Wafler Farms

Dec 2, 2021
Wafler Farms: family, fruit, nursery

(This is the final installment in a series of stories focusing on the 60th anniversary of Fruit Growers News.)

Great Lakes Fruit Growers News, the forerunner of Fruit Growers News, was regionally-focused during its early years, before later expanding its reach to a national (and even international) audience.

In this article from the May 1995 issue of GL Fruit Growers News, it was clear that New York state was no stranger to the concepts of family-run fruit farms and family-run nursery operations.

Wafler Farms, not being content to operate as simply one or the other, carries the concept one step further and successfully combines both of these operations into one enterprise.

A native of Switzerland, Fritz Wafler came to Wolcott, New York, by way of California. He and his wife, Lois, bought the farm, now known as Wafler Farms, in 1959. It is in a fruit- growing area near Lake Ontario, about one hour east of Rochester.

At the time of the purchase, the farm was a run-down fruit farm. Mr. and Mrs. Wafler, along with daughter Kathy Wafler Madison, son, Paul, and daughter-in-law, Sue, have developed a working unit that has enabled the original fruit farm of 1959 to evolve into the quality fruit and vegetable farm and nursery of today.

“These operations work very well together, with one acting as insurance for the other in an off year,” said Ms. Madison.

Mr. Wafler started growing trees in the early sixties for his own orchards. He was self-taught and did a quantity of reading on fruit growing, new rootstocks and varieties at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. The research staff at NYSAES came to know and respect Mr. Wafler through his frequent visits on bad weather days.

Neighbors quickly recognized the high quality of trees Mr. Wafler was growing and began asking him to grow trees for them. Wafler Farms was selling a few trees commercially by the mid 1960’s.

Mr. Wafler’s three children, Kathy, Walter (now an engineer) and Paul began working in the nursery after school and summers. By 13 years of age all were proficient budders. During sprouting season, each had to do one row after school. If even one bud was broken off, the penalty was to do another complete row. Ms. Madison remembered, “This was a terrible thought for us as kids.”

Ms. Madison is a 1981 graduate of Cornell University, majoring in general plant science. Her brother Paul studied agricultural engineering at Morrisville and graduated in 1984.

The structure of the organization changed somewhat after Ms. Madison and her brother Paul finished college and joined their parents in Wafler Farms.

Up to that time, Mr. Wafler was busy managing all the nursery, fruit and vegetable operations, while Mrs. Wafler did the bookkeeping and other office work.

Today (in 1995) the nursery operation produces 200,000 trees per year. The major portion of this production is in apples, with a small percentage of cherries. The nursery produces most of its apples on M9, M26 and interstem.

“Interstem is our specialty,” Ms. Madison said. “We are also quite successful growing one-year trees from bench grafts. These one-year trees produce a good-quality, economical whip.”

She supervised Wafler Farms’ nursery crew until daughter Elizabeth was born four years ago. Ms. Madison’s day-to-day schedule is more involved with tree sales these days.

Ms. Madison is also vice president of the New York State Horticultural Society and serves on the board of directors of the New York State Fruit Tree Testing Association.

In 1991, Wafler Farms added extra help. This allowed Mrs. Wafler to cut back quite a bit. However, she is still somewhat involved in the office, as well as errand running and baby-sitting. Sister-in-law, Sue Wafler, has recently joined Ms. Madison in the office.

Ms. Madison credits Bill Pitts, nursery supervisor, with great capability in overseeing the nursery and the storage. Pitts has been with Wafler Farms for the past 16 years. He is well known by local growers who pick up their trees at the farm.

Current operators of Wafler Farms include Paul, Susan and Kyle Wafler, shown during a 2019 International Fruit Tree Association tour near Wolcott, New York. Paul Wafler was named 2019 Grower of the Year by the International Fruit Tree Association. Photo: Stephen Kloosterman

Fruit production, vegetable crops and all machinery are under the care of Paul Wafler. The farm has approximately 200 acres of apples, as well as tart cherries, processing peas and wheat. Paul has gradually taken over most of the farm management. He has overseen the change from a processing semi-dwarf apple farm to a fully-dwarf orchard geared toward fresh fruit production. The apple production is about 75% fresh and 25% processing.

Paul’s special love is designing and building specialized equipment for the orchard and nursery. He has combined a mower and sprayer to reduce labor cost as well as travel time in the orchard. The nursery digger, tree topper and bin trailers in the orchard are all custom designed. Paul is vice president of Lake Country Storage Cooperative, a local fruit storage cooperative of 11 growers. He is past director of Western New York Apple Growers.

The degree of involvement by his daughter and son has allowed Mr. Wafler to spend more time with projects of special interest to him. He works with research projects in orchards and nurseries and organizes European orchard tours. Mr. Wafler maintains his enthusiasm for the newest ideas, technologies, varieties and rootstocks and travels the world in order to further this interest. He is a director of the International Dwarf Fruit Tree Association.

Although Wafler Farms is now under the supervision of the second generation, all family members are involved in major decision-making. With this spirit of cooperation, and interaction, it is easy to understand the reasons for the ongoing success shown by this family-owned and -operated fruit farm and nursery operation.

— Gary Pullano, editor; Photo at top: Taking a moment between jobs at Wafler Family Farms in Wolcott, New York, are, from left, Fritz Wafler, Bill Pitts, Paul Wafler and Kathy Wafler Madison.


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