story by Laura Broullire photos by Heidi Hodges
4594 County HH
Door’s Fleurs and Orchard
2337 Brussels Road
2122 Green Road
Hyline Orchard Farm Market
8240 Highway 42
Koepsel’s Farm Marketf
9669 Highway 57
Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market
9197 Highway 42
Schartner’s Farm Market
6476 Highway 42
Seaquist Orchards Farm Market
11482 Highway 42
292 County Road S
Wood Orchard Market
8112 Highway 42
But for the orchard owners of Door County, fruit is a fact of life—the lifeblood of their family enterprise. And the stories that surround the growing and harvesting of their crops are the stories of their heritage—stories that run as deep and strong in their history as the roots that anchor their trees to the land.
Seaquist Orchard Farm Market
The first and last name in Door County cherries is Seaquist Orchards. With more than 1,000 acres of cherry trees, the family-run farm produces more than half of all the cherries grown in Wisconsin, says 83-year-old patriarch Dale Seaquist. “The farm is the basis of the whole thing,” says the fourth-generation farmer who grows tart Montmorency cherries, some sweet cherries, apples and pears. But their operation extends far beyond the rows of fruit trees.
Their homestead north of Sister Bay also includes a production building where roughly 80 food products are made—including many of their own syrups, jams, pie fillings and salsas that are sold at the adjacent farm market, says retail manager Kristin Seaquist, Dale’s wife. The family also owns Seaquist Processing Plant in Egg Harbor.
Managing all four entities “is kind of a balancing act,” Dale Seaquist says. Thankfully there are 14 members of the Seaquist family who work in harmony to keep all components of the family operation running smoothly. “God has taken good care of us,” Dale says.
In addition to challenges with the weather, hungry birds and curious deer, he says the Seaquist farm was hit by vandalism four years ago when more than 600 young cherry trees were cut down seemingly at random. No arrests were made, he says, but the family was able to rebound thanks to a lot of hard work. “I’ll never run out of work,” he adds. “Might run out of money, but I’ll never run out of work.”
It’s that work ethic that’s helped the Seaquist farm grow by leaps and bounds since Dale’s great-grandfather Anders Seaquist planted his first cherry trees in Door County more than 100 years ago. And it’s their multi-generational tie to the region that the owners want to share with customers.
“It’s a great story,” Kristin says. “People want to know about our family. And we want to tell our story better,” through printed literature as well as family photos displayed around the farm market.
Keeping one foot rooted in tradition while looking to the future is also the goal of bakery manager Laura Seaquist McMahon. Dale and Kristin’s daughter, who’s hoping to add another kitchen, has started accepting wedding cake orders in addition to the already lengthy list of items made in-house. And while she’s experimenting with vegan and gluten-free products, some recipes will never change.
“We still make all of our pies from scratch,” says McMahon. “And we’ll always use root beer in our Swedish limpa bread because Grandma Seaquist used root beer in her limpa bread.” She adds: “I think that’s what sets us apart.”
“We want to give customers a really nice time,” says Kristin Seaquist. “We are a part of many people’s trip to Door County. And we want them to feel like they are a part of our family.”
Door County is the fourth-largest cherry-producing area in the United States. But back in its heyday, it was Number 1—and the number of “pickers” it took to harvest all those cherries turned fruit farms into their own little cities, says Debbie Musil, manager of Choice Orchards near Sturgeon Bay. “They even had their own post office.”
Choice Orchards, owned by Dan and Carol Wergin, was established in 1984. But Musil says the land has grown fruit for more than a century, and evidence of its historic past can be found at the on-site Orchard Museum. She says the area was formerly owned by the Martin and Reynolds families and, at one point, held hundreds of the “picker shacks” that housed migrant workers during the busy harvesting season.
Musil says, “Today the children and grandchildren of the workers come back to see the shack and the land where they worked”—a big reason why Choice Orchards calls itself “the place where cherries and history meet.”
Another chapter of the land’s history was written during World War II, when thousands of Prisoners of War (POWs) were brought to help with the harvest at Martin, Reynolds and other area orchards. “They were paid 50 cents an hour,” Musil says, adding that the government kept 40 cents of that wage. So the POWs—about 2,100 of which were German—each received less than $1 for a full day’s labor, Musil says.
Today, the cherries are harvested by machine. And of the orchard’s 200 acres, Musil says about 90 percent is planted for Montmorency, Balaton or sweet cherries. The other 10 percent grows about 20 varieties of apples. She says she’s looking forward to the pick-your-own apple season, which runs from early September through late October.
