LARRY KAPP, APPLE PICKER & BREAD BAKER

Larry picked apples for twenty years before going to Tech school. He used to pick 140 bushels of apples in a day, that’s how quick he was. His fingernails tell the world that he’s known physical labor, and his sourdough bread says he knows what he’s doing in the kitchen.

Larry picked apples for twenty years before going to Tech school. He used to pick 180 bushels of apples in a day, that’s how quick he was. His fingernails tell the world that he’s known physical labor, and his sourdough bread says he knows what he’s doing in the kitchen.

I got my start in the food industry from an ad in Mother Earth News. There was a section called “Position and Situations,” and after high school, I saw this ad for apple picking in southwest Wisconsin, in Gays Mills. When I was in high school in a suburb of Chicago, I learned how to garden from my neighbor. He was into growing things organically. I like nature, and I wanted to get away from the city, be in more natural surroundings. So I wound up picking apples.

Oh, apple picking was really fun. When I first started, they put me in the old-timer crew, and those guys worked by the hour. All the others, they worked by the bushel, but these guys got paid by the hour. So they weren’t in any hurry. So they’d tell stories about the old days, and it was fun to listen to them.

It wasn’t this menial job. It was one of the biggest employers around, and for a while it was one of the few jobs you could get, so almost everyone had experience with it. So people knew how important it was to the economy, and they understood what you were doing. You started in late summer, and worked through October. The last two or three weeks the company offered a 10 cent a bushel bonus. When it was 32 degrees and freezing rain, and you were mostly doing clean up, who would’ve stayed around if there hadn’t have been a bonus? Those extra few hundred dollars were a good incentive to stick around until the end. They “got you by the bonus,” we used to say. 

Before, they would plunk you down between four trees and give you these big bins. And you could be there for a long time just in that area. So the skill was putting your ladder in the right place to pick the most bushels and make good ladder sets without having to move it. That was the difference between a really efficient picker and someone who was new to picking.

There weren’t a whole lot of women pickers when I started. I think because it was so hard physically; the ladders we carried were 16 feet tall and really heavy. But that changed some when the trees got smaller. Now you only need an 8-foot ladder to pick, and they plant so close together everyone picks rows and rows. Before you had your own tree, and it was more mellow out there. It was pretty quiet until you called the tractor over to replace your picking bins or something. But now it’s noisy, and there’s tractor fumes because you have to move from different trees so much. Sure, you can pick more fruit because there’s not as much ladder work, but it’s harder on your back too. Having 40-50 pounds of apples around your waist gets pretty heavy, especially when you’re bending down more because fruit is lower down.

I picked apples for 20 years. My minimum was 60 bushels a day. But back when I was a super picker, I could do 60 bushels in my sleep. I could 120, 140 bushels a day when there was a good crop. My best year I picked 7,500 apples. I would pick through lunch, and I worked really hard. There was some competition between us workers.

Calendar from Sept 1993 showing how many bushels Larry picked
Calendar from Sept 1993 showing how many bushels Larry picked

You would pace yourself against somebody else, and that made the day go by quicker. The company was lucky they had a dedicated, experienced crew to come back every year.

Sometimes I would look at my social security deposits, and I would see a year where I made less and I would say, oh yeah, that was when the crop was really bad. I only made $4,000 a year. Sometimes I would get a little unemployment but I lived on four- to six-thousand a year. When you’re poor, like apples pickers are, you could always find somewhere cheap to live. I would live in an abandoned school bus on someone’s land. There was no plumbing or electricity, but I didn’t care about that.

Living like that, you had time to learn skills. I only picked apples for three months of the year. The other nine I would help out on some small vegetable farms and volunteer at the food co-op in town. And I had time to live the good life. I read books, just hung around, traveled.

Someone had started a wholegrain bakery in the back room of the food co-op. So I took it over when the woman was pregnant. She showed me how she did it, but I developed my own recipes. Did I have any formal training? (Scoffs.) I learned on the fly.

