MEQUON — No one has grown fruit in the state of Wisconsin longer than the Barthel family.
That’s because the Barthels began planting seeds — literally and figuratively — for their rich agricultural history back in 1839, nine years before Wisconsin officially became a state.
But Bob Barthel, the fourth-generation owner of Barthel Fruit Farm, said it’s not merely the family’s 178-year tradition that keeps customers coming back.
“With us, the key thing is we focus on fruit quality,” Barthel said. “People like fruit that’s healthy and tastes good. That’s very important to us, because we choose farming methods that are environmentally sound, safe for employees and customers, and are practical and economical. And everything adds up to apples and fruit that taste great and are healthy.”
Mouthwatering apples are the cornerstone of Barthel Fruit Farm, which spans 100 acres in rural Mequon, in the southern part of Ozaukee County. About 24,000 apple trees (of 20 varieties) cover 25 acres and are expected to produce about 1.2 million pounds of apples this year. Much of the remaining acreage is set aside for growing pears, pumpkins, strawberries, cherries, sugar snap peas, plums and asparagus.
Among the many loyal customers is Bob Strzelczyk of the nearby town of Cedarburg. Nearly every harvest season for the past four decades, Strzelczyk visits the farm with his wife, Mary Jo, in search of apples and cider; their children carry on the tradition as well.
“I think I’ve tried just about every variety of apple they have,” he said. “And, oh my gosh, they taste so good. I take a bushel with me for my friends every time I go hunting in Montana, and everybody rants and raves and wishes they lived here so they could get more. I absolutely love the apples they grow.”
Barthel operates the fruit farm in close coordination with his longtime business/life partner Nino Ridgway, who also owns Herbs & Everlastings, an on-site business that sells herbs, annuals, perennials, vegetable plants and succulents.
Ridgway’s years of expertise help protect the farm’s crops from insect and disease problems. She earned a doctorate from UW-Madison in entomology and is a regional expert in using biological controls on apple insect pests.
“Everybody wants to buy produce that’s clean and doesn’t have insects or scars on it,” Ridgway said. “And everybody wants to buy a product that doesn’t have pesticide residue. There’s a balancing act there, so we do everything we can to make people happy.”
Barthel Fruit Farm relies on an integrated pest management program initiated by Barthel in the early 1980s. By using state-of-the-art systems for monitoring insect activity, weather and early warning signs of disease — and using pesticides only when necessary (thus resulting in 70 percent less usage) — apple growers using IPM can save money, minimize crop losses and reduce environmental risks.
The entire process is light years ahead of the methods employed by Barthel’s great-grandfather August Barthel, who arrived here from the German region of Pomerania in 1839. He raised dairy cattle and began an orchard.
In 1907, Barthel’s grandfather, Joseph Barthel, purchased a farm next to the homestead and planted another orchard, averaging 16 apple trees per acre. He produced dairy products and fruit until 1956, at which time Barthel’s father and mother, Armin and Nora Barthel, eliminated the dairy business and expanded the fruit focus by growing 200 apple trees per acre.
Bob Barthel, the youngest of seven siblings, was an environmental science/biology student at UW-Green Bay in the late 1970s. But “I was spending way too much time inside in the labs and not outside, and I couldn’t stand it,” he said. So in 1978, at the age of 22, he returned to the land on which he was born and purchased the family farm.
“My biggest misconception right away was that I wouldn’t have to work as hard as my dad did. But I quickly learned that you don’t own a farm .. the farm owns you,” said Barthel, who logs about 100 hours per week during peak season.
In addition to adding pumpkins, asparagus and a cider mill not long after buying the farm, Barthel has expanded the apple operation to its current 3,000 trees per acre. The most popular variety is Honeycrisp (11,000 trees total), which he started planting in 1994; that variety ripens in late September and draws several thousand customers to the farm.
Barthel has steadily been growing apple trees closer together, thus maximizing the acreage. This year he planted them 30 inches apart.
“Because we can’t have big branches, we work intensively to grow short little branches,” he said. “We used almost 50,000 clothespins this year for the branches. And we used little plastic bags as mini greenhouses on the apples. We position the branches with wire. ... The trees basically become a solid hedge row because they’re so dense.”
A driving force behind the labor-intensive efforts are farm managers Jeff and Sue Knudsen, a husband-and-wife duo who live on the property. Jeff is a native of Vermont, while Sue began working on the farm as a young girl. In addition to their farm responsibilities, the Knudsens own Barthel Bakery, another popular on-site business.
Barthel Fruit Farm employs another 20 to 30 seasonal helpers, primarily comprised of retired/semi-retired personnel.
“It’s my job to determine when the crew should start picking apples,” Barthel said. “So I’m constantly eating apples — 20, 25 of them a day. It just all depends on flavor, because that’s what continues to drive this business.”
If you go
What: Barthel Fruit Farm.
Where: 12246 N. Farmdale Road, Mequon.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Information: 262-242-2737 or www.barthelfruitfarm.com.