Sekapp Orchard keeps customers coming for you-pick experience
Fred Kappauf’s orchard is something of a throwback.
From the way he does business to the types of apples he grows, Kappauf’s Sekapp Orchard is a nod to orchards the way they used to be: Pick your own, pay by the bag, and bring the kids and have a good time.
Located just beyond the edge of Rochester on County Road 9, Sekapp Orchard is a busy place this time of year. Apples need to be picked, sorted and boxed. Other crops — his diverse range of fruits and vegetables range from sweet corn and pickling cucumbers to tart cherries, pears and a growing “crop” of honey — await in the fields.
Kappauf said the orchard does 10 percent of its sales in August, and 85 percent in September and October combined. Most of the rest is done in November and December.
“We start in the first week in August,” Kappauf said, listing off the apple varieties that bring customers to his 148-acre farm. There’s Vikings, Orioles, Duchess, Paula Reds and some varieties of crab apples that have long been the first fruits of the season. This year, he planted a few hundred First Kiss apple trees, which will be an early variety.
“Hopefully, we have everything harvested by Christmas,” Kappauf said. That’s all the vegetables and 25 apple cultivars, some of which are tree varieties just not being planted anymore.
As for the rest of the year, “We have regular customers who know if they pull in and honk the horn, we’re open,” he said.
The orchard has been his life.
In fact, an orchard has stood where Sekapp sits for more than 100 years. Kappauf’s mother, Joyce, purchased the original 15 acres in 1962. In the fall of 1991, another 80 acres was purchased. Then the final 53 acres was bought in 1996.
More than 7,000 fruit trees, most apples but some pear and cherry, cover 27 acres of the orchard. The rest is for corn, pumpkins, ornamental squash and other vegetables. Kappauf grows hay for a few cattle he raises. And he rents some space to a friend who grows strawberries.
Customers come regularly from surrounding states and even as far away as Missouri. Still, he said, “Every day I get someone who says, ‘I’ve been in town three or four years and I’ve never heard of you.’”
People love to pick their own crops, he said, even if they didn’t grow them, and they’ll drive long distances to get the orchard experience they’re looking for. “A lot of orchards offer different events,” he said. “I try to keep it simple. We have wagon rides and a corn maze.”
There’s apple slingshots for the kids, or kids at heart. People come for autumn vegetables like pumpkins, gourds and ornamental corn that turn into decorations through the fall.
For that short season, from August through the end of October, his orchard grows from a handful of workers to 40 employees.
Keeping it simple means no admission fees or fancy pricing. For as little as a $6, you can wander the orchard and fill a bag with produce.
Changes in the weather
When the work comes all at once, it can be hard to get it all done, Kappauf said. He lives on just a few hours of sleep a night this time of year. That’s as much from the busy season as the concern about the weather.
Rainy weekends keep customers away.
A half dozen or so good, sunny weekends can be the difference between a good year and a bad one.
“We pray for rain all summer, and then when it comes now, we’re screaming ‘Stop!’” he said.
Worse is when the rain comes with high winds and hail. The ground underneath the apple trees is littered with fallen apples, either from the wind or pickers who don’t like what the see — an odd spot, a bruise or a cut in the apple’s skin — and drop the apples on the spot.
“There’s apples raining down all year long,” he said. “We have to raise twice as much as we need to sell.”
As for the yield from those 7,000 trees, “With pick-your-own customers, it’s hard to get a feel for the total,” Kappauf said.
The orchard has seen a few bad years in a row, he said. Hail damaged the crops severely this year and in 2017. In 2016, a late spring freeze stunted the crops.
Still, there are apples aplenty at Sekapp. So much so, he sends out pickers and refrigerates some of his crop to be sold throughout the winter. The apple harvest can last through March before it runs out or turns bad, he said.
This time of year, he looks forward to those few beautiful weekends. “Then it really shuts down.”
After that, it’s winter maintenance: pruning trees, removing old stock, planting new trees. Last year, he added 700 First Kiss trees. The spring before, it was 500 new Honeycrisp apple trees.
Variety of veggies
Through it all, there are 150 beehives to maintain to make about 15,000 pounds of honey — enough to meet the needs of a bulk wholesale business.
“You need a little variety,” he said. “You need the honey. You need all the fall stuff,” he added, referring to pumpkins, gourds and sweet corn.
He used to grow more vegetables, especially before his mother retired from running the orchard. But now, there’s not enough time. “Once I took over the orchards, I couldn’t keep up.”
Still, it’s hard to quit a line of produce because loyal customers have been coming to Sekapps for 30 years for sweet corn, pickling cucumbers, strawberries and other non-apple produce.
“One gentleman, he comes every other day and buys two ears of sweet corn,” Kappauf said. “It’s kind of hard to say I’m going to ignore these loyal customers.”