It’s Like Visiting Family With This Year’s Apple Growers of the Year [Opinion]

I’m sitting in my window seat on the Air New Zealand flight from Auckland, NZ, to San Francisco, CA, coming home from the International Fruit Tree Association’s (IFTA) New Zealand Study Tour. I’m trying to organize my backpack, pillow, blanket, etc., when it hit me — I was looking at one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen in a while.


“When you have a view like this, how can anybody not believe in God?” Judy Schwallier, sitting next to me, leans over and says.

It was quite a sight — silhouettes of airplanes cut through the gold, amber, indigo, gray, and navy sky. While I’m used to cotton-candy skies occasionally over Lake Erie, the texture and depth of the clouds in Auckland left me in awe. I stopped what I was doing to soak in the moment.

Perhaps I was being sentimental because it was my last sunset in New Zealand and I was destined to months of gray Ohio skies. Perhaps I was also sentimental because I was saying goodbye to such wonderful people in Phil and Judy Schwallier (as well as the rest of the IFTA New Zealand family).

Although it’s not uncommon to be on the same flights to and from IFTA destinations, I don’t always have a chance to sit next to next to some of my fellow tour-goers. I was so relieved to be sitting next to familiar faces, it made the next 11 hours seem like a scoop of New Zealand hokey pokey ice cream.

The Schwalliers were so warm and welcoming the entire time I was in New Zealand. More than a couple times along the tour, I ended up catching Phil and Judy as they were making their way to dinner and I’d ask to tag along as “a lost little puppy.”

They treated me so much like family. Judy would scold me if I didn’t apply enough sunscreen!

So, it’s no surprise to me that there were many resounding nominations for the Schwalliers in this year’s Apple Grower of the YearSM selection. Phil is a very visible part of our industry, attending conferences, leading field tours, and rallying younger generations to come back to the farm and start growing tree fruit.

And Judy is often right there at his side like she was the first time I met her during the 2016 IFTA post-conference tour in blustery Traverse City, MI.

I had the privilege of traveling to the Schwalliers’ Sparta, MI, farm a few weeks ago to shoot video and take photos for this issue’s cover story. And, as expected, Judy and Phil were beyond accommodating and welcoming. But, that’s just the type of people Judy and Phil are. Whether we’re on a plane or in an orchard, or even having lunch in their dining room, they treat you like you’re one of their own.