Jul 17, 2014
Minnesota farm focuses on local sales

Operating a diversified fruit and vegetable farm within view of downtown Rochester, Minnesota, has put Sekapp Orchard in prime position to draw retail followers from across the region.

The farm is currently operated by Terrence (Fred) Kappauf, son of Joyce and Kenneth Kappauf, and his three children.

On the sprawling 148 acres, in the rolling hills within minutes of one of Minnesota’s largest cities, Kappauf currently has more than 30 acres of fruit trees, including apples, plums and pears, and 60 tillable acres for a wide range of vegetable offerings.

He grows 20 acres of vine crops – mostly pumpkins and squash – and 10 acres of sweet corn. Seven acres consist of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, beets, beans, dill, rhubarb, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and a few strawberries.

Most of the farm’s harvest is sold in a stand near the property entrance, as well as at the Rochester Downtown Farmers Market.

Kappauf’s biggest challenge is throttling back the amount of vegetables he plants in order to concentrate on the fall market, the busiest time for the “relatively small operation.”

“We’re scaling back, getting out of strawberries and raspberries and concentrating on the fall market stuff,” Kappauf said. “I’ll spend more time on the orchard, take care of trees and do things properly. I’m trying to eliminate the spring and summer crops, eventually. I’ve rented out 15 acres across the tracks to a corn and soybean farmer, trying to scale back some.

“My problem is you end up spinning your wheels so much,” he said. “For me, if I can’t do it myself, if I can’t keep up with the cultivating, spraying, mowing and growing of the crops, it becomes too much, because you end up spending too much on labor. I try to just keep labor to that eight to12 weeks in the fall, and keep it down to a scale where I can keep up, avoid a lot of labor issues that way.”

Sekapp Orchard, located on land that was once part of the Chippewa and Sioux nations, is a family run business and has been for more than 50 years. The Kappauf family has owned the orchard since 1962, when it was purchased from the Dunn family. Ben Dunn was a horticulture teacher with Rochester Public Schools, and much of the farm’s current diversity can be traced back to his expertise. There are more than 7,000 apple trees of more than 25 varieties thriving at Sekapp Orchards.

The Sekapp name is a combination of Fred’s mother’s maiden name and Kappauf. His father worked for the Mayo Clinic at a time when employees there were not allowed to own another business. The Sekapp name was adapted “so the Mayo Clinic didn’t have problems with it,” Fred said.

Initially, the Kappauf family knew little of operating an orchard, but thought it would be a good place to raise a family, having had three children at the time. The Kappaufs planted several new varieties of apple trees throughout the years, and joined the Minnesota Apple Growers Association to continue their education as orchardists.

“My mother was the farm girl,” Kappauf said. “They bought this worn-out, abandoned orchard on 15 acres. Since that time, they bought 53 acres and then 80 more acres and expanded from 12 acres of fruit trees to what it is today.”

Fred, 46, started to take over the family business in 1992.

“I was the youngest of four children,” he said. “My three older siblings all moved on and so I just came out here with mom and dad took it over and worked on expanding it.”

He has one part-time employee throughout the year, and about 30 others join the operation in the fall to cater to a throng of visitors throughout the season.

“It’s crazy busy in the fall,” Kappauf said. “We’re taking out three more rows of apples to make room for more parking. We will have 150 cars parked at one time, including on both sides of the road. We pretty much do just retail. We don’t do any wholesale.”

The family has progressed into agritainment, setting up swing sets and a sandbox area, placing 1,000 straw bales in the summer, creating a large straw barrel maze and straw pyramid, and also cutting more than an acre of bundled corn stalk to make a maze.

“We have two wagons running nonstop all week long for wagon rides and pick-your-own apples and pumpkins,” he said.

“We have some younger apple trees in the new orchard, and there’s signs with apple varieties on them. All the rows are marked. We’re running people out and back all the time. People come out here and have picnics,” he said. “We don’t really charge admission yet; we just charge for the product the people take home.

“About 90 percent of our business is in eight weeks – September and October. We have an acre a half of asparagus and two acres of strawberries we take to the farmers’ market in town. My daughters are 14 and 15 and they run the farmers’ market for me with one of my neighbors who helps me out. We have a little rhubarb, asparagus and strawberries early in the year just to have a little early income to pay bills. The majority comes in September and October, and it’s crazy, with cars parked all over – it’s a three-ring circus.”

The retail success of the operation is driving improvements in the farm’s facilities, expanding with two newer buildings last year, rebuilding coolers and updating the apple washing area to meet food safety considerations.

Kappauf has started a bee business and built a hoop house/high tunnel structure to help manage his crop production.

The business has not had difficulty attracting workers, with many of the same employees returning year after year.

“We have quite a labor pool to choose from,” he said.

Kappauf takes pride in being able to attract consumers from a wide area. He pointed to the operation’s industriousness – with the help of neighbors and local businesses – after being one of the few in the region to have apples following the devastating early spring frosts two years ago.

“We burned more than 30 fires when it was 18 degrees, and it worked,” he said. “We didn’t save blossoms that were open, but the ones still in popcorn stage, we saved those. So essentially, we saved half our crop. That was a huge boost to our business two years ago.

“Nobody else was open – nobody else had any apples,” he said. “People were coming down from the cities, from the river and everywhere who had never been here before because we were the only ones who had apples. (Burning the fires) worked enough.

“(Selling local) works for us,” Kappauf said. “I’m not feeding the world. I’m not shipping anything anywhere. It’s sold out of the end of the driveway.”

Gary Pullano

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