On a warm August day in 1944, Fred and Faye Dixon gathered their two children, packed what they could into their 1938 Plymouth, and headed for an old dude ranch in Peña Blanca, New Mexico. Despite skepticism from the locals, Fred intended to convert it to an orchard and grow apples in the desert.
Putting Down Roots
When Fred and Faye Dixon started their New Mexico venture in 1944, they came to what was a dude ranch. This Spanish land grant owned by James W. Young was known as “Rancho de la Cañada.” Fred and Faye managed the ranch and developed the apple orchard for Mr. Young over the following 20 years. In 1964, Mr. Young decided to give this more than 9000-acre parcel of land as a gift in trust to the University of New Mexico (UNM). In doing this, he wanted the land kept in perpetuity, not sold or changed.
Fred and Faye Dixon now leased the land from UNM and continued running the orchard. They grew the business into a flourishing one, seeing growth year-by-year, and shipping apples out of state. Eventually, they weren’t able to meet the supply and demand in New Mexico. By the time granddaughter Becky Dixon Mullane arrived in 1967, local supply and demand was so high that Dixon’s apples were strictly sold on the ranch.
Branching into Adventure
The Dixon’s years in business brought both happiness and hardship. One year, a bear raided the orchard, something not uncommon to the area. However, rather than letting the bear have his way, Fred Dixon went out to fend him off by hand. The bear attacked Mr. Dixon. Fortunately, Fidel, a farmhand, came to his aid and Fred survived to fight another day. Becky Dixon Mullane says, “We still think he made the right choice. These apples are worth fighting a bear for!”
For over 42 years, Fred and Faye walked the rows of trees hand-in-hand, referring to the orchard as their church. In 1985 Faye passed away, and despite losing his true love, Fred continued to work the farm. Four months after Faye’s passing, Fred received a call from Becky, his 18-year-old granddaughter. She was moving to New Mexico and wanted to learn all about the apple business.
Growing the Family Tree
Fred would teach Becky a virtual encyclopedia of knowledge gathered from 45 years of experience raising apples. With each passing season, Becky took on new work and her knowledge grew.
In 1992, Becky met Jim Mullane and on April 24, 1993, Jim and Becky were married in the apple blossoms. It was a beautiful wedding in the “Champagne Orchard,” a vital part of Dixon’s Apple Orchard. This was the start of a new generation in this family business. Fred, recognizing the love and devotion his granddaughter had for the farm, handed the farm down to Becky and Jim in 1996.
Becky and Jim had three beautiful children: Luke, Cody, and Natalie. As they grew, the children became part of the orchard operations, and the orchard became their life and future.
Once again, the business continued to grow and flourish. In 2006, the State Land Office (SLO) and UNM approached Jim and Becky to announce that the Rancho de la Cañada land was now to be traded to the SLO from UNM. This hurt Fred, Becky, and Jim very much, as it violated Mr. Young’s wishes. However, there was nothing anyone could do to prevent the swap from taking place.
Jim and Becky still desired to carry on the apple business, which was such an icon in New Mexico. The State Land Office formed a 75-year business lease for Jim and Becky, which gave Luke, Cody, and Natalie the hope of carrying on the Dixon tradition in New Mexico. They immediately began to plant additional apple trees and install a more efficient irrigation system. The business continued to grow by bushels and pecks to include hayrides, a chuck wagon, and wedding events. Life was going well.
Encountering Bushels of Trouble
2011 is the year the Mullane family calls, “the year that was.” First came the severe spring freezes that destroyed 95% of the apple crop. Then, in June when a soaking rain hadn’t fallen on the orchard in nearly a year, another disaster struck.
On June 27, in the wee hours of the morning, the Los Conchas Wildfire swept through the orchard, destroying the Mullane’s home and many of their buildings, along with 300 of the apple trees. Most devastating of all, the fire destroyed the beautiful forest of Cochiti Canyon where our orchard resided. What once was majestic forest was now barren, ash-ridden rock and dust.
Jim, Becky, Luke, Cody, and Natalie decided to strive ahead, working countless hours in the hopes of rebuilding and keeping the family business alive. They expanded creek beds, put up barriers, reinstalled irrigation, and on and on went the list. Motivated by gratitude for their customers and their passion for the orchard, the Mullane family worked to accomplish their dream of rising above the ashes left by this tragedy.
However, that wasn’t the end of their challenges. As if that wasn’t enough adversity, the lack of forest protection left the orchard vulnerable when the rains finally did arrive. The creek rose most every afternoon during July 2011. Jim and Becky wondered what would happen to the orchard, and as fear rose with the creek, they often asked, “Where are the kids?”
Early August brought many more mini floods that the creek banks could contain for a while. Then, on August 21 and 22 the unimaginable happened. The flood of all floods.
The Mullane family watched from the hillsides of the orchard as their livelihood washed away. Their son Cody, the quietest of their three children, said, “We can’t do this anymore.” With the flooding, the emotional tie to the land waned, and the family decided their time in the canyon was over.
Becky says, “Countless times we think of Granddad and Grandmother and are so thankful that they didn’t have to see this devastation take place to what was built over the years.”
Harvesting a New Future
Hardship contributed to the closing of the New Mexico orchard and the sale of the land, a process that brought its own additional trouble and red tape. However, the Mullanes didn’t give up. Instead, they packed up the family to begin a new adventure in Wisconsin.
In October 2014, they purchased a beautiful parcel of land in Cadott, Wisconsin, bringing the Dixon name and tradition with them to the new site. With the spring thaw in 2015, Becky and Jim planted 2000 new apple trees that have been incubating at a nursery, waiting for the right time to bring their new orchard dream to fruition.
Among those new trees are a variety patented by Fred Dixon called the Champagne apple. When Fred discovered the wild apple tree in a canyon in New Mexico, he grafted clippings to host trees to populate the orchard. The Mullanes were able to save clippings after the fire and have them grafted to host trees to be transferred to Wisconsin.
As the Mullane family builds a new life in Wisconsin, they hope families will make a stop at Dixon’s Apple Orchard, a new tradition to pass on to generations to come. Whether it’s for a family reunion, a wedding, a photo shoot, or a family outing, the Mullanes invite you to come experience the elegance of peaceful country living at their farm.