumerable variables that come with growing any kind of plant outside. Granny Smiths start their harvest in September. Since they get sweeter the longer they stay on the tree and they don’t spoil on the branch, they’re actually picked in small quantities daily for the rest of apple season. October 1 is the first day of the Fuji harvest and it will continue until they close up shop for the winter. These are three of my favorite apple varieties for eating and baking. I inquired about Honey Crisps to satiate my curiosity and they are mostly grown in Michigan, Minnesota and other colder places. 

Who planted these apple trees? Eli, of Eli’s Apples, of course! You see, the eponymous Eli was Michelle’s father, Elias Tavarez. After being a pilot for 40 years, seeing the world in a time when that wasn’t exceptionally common and being away from home, his wife, his four kids and his community quite a bit, Eli wanted to establish something at home; an opus that he could pass down to his family and share with his community. He had eaten Fuji apples while in Japan; if you’ve ever eaten one, you know how good they are. “He probably gave away more apples than he sold!” Michelle laughed as she recounted all the church and community functions that had been held at the orchard over the years, “He saw the orchard as a good way for our family to bless people. He was a very wise man, a man who savored life.”

It’s easy to imagine Michelle just staying on at the orchard or going to a university and studying something related to the family business and coming back. That isn’t her story at all, though. She did go to college for architectural design, got married, and designed homes for a while along with working various jobs, as she worked to put her husband through school. “I left design to start designing kids,” Michelle joked. She has six kids, five sons and one daughter. If that wasn’t an impressive enough feat, she home-schooled them. During the first year of the pandemic, I learned, as I’m sure many other parents learned, I am not fit to home-school my child. I did it anyway, considering the exigent circumstances, but it was taxing. 

She juggled home-schooling and babies for 17 years but then her marriage of 24 years ended. There was barely time to breathe; she was a single mom and she needed an income. Michelle went back to the literal drawing board and started to find work as a graphic designer. Michelle described this period of her life as “rough.” I would venture to guess that Michelle is an uncommonly resilient woman.

Whether or not certain things are destined to happen, you can’t deny that in retrospect people often take bizarre paths to get to where they feel they belong. I don’t know if there is a grand plan but I think a certain pilot-turned-apple-farmer may have had one when he asked Michelle to join him at the orchard in 2009. He was getting older and needed help around the orchard. She needed a change of scenery. After all, if an apple a day keeps the doctor away, what could a whole orchard do? “Partnering with my dad was a Godsend,” Michelle said. 

As all farmers know; all things have their season and the partnership had a short one. In 2010, Eli officially asked Michelle to take over. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t necessarily a seasoned apple veteran or even a returned apple prodigy. Eli would teach her what she needed to know but he needed someone that would carry on the spirit of the orchard. Everything about this orchard exudes love. The customers are loved. The staff is loved. The consultants are loved. The current foreman has been working at the orchard for 20 years and his predecessor was there for 20 years as well. Employee retention is hard; or is it? Maybe Apple Valley Orchards has figured out the secret.

One of the employees came in from a long day picking apples and stopped by the store to say goodbye to Michelle during the interview. She asked if he needed a ride or a drink and thanked him for his work. He declined but seemed grateful for the offer. They wished each other a good night and parted ways for the evening. 

“So many people make it happen,” Michelle offered. Her kids are all adults now and help a lot around the orchard. The employees who aren’t family feel like family. There are still church and community events. “My family has been going to the same church since 1974!” Michelle said proudly. Having a standing invitation to use the orchard for events probably takes a lot of pressure off of event planning. 

That was about the time a couple of customers came into the store. Michelle apologized to me but there was no need. She enthusiastically greeted the customers and showed them the apples with unmistakable pride and enthusiasm. They were given a crash course on the apple polisher, which uses horsehair to polish the apples without bruising them and without chemicals or waxes. Michelle asked the customers if they remembered her father and they did!

Then conversation took a serious turn as one customer began divulging to Michelle about the declining health of the person she was taking her second bag of apples to. Michelle listened and was empathetic and kind. I’m always fascinated by people that other people feel safe opening up in these random situations. Michelle is the picture of love and grace and I’m surprised “counselor” wasn’t her job in one of her past lives.

As the customers left Michelle, called after them, “Don’t forget your apple for the road!” She directed her attention back toward me. “Everyone gets an apple for the road.” It’s another small kindness that her father started that Michelle continues. “I’m so grateful for my dad’s legacy.”