Wood Orchard Market
As second-generation orchard owners, Steve and Janice Wood have spent decades expanding and improving upon Wood Orchard near Egg Harbor. The farmland Steve’s parents established in 1955 now consists of 200 acres of apples, strawberries, raspberries and cherries. They’ve also expanded the Wood Orchard Market—which had its humble beginnings as a roadside stand in 1996—to the vast, full-service market it is today.
With an eye on retirement, the Woods sought to recruit help. While their son, Jeff, helps Steve in the orchard, Janice “wasn’t able to take a day off,” she recalls. And with the market growing to include home décor, gifts, a children’s section, a bakery and a fudge counter, Janice says she found it impossible to get away. “By October, I was exhausted,” she says. “We needed managers that had our same work ethic.”
Enter Mark and Crista Kochanski. A native of Door County, Crista was looking to relocate her family from the Milwaukee area. “I grew up in a family business,” she says. “I wanted that same sort of work/life balance for my family.” She says “the stars aligned” when they heard about the partnership opportunity with the Woods. “This was the place we always came to with our three kids,” Crista says. “I love it here.”
While the younger couple is busy learning the ropes, Steve and Jeff Wood are planting new trees and embracing their role as the only Wisconsin growers with the coveted SweeTango apple. A cross between the popular Honeycrisp and Zestar varieties, “It has some of the characteristics of the Honeycrisp but is ready earlier in the growing season, like the Zestar,” says Steve Wood.
It’s a sweet-yet-tart apple that Wood Orchard Market is proud to share with customers, Janice says. “We have people who stop on their way in to Door County and again on their way home,” she says. “It’s the people who make our business.”
And it’s those people the Kochanskis say they can’t wait to meet. “We look forward to leaving our mark,” Crista says, “whatever that might be.”
Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery & Market
The big red barn at the heart of Lautenbach’s Orchard Country wasn’t always a place to make wine. “I milked cows in that barn,” says patriarch Bob Lautenbach, who grew up on the homestead near Fish Creek. Then one day, he says, the cows made their escape. “They found their way to some fancy homes and raised havoc,” he recalls. “That’s when we got rid of the cows.”
So instead of dairy products, Lautenbach’s has become synonymous with wines. The family-owned land has been producing fruit since 1955, he says. “We had some tart cherry orchards that did pretty well,” Lautenbach recalls. “Then we expanded into some grapes and some sweet cherries.” To sell the fruit, they established a one-room market in 1975. With that enterprise thriving, Lautenbach says his family branched out into winemaking a decade later. “It was a challenge as we learned how to grow the cold-hardy grapes. But we didn’t give up, and now we make some really good wine.”
Customers of Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery would argue they make several really good wines—more than 30 award-winning varieties from reds to whites, fruit blends to sparkling. “We always wanted this to be a unique experience,” says Bob’s daughter Carrie Lautenbach-Viste, director of marketing and production. “We grow it. We process it. We bottle it.”
While the Lautenbach family wine business has expanded to include some drier and more full-bodied wines, Lautenbach-Viste says she’s thrilled that the fruit wine industry has evolved as well. “It’s no longer taboo to enjoy a sweet wine,” she says. “If it’s locally grown and locally made, that’s what a lot of people are looking for. It’s like taking home a piece of Door County with you.”
Her sister, Erin Lautenbach, director of finance and sales, agrees. “We make some really good dry wines,” she says, “but we have customers come in and ask for Moscato.”
“That’s what people want when they come on vacation,” adds Lautenbach-Viste. “They are looking for something to enjoy on a picnic or on a boat.” And Door County visitors have responded in droves.
Their full-time winemaker of several decades, Jim Bowers gets much of the credit for the winery’s success. But Bob Lautenbach is quick to credit his daughters with maintaining a laid-back, family-friendly vibe throughout their expansion and great success.
“It’s all about family here,” says Lautenbach, who’s named an estate-grown wine after each of his four grandchildren. He says he’d love to see his family expand even as he adds a few new varieties of grapes, some new apples to the pick-your-own orchard and possibly some hard ciders to the menu. But their main focus, he says, is to continue to “do a good job with what we’re doing now.”
The market, Erin Lautenbach adds, has grown dramatically in recent years to include a tasting room and a wide range of gifts and food products, including pie fillings, preserves and syrups. “We’re going to focus on what we’re doing,” she says, “and do it well.”