A farm cannot be around for 109 years without encountering at least a little adversity along the way. And, most likely, it could not survive more than a century without a strong family tree supporting it. Oakwood Fruit Farm in Richland Center, Wis., and the Louis family are case in point.
Steve Louis, owner of Oakwood Fruit Farm and president of the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association, is the latest family member to take the reins of the farm, which is based about an hour and a half west of Madison in what he describes as pretty much the middle of nowhere and certainly not a natural destination for hungry, inquisitive tourists. But, since a fire that destroyed the operation and 60-percent of the farm’s annual crop in 2010, that’s exactly what Oakwood Fruit Farm has become.
The scorching turn of events happened in October just two days after the crop had been picked and the coolers filled to the brim with apples. Everything — retail store, packing shed, coolers burgeoning with the fall crop, and a brand new bakery — was gone. But, the Louis’ turned the disaster into opportunity to grow and get better. They installed a larger, state-of-the-art packing line built to uphold the rigors of modern safety and traceability standards. In addition they constructed a bigger retail store and rebuilt a bakery twice the size of the one they had just opened over the summer.
Louis says the tight-knit group had a running joke prior to the leap to put in the bakery: “Who on earth would drive to the middle of nowhere to buy a doughnut?” But, that is exactly what tourists and area residents have done since the operation’s grand reopening celebration Labor Day weekend 2011. The crop in the area wasn’t great that year, but Oakwood had a decent stand and was able to rebuild its retail business on that crop’s success. And, let’s talk cider doughnuts! Two years after the fire, the bakery and retail store will sell 13,000 dozen doughnuts in just two months—that’s 156,000 total—along with turnovers and other popular items. And, by mid-season every year, Oakwood is running at full capacity. About 20 percent of the Louis’ business is through their retail store, with the other 80 comprising apples packed for wholesale distribution to grocery chains.
Family roles and responsibilities changed after the fire. Steve had been working on and growing the family’s dairy business. But with the rebuilt farm, he assumed sales for the orchard and orchard planting from his father, then 73, who opted not to tackle learning the new technology they were installing. Steve’s dad and mom still help out during summers before wintering in Arizona. Wife Jodi taught school for 17 years and retired to run the bakery and the retail store full time. Steve’s sister does bookkeeping and retail work, and her husband runs the picking crew each fall.
Rounding out the family duties are Steve and Jodi’s kids, the fifth generation to work the farm. Steve gives them what he comically refers to as “stay in school” jobs to encourage them to go to college. His son helps at the retail store on weekends during the fall and works with his high school friends during the summer doing pruning and tree training. Younger sister — in junior-high — is old enough to help with painting roadside billboards and light work at the retail store and bakery. He is uncertain whether the kids will come back to work after college, but right now the family certainly does a great job of dividing and conquering. Together, they keep a 170-acre orchard, packing facility and retail outlet up and running — and growing.
So, what does Steve Louis enjoy the most about managing the family business? The University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate — with degrees in horticulture and dairy science — says he enjoys the new plantings: putting trees in the ground, watching them grow, and then waiting two years or so before picking the first fruit. But he also likes helping customers at the retail store, conversing with them and answering questions. “They can’t get those answers at a grocery store.” That joy in seeing the orchards thrive and taking time to help customers is the real fire here — the one that keeps Oakwood around year after year.