Perfecting the science of fruit
Photos by Eric Frick
At the turn of the last century, Fredrick Kappus kept an apple orchard and raised a few cows in the Black Forest region of Germany. His son, Fredrick II, continued farming after the family emmigrated to the United States and settled on an Eden, New York, dairy farm. The third Fredrick Kappus inherited the dairy at age twenty-three, worked the land with horses when tractors were hard to come by during the war, and transitioned the family business back to orchards. In 1973, he bought land in Burt, New York, to establish the current Kappus Farms that lies not far from Lake Ontario in the heart of Niagara County fruit country.
Today, Kappus Farms is run by the fourth generation of the Kappus family, Tom, whose father broke with tradition, something he was often wont to do, and assigned “Fredrick” as his son’s middle name rather than declaring him Fredrick IV. Tom Kappus started driving a tractor during hay season before he reached the fourth grade, and has been farming ever since.
Kappus Farms is a small operation that grows low-spray fruit trees. Its 135 acres produce plums, nectarines, apples, and pears, which are sold to packinghouses that distribute Kappus fruits throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York (some end up at local TOPS). But the farm is best known for several varieties of sweet, juicy peaches sold already picked at the farm in August, and pick-your-own cherries that have been an early summer favorite for almost fifty years.
Legend has it that early one July, Tom’s father went out of town and left young Tom and his sister in charge of the orchard. As enterprising kids who were probably already sick of picking fruit, they decided to put out a sign by the road and let people come pick their own cherries, netting over $300 that weekend. The practice stuck—but nearly everything else has changed in the decades that followed.
“My father was always for change, figuring out how to make things better,” explains Kappus. “We’re always modernizing. The only old things around here are one barn and generations of fruit knowledge.”
Customers have dictated shifts in what Kappus Farms grows. Demand for sour cherries, which used to be popular for pies and jams, fell, giving way to more sweet cherries. The apple orchards have been replanted six times to cater to trends. Farmers have to guess about five years ahead of time what kinds of apples will be popular in the future; so far Ida Red, Empire, and Red Delicious have been replaced by Honeycrisp, Gala, Fuji, and other “club” varieties.
Even something as seemingly static as how to grow a fruit tree has evolved as agricultural efficiencies and innovations have emerged. Full-sized cherry trees have been replaced by dwarf varieties that make the red clusters easier to reach during harvest. Big, iconic apple trees, once spaced ten feet apart, are now planted close together and carefully pruned to train branches along horizontal support wires, much like grapes, to maximize space and sun exposure for fruit ripening, and minimize watering, fertilizer waste, and harvest labor.
Protecting the fruit has become a carefully calculated science that considers the health of the soil, water, and workers far more than the chemical-laden practices of decades ago. Kappus employs a variety of techniques and tools to keep bugs, birds, and blight at bay, including hoop houses built over the cherry trees to prevent cracked fruit and bird snacking (which also make it possible to U-pick in the rain, too), lasers, and machine-generated bird distress calls to keep flying foragers away, and pheromones used to deflect insect males from finding females on fruit and producing damaging larvae.
Generations of families have come to Kappus Farms every year to fill buckets of cherries together.
Fruit storage has come a long way over the decades, too. The Kappuses built one of the first apple cold storage facilities in the area in 1977, continually expanding the space and outfitting it with the newest technology. Today, giant atmosphere-controlled hangars with perfectly set oxygen and temperature levels monitored from the Kappuses house store thousands of apples for months; fruit picked in mid-October is still crisp and sweet at the end of the following May.
Back in the 1970s and even into the eighties, Kappus used to deliver peaches to thirty or forty farm stands up and down Transit Road, where people would buy fruit by the bushel to can for use over the winter. But as peaches became available in grocery stores year round, fewer cellar shelves held glass jars of fruit from local orchards. The farm still sells fruit wholesale to the Amish, who use it to make pies and preserves. One family will come and pick up bushels for other families in the area; ethnic communities in Buffalo will do the same.
What has stayed the same is families coming out to Kappus Farms, piling into a wagon, and riding out into the orchards to pick cherries in late June and July. They used to watch for ads in the Courier Express or Buffalo News for picking notices; now they look to Facebook for fruit updates. Kappus says he has seen some clans return year after year for three generations, while others hold their family reunions among the laden cherry trees and fill buckets together.
“Cherry picking is celebratory,” says Kappus. “Maybe it’s the time of year—it’s the first picking to be done, and it’s always around the fourth of July holiday.”
Tom will be the last Kappus to run the orchards. The fifth generation—his three children—have already turned their family’s work ethic into successful careers of their own, two as doctors and one as a lawyer. “Must have been all the fruit they ate as kids,” Tom says, noting that all three were also valedictorians of their respective high school classes. He and his wife Mahee didn’t encourage their children to farm; it’s not easy, he says, and it’s not stable.
For now, Kappus plans to stay on the land for quite a while. When he can’t work anymore, he says there are several farms around the area that will be interested in farming the property, either for lease or for sale. He’s confident that the viable orchard soils will keep the land in agriculture rather than being sold to developers, whether Kappus is there or not, a change that won’t happen for a while.
“My father worked in these orchards until he was eighty-eight,” says Kappus. “I’m only in my sixties, and I’ve still got a ways to go ’til then.”