It was so efficient, you were in constant motion. I added one thing to my bread that made a huge difference in the quality. Before the bread was kind of crumbly and dry, but I made a small change and it made a huge difference. I’d be doing one batch, and getting the next batch going, and working until the last minute. That was fun.

The building we were in, the heating wasn’t very good. It would never pass codes these days. You’d have to leave the faucet dripping so it wouldn’t freeze over. When I came in in the mornings in the winter, you’d try to put a spoon in the five-gallon bucket of malt, and it would be so stiff.

I had one employee working for me. She worked really hard. She would always try to sneak sugar into the pastries if I was gone. I was pretty much a purist—I didn’t put any sugar in my bread. When I took her bread to market and after she’d say, “Well, how did they sell?” And if I said we sold out, she’d say, “See, that’s what the people want!” But I don’t think you need white flour, white sugar—just whole grain.

I used to go down to the spring and get water right from the source for my sourdough bread, and it was so fresh, so pure. But they wouldn’t let you do that anymore. So I think people do a pretty good job with food, but there’s some things that people do that aren’t sustainable. Some things are over-hyped or that people just don’t realize about food.

After my big bakes on Friday, with 80 or 100 loaves of bread in my Ford Sedan, I would load up to go to the farmer’s market. Back then, you just showed up found a spot; there’s not all these permits and waiting lists like there are now. I would have to get up at three in the morning to drive to Madison. The smell of bread in the car almost made you nauseous. It was too early in the morning for that smell. That was probably not the most fun part of the job. But hey, I was young.

People liked my bread. I would add extra ingredients to the base for different kinds. Sunflower seeds, herbs, millet. One time, I overheard this woman saying, “You know who makes the best bread? Larry Kapp made the best sourdough bread I’ve ever had.” She didn’t know I was in the room. That was pretty nice. (Smiles.) You’re creating something that makes people feel good. I guess that’s pretty rewarding. 

When people eat something I make, I just hope it makes them feel good. That when they eat it, it warms them up and they feel like they just ate something nutritious. This one bakery in Duluth, one of the ingredients on their label is love. And that’s true, if you’re in a bad mood and just slopping everything together, your product wouldn’t be as good. I like to teach people to make sourdough bread. It’s a craft, but it’s so simple too.

My career at Wheatheart Bakery ended after a summer, when the coop burned down. The funny thing was that my next two bakes would have finally paid me back for all my labor for the summer. I always invested my pay in the bread, and I had just bought 500 pounds of flour. And then the coop burned down. Oh well, I just went up to the orchard and asked if I could start working again.

Why did I leave the apple orchard? Well, I traveled around a little, and I went to California and saw a lot of homeless people on the streets. And I realized I was getting older and I thought, what if there was no apple crop and I couldn’t make any money? I could be living on the streets too. So I decided to go to tech school, and I picked out HVAC, which is what I do now. I work for UW-Madison doing heating and air stuff. I’ve always been a handyman; I like to tinker with things.

In a real job, you have to be careful with what you say. Where you could maybe talk freely with the guys picking apples, here you have to watch your language. And it’s more civilized, in a way. You know, there it’s a smaller group of people but here there’s a wide diversity of people. But you get benefits too. So they’re both okay in their own ways. One was hard work, and here, well… When you’ve done that hard physical labor outside and then you come here and think to yourself, I know real hard work.

I might retire soon, and then I was thinking about what would I do. I might get a job picking apples, or working with a truck garden all day, doing their maintenance. That wouldn’t bother me at all.

Do I see myself getting back into the food industry? I don’t feel like I’ve left it! I still garden and bake and I share my food with my coworkers. I shop at food coops, and I have a lot of friends who truck garden. I’m still surrounded by it all the time. I understand all the labor that goes into making food. The people harvesting it, packing it, shipping it, and the cooks preparing it. Food has always been an important part of my life. It’s just not my occupation. It’s not where I get my money.

Larry with his home by the apple orchard
Larry with his home by the apple orchard

–Liz Schnee