by Sally Colby
Kuipers Family Farm started as a simple pumpkin patch, but it wasn’t long before the farm became much more than an autumn attraction.
Wade and Kim Kuipers moved their family to Maple Park, IL, in 1993 and purchased 16 acres. “Our kids were young at the time, and agritainment was just starting to become popular,” said Kim Kuipers. “We took our kids to local farms for pumpkin activities, but at the time it was mostly walking around among bales with pumpkins. There wasn’t a lot for kids to do.”
The Kuiperses realized children could learn a lot from a farm experience, and that became their motivation for growing pumpkins. “We started with the pumpkin farm,” said Kuipers, adding that that pumpkins were the only feature of the farm for several years. “In 2002, we were approached by the family who owned an apple orchard across the road to buy them out. We sold our construction company, bought the orchard and started running the apple orchard and pumpkin together in fall.”
Kuipers admitted they made plenty of mistakes as they took over the orchard and learned about growing apples, but other growers in the area were willing to provide guidance. They also gained valuable knowledge from Cooperative Extension and from Michigan growers.
“We bring apples from Michigan to supplement what we grow here,” said Kuipers, “and we’re putting in thousands of new trees every spring. The new plantings are high-density, which surprises people who still think about rows of large apple trees and ladders for picking fruit. It’s an opportunity to teach them more about production.”
Orchard favorites include Cortland, Gala, Golden Delicious and Honeycrisp. The Kuiperses have also added newer varieties such as Galarina, a mid-September apple, and Ludacrisp, a late variety that ripens at the same time as EverCrisp. Since many customers who come to the orchard for U-pick aren’t familiar with apple varieties, the Kuiperses came up with a solution.
“We have an apple sample bar with flavor descriptions,” said Kuipers. “On busy days, we have staff to help people choose the apples they want, and we’ll often have a dozen different varieties for people to choose from. We recommend they try different varieties before they go out to pick so they don’t fill their bag then come to a new variety and decide they want that. People can try different apples and learn which are best for baking, applesauce and fresh eating and when they leave, they have what they really like.”
One challenge with a U-pick orchard is customers who don’t understand that the apples aren’t all ready at the same time. Last year, Kuipers added a page to the farm website where customers can sign up to receive a text message when a variety they want is ready. “That has helped customers a lot,” she said, “and it has also helped us a lot. Every week I send out a text message informing people who have signed up for a particular apple variety that it’s time to pick.”
After adding additional land to the farm, the Kuiperses now have 230 acres and continue to improve their farm-themed activities. One popular addition has been sunflowers. “When the apple season kicks off it’s still pretty warm and people aren’t thinking about apples yet,” said Kuipers. “Sunflowers provide a nice transition for the season when people are still thinking ‘warm.’”
The first year they planted sunflowers, they put in quite a few different varieties to see which would perform well. The second year, they concentrated on varieties that they knew grew well, held up through the season and provided the best backdrop for photos. Plantings are staggered to ensure blooms throughout autumn.
As sunflower season ends, apples are starting to peak and the 25-acre pumpkin farm is open. Pumpkin options include popular large orange varieties as well as colorful novelties. Kuipers said many customers purchase pumpkins, gourds, squash, straw and cornstalks to decorate through Thanksgiving.
With admission, guests can select a pumpkin from the field, which Kuipers said has been a big hit. Farm-themed activities, an animal exhibit and play structures draw children and encourage learning.
“We open in mid-August for apple picking and that coincides with our sunflower festival,” said Kuipers, adding that 2022 will be the third year for the flower festival. “People can come out to pick sunflowers, which they like to share on Instagram, and many couples and families come out to take pictures in front of the flower fields.”
Since the sunflowers have been popular, the Kuiperses decided to initiate the Midwest Tulip Fest. “People want to come out to the farm and share their experience on social media,” said Kuipers. “Having tulips in spring is a great use of the infrastructure that’s already here and not being used during that season.” The Kuiperses visited tulip festivals on farms in Michigan and Seattle to see how those were operated and were impressed by visitors’ reactions.
The Kuiperses hired a company to provide guidance on tulip varieties and colors as well as planting assistance. Last autumn, they planted 300,000 bulbs on five acres. “They’re planted in a design with different colors throughout the design,” said Kuipers. “It will be visually stunning after a long winter and should provide some great photo opportunities. There are quite a few varieties for different colors as well as timing. We expect the festival to last about three weeks but we will always have flowers of different colors in bloom.” The bloom time for tulips is more difficult to predict than for sunflowers, and the Kuiperses anticipate that cooler than average temperatures in mid-April will delay bloom.
Kuipers said cross-promoting various crops and activities has helped draw customers to the farm at different times of the year. “We’re going to make sure that when they’re at the tulip festival, they know they can come back this fall for pumpkins, apples and sunflowers,” she said. “People who are drawn to sunflowers are likely to visit for tulips.”
The couple’s sons, Will and Joe, have returned to the farm, each bringing new perspective to several aspects of the business. Will attended Southwest Michigan University where he studied tree fruit production, and Joe is currently in college studying business. Today, Will serves as the orchard manager and Joe oversees general farm operations. “Wade and I are really happy to have them on board,” said Kuipers. “We wear a lot of different hats, and it’s been nice as they take on more of the operation.”
Visit Kuipers Family Farm online at kuipersfamilyfarm.com.