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Apple orchard state of the art after devastating fire

Aug. 2, 2012 | 0 comments

Now, where fire had destroyed the retail facility and apple sorting rooms at Oakwood Fruit Farm, Steve Louis shows visitors the farm's gleaming new computerized fruit handling systems.

When Louis and his family recently hosted the Wisconsin Apple Growers field day, 175 visitors from around the state had a chance to see the system and marvel at the how the Louis family was able to come back from a devastating fire that cost them their main facility.

Louis explained to the growers that in their old building, the person sorting and packing apples had to make a decision on each apple. With 12 people and four lanes they could pack 800 bushels of apples a day.

Now, since the addition of an admittedly expensive computerized system, one lane and 15 people can sort and pack 1,200 bushels. "On a good day it's even 1,500 bushels and there are no decisions. It's all done by the computer."

The computer sorts the apples by color and notes any defects by taking from 40-60 digital pictures of each apple as they are spun around to show every angle.

Louis explained that the sorting system can be customized. For example, the speed of the apple's rotation for this photo shoot can be changed based on the size of the apples.

The machines can sort 600 apples each minute and he can use a customized list to tell the computer how to sort them. This comes in handy when apples are being sorted for different customers who have different parameters, needs or wants with the apples they are buying.

The machinery takes into account the size, grade and weight of the apple after Louis "educates" the computer by teaching it what colors are desirable and what kinds of defects to ignore.

"It can find defects down to a pixel. I had to set it up and it's probably doing 70 percent of what it's capable of," he told the other apple growers during a tour.

"That last 30 percent would probably be gained if I sat here all day and tinkered with it."

He told the growers that the system is expensive but even one year of hail damage - with the additional grading and looking for defects would likely pay for it. "Two hail storms and we'd have our money back."

A "waterfall" shears off any leaves as they come into the system and each apple is spin polished and dried in a tunnel. The leaves must be removed before the apples get to the photo portion of the system or they will skew the color and defect sorting the machine does.

The Louis family toured a lot of facilities as they were trying to decide how to replace their fire-ravaged facilities. One of the things he's glad they did was put in a fabric-insulated ceiling that cuts down dramatically on the amount of noise generated inside the packing house.

They keep the building at a dehumidified 70 degrees, which helps the apples dry better, allows the stickers to be placed more efficiently on the fruit and "keeps the people happier," he said.

The new facility also includes a 30x60-foot cooler that they can use if they have short-term storage needs and a 60x60-foot cooler that is used for the bulk of the season.

Automatic bag closers are also part of the equipment as are systems designed so workers don't have to lift boxes of apples.


A fire that started in the Oakwood's compressor on Oct. 10, 2010 (10-10-10), not only destroyed the farm's facility but they also lost 40,000 bushels of apples that were being stored in the back as well as all their grading equipment.

"Everything was gone," says John Louis, Steve's dad.

The orchard was begun by John's grandfather on the aptly named Apple Ridge Road 10 miles from Richland Center, where many farms had orchards at that time, he says.

When he got involved in the business in 1955, the orchard expanded with the planting of semi-dwarf rootstock apple trees. For the past 20 years all the trees planted have been on dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstocks.

In addition to the orchard, the Louis family also built a thriving dairy farm, with some younger family members delving into embryo transfers, cattle exports and high-producing Holsteins. They now have 200 cows at their dairy, which is down the road from the orchard.

"When you go back to a lot of the orchards they were also dairy farms," says John Louis. "A lot of them have an old barn that they now use for selling their apples."

The farm family also includes Judy (Louis) Alvin and her husband Greg along with Steve's wife Jody.

When Steve was in college, he covered all the bases for the family's farm, says his dad, studying horticulture, dairy science and business.

It was the trees that kept the family in the orchard business, says the family partriarch, who is semi-retired with his wife Vonnie. "With all these acres of orchard and so many young trees we knew we had to rebuild."

The orchard includes 200 acres with 150 in production and the family has added improved varieties over the years including Fuji, Gala and Honeycrisp apples.

The new facility includes a bakery, which triples the size of the one that was in the old building and new retail space.

"We had to learn all over again how to set up our displays."

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