By Ethan Giebel
For five generations, Oakwood Fruit Farm has been supplying customers with apples from their Richland Center orchards. Albert Louis started the farm in the early 1900s and the orchard continued to expand when his son Bill joined the business. Today, the third and fourth generations of the Louis family own Oakwood Fruit Farm.
John and Vonnie Louis along with their son Steve and his wife Jody, and daughter Judy and her husband Greg manage the day-to-day operations of the orchard, packaging operation, retail store and bakery. Oakwood is a corporation where the individual families own stock in the company. The fifth generation of the Louis family is working hard and learning the ropes of the orchard business.
Perched on top of a ridge amongst 170 acres of apple orchards sits Applouis Holsteins. The 160-cow registered Holstein dairy was started in the 1950s as an additional business for the Louis family. About 400 acres of cropland provide the farm with feed. The Louis family and herd manager AJ Fowell each own half of the dairy herd. With their focus on Oakwood Fruit Farm, the Louis family plans to be less involved in the dairy farm in the future. At one time, Applouis Holsteins focused on producing and selling top-quality Holstein cattle and genetics until a herd dispersal sale in 2003.
The Louis family has enjoyed many years of successful farming. John was honored as a Master Agriculturist in 1987.
Rebounding from disaster
A devastating fire on Oct. 10, 2010, destroyed Oakwood's entire retail, packing and storage facility just after the fall harvest season had finished. After the loss, the family visited orchards in other states during that fall harvest season to see them in operation.
"We wouldn't have normally been able to visit other orchards because our business is in full swing," said Steve. "We got many ideas after talking to other apple producers." A design was picked and a new building at Oakwood was constructed in time to open for the start of the 2011 season.
An important aspect of the new facility at Oakwood is the packing line.
"The new packing line is better than our old mechanized one," said Steve. "It uses a photographic censor to detect defects on apples. It also grades, measures and bags apples according to size." The packing line is efficient and flexible but still has a human aspect. Apples can be packaged in a variety of ways for wholesale or retail sales. Traceability is another advantage of the packing system. "Consumers can find out where their apples come from because of the label on the package. "
Over 20 varieties of apples are grown at the orchard. The harvest began in August and continues through October. The retail store and bakery is open seasonally through Dec. 20 for the holiday season. A full line of products made in Wisconsin is featured in the retail store including honey, syrup and cider. Famous for its donuts with an apple twist, the bakery produced over 13,000 dozen of the apple cider donuts during the 2012 season. About 25% of Oakwood's apples are sold through their retail store while 75% are sold through wholesale outlets.
Apples that are grade #3 are sent to another orchard with a modern cider press. Cider is custom pressed and bottled for Oakwood and then brought back to be sold in the store. Approximately 18,000 gallons of cider a year from Oakwood apples is sold through the retail store.
More than 300 apple growers reside in Wisconsin. About 180 of those growers belong to the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association. Steve serves as president of the WAGA.
"The WAGA works a lot with University of Wisconsin-Extension to provide information to growers," said Steve. "They are a valuable asset to work with for growers and a great partner for the WAGA."
A crew of reliable seasonal labor aids the family in their retail, bakery, packing and orchard work. At the peak of the season, Oakwood has approximately 50 employees.
"During the summer we hire some high school kids," said Steve. "For a lot of them, this is their first job."
"Families enjoy coming here every year. It's a seasonal tradition," said Jody Word of mouth is important to marketing their business. They also advertise through radio, television, print media, online and on hand painted signs along nearby highways. "Social media is a growing outlet for us," said Steve. "We put updates of the harvest on our Facebook page to keep customers informed."
"In the future we plan to grow as necessary," said Steve. "We can grow production by 20% on the same acres by using new growing practices that maximize the use of space by planting taller trees in tighter rows." Specialized equipment is used on the farm to be used in orchards with narrow tree rows. "We used to use the same tractors on the orchard and dairy farm. Today, the rows in the orchard are too narrow for that."
Geibel is a student at UW-Platteville.