Door County Agriculture: The Krowas Orchard – A Century on the Land

Every fall about this time, I order a few bushels of seconds from the Krowas Orchard, and then for my son’s birthday, we make cider in my untended vintage orchard, turning the wheel on the manual apple crusher, ratcheting the hand press. We pretend the apples came from my orchard. The ambrosial brown musky cider we squeeze under the autumn sun is perfect to toast the birthday of my son, now a man.

Herbert Krowas purchased his farm just west of Kangaroo Lake in 1908 when he moved to Baileys Harbor from the Chicago area. He became a dairy farmer, but as his grandson Dan explained, “The soil wasn’t good enough to make crops, for the land to be productive enough for the cows to produce milk for a successful dairy farm.” After Herbert passed away, his son Charles in 1956 planted the first cherry trees on the land, giving birth to the Krowas Orchard.

When Charles Krowas wanted to retire in 1976, his son Dan and his new wife Cherie rented the orchard. In 1982 they bought the land from him and are the present owners of the orchard business.

Now Erich, Dan and Cherie Krowas’ eldest son, has purchased the house on the orchard land from his grandmother, becoming the fourth generation owner. He rents the home to his younger brother Andrew. “It was a big thing for her,” Dan Krowas said, speaking of his mother, “to know it would be staying in the family that much longer.

“If you talk to the boys,” he continued, “they plan to take over the orchard some day. They would like us to buy more land, but you know what it’s like to buy land in Door County these days!”

Technically the orchard could be registered as a Century Farm and display a plaque. “I’m more concerned that our family knows it’s been ours for that long,” he said.

Of the 100 acres that the Krowas’s own, 70 acres are presently in production: 60 in cherries; 7 in apples with a few pears; and 3 in plums and vegetables. The gardens produce pumpkins, potatoes, squash, and gourds for sale in the fall. The remaining acreage is woodland.

Dan Krowas grew up surrounded by an orchard. He was born two years before the first fruit trees were planted. “I remember always going out to the orchard,” he said.

After high school Krowas trained as a draftsman and worked a few years in Appleton, but he returned occasionally to help with the orchard, especially the cherry harvest. When his father was ready to retire, he decided to sell the orchard if Krowas didn’t want to take charge of it.

The draftsman became a fulltime orchard man.

“I like owning an orchard because you are your own boss,” he said. “You do things the way you want to.” He enjoys the cyclical aspect of the work, too. “Being in the orchard business is a lot easier than running a dairy farm,” he added. “You don’t have to be there every day year round to milk the cows. You can take a few days off, even though there are times during the year we can’t think of leaving!”

Cherie Krowas likes orchards, also. “I was fortunate that I could stay home with the kids when they were little,” she said, “and still work the business. They grew up being a part of it and learned responsibility.”

An orchard year starts with planting fruit trees at the end of April or first part of May, depending upon the weather. Trees are fertilized at this time. Spraying of fruit trees begins in early spring with fungicides and continues with insecticides for a total of 9 to 12 applications for apples, and five for cherries.

The cherry orchards are cultivated because Krowas doesn’t want the trees to compete with grass. The apple orchards are mowed for a “grass floor” to avoid contending with mud during the fall.

The cherry harvest usually takes place during the third week of July, with mechanical tree shakers and catching frames. Krowas belongs to the Northern Door Cherry Corporation, a processing plant, that “guarantees a home for your cherries,” he said.

The apple harvest begins the last week in September and ends the first week of November. Unlike the cherries, the apples are hand picked and sold at the orchard.

The four Krowas children (Kirsten is an interior architect; Erich, a machinist; Hillary, an accountant; and Andrew, a landscaper) help with the cherry and apple harvests. An additional hand is hired each year.

From the last weekend in September until the first weekend in November, Cherie Krowas handles sales in their apple barn, offering McIntosh, Cortland, Red Delicious, Honeycrisp, Honeygold, Gala, Macoun, and Sweet 16s. They also sell their own frozen cherries, along with fall vegetables.

In addition she sells cider. “We make our own,” Krowas said, “using a rack and cloth press.” After apples are put through an electric grinder, the mash is placed inside layers of a burlap-like cloth, making a “sandwich” over a grooved sheet of plastic. A hydraulic press squeezes the apple juice that is then refrigerated.

“We use a blend of apples,” Krowas said. But he won’t share the combination of apples. “We keep our recipe to ourselves! Some people tell us we have the best cider they’ve ever had.”

The orchard season ends in winter, a more leisurely time of year, with pruning the fruit trees, keeping machinery in repair, and construction. “You have to do everything yourself to make a decent living at it,” Krowas said.

Mother nature doesn’t always cooperate. “The cherry crop was the poorest we’ve ever seen,” he said. “We didn’t harvest this year.” A number of factors contributed to the crop failure. “I don’t think anyone had seen a drought like we had in the north end of the county last summer, at least within my working years.”

Another was the fluctuating temperature last January, warm temperatures one day and below zero the next, Krowas said. “The trees are like human beings, living tissue, and if they’re not healthy, they can’t fight disease and cold any different than we can.”

The apple harvest this fall will be good, he said, considering the dry spell we have now, “Better than last year.”

Apple tastes changes among consumers as years pass, he said. Once Granny Smith apples were in vogue. Now everyone asks for Honeycrisp.

“I hope to see the demand for cherries grow,” Krowas said, “because of the health benefits.” Studies sponsored by the Cherry Marketing Institute in Michigan are discovering that cherries are high in antioxidants, are good for the heart, as an anti-inflammatory agent for arthritis, and even for a sleep aid. “Everyone is more health conscious,” he continued, “and wants to live longer.”

Sometimes health conscious customers will ask for organic fruit. Cherie Krowas told of one woman requesting apples that hadn’t been sprayed. As it happened, Krowas had a couple of apples from some trees that hadn’t been treated as they were about to be retired from the orchard. When she showed the customer the gnarled fruit, the woman decided she preferred the commercial apples.

“I don’t know how you’d handle the fungus problem,” Dan Krowas said, speaking of certified organic orchards. He points out that commercial orchard sprays are now more environmentally friendly. Some of the newer ones, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, allow fruit to be safely harvested as early as the day after treatment. He also points out that sprays are used for specific purposes, and applied as sparingly as possible.

An apple a day should still keep the doctor away.

A visit to the Krowas Orchard in some respects is like traveling back in time to a simpler and more authentic Door County. Everything sold in the apple barn is grown and harvested on the land, and is offered for sale without fanfare. Not only the fruit trees have roots in this business.

The Krowas Orchard market, located at 7591 Logerquist Road, opens for business beginning the last weekend in September (9 am – 5 pm Monday through Saturday and 10 am – 5 pm Sundays) and closes the first weekend in November. For more information call 920.839.9022 or 920.823.2051.