Death of orchard owner comes as shock

FAIRMONT – Eric Luetgers didn’t do anything with half a heart, whether he was growing apples, participating in the local Mason Lodge or just taking the time to have a real conversation with someone.

On Wednesday, Eric passed away at Mayo Clinic Health System in Fairmont. He was 55 years old, and his death came as a shock to family, friends and the community.

As proprietor of Timberlake Orchard with wife Sue, Eric knew life could be unpredictable.

“As a farmer, you put your livelihood in the hands of the Almighty, and you thank God for what you have, because there’s no guarantee you’ll have a crop,” he said in an interview with the Sentinel in the fall of 2013.

The Luetgers have been in the orchard business since 1981, according to their website www.piginthepatch.com/TimberlakeOrchard.html

Before moving back to Eric’s hometown of Fairmont, the couple lived in Chanhassen with their children, recalled Ralph Yates, a long-time friend, orchardist and fellow Minnesota Apple Growers board member.

“They would spend about 30 weekends a year traveling down to the orchard in Fairmont there, doing all the work necessary to grow apples,” Yates said. “They would do that on weekends because they had full-time regular jobs in Chanhassen. They did that for many years ’til they could make the move down to Fairmont.”

In addition to serving on the board for the Apple Growers Association, Eric was active with Minnesota Fruit & Vegetable Growers, Minnesota Grown, Fairmont Farmers Marker and Blue Earth Farmers Market.

“Eric was a great grower, and he’s going to be greatly missed,” Yates said. “The thing about Eric is he gave a lot back to the industry as a grower. … He loved what he was doing.”

In addition to apples, Timberlake Orchard keeps honey bees and grows vegetables. The orchard’s products – and Eric’s friendly smiling face – have been staples at local farmers markets for years.

“Eric was very personable. He’d discuss things with you. I could sit down with him and talk about anything, and he was always there when somebody needed help,” said Judy Moritz, who operated a booth alongside Eric for about 10 years at the Fairmont Farmers Market.

“He was always there to share. We were always sampling everybody else’s products down there,” she said laughing. “We’d have fun.”

She was more somber as she recalled how happy Eric was to be out of pain after a recent knee replacement surgery. He had protested when Moritz had told him she wouldn’t be growing a big garden this year, due to her own health problems.

“Eric was saying, ‘You can’t leave us this summer,’ and here he left us,” she said, crying at the loss of her friend. “God took him home.”

A celebration of life visitation for Eric will be 4-7 p.m. Monday at Lakeview Funeral Home. Chain Lake Lodge No. 64 will hold a Masonic service at 7 p.m. Monday.