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Letting go of a legacy: Kappus family facing tough decision, down the road, about Triple Oak Farms

You may never have driven by or walked along the 500 acres of land in the Town of Eden farmed by the Kappus family.

But there, you’ll find a story: A story of hard work, chronic hope and tough choices – the daily bread of farmers everywhere, always.

It’s also a story of inheritance.

Of what it means to hold on to the past – and how it feels to let go.

If you have ever paused in the act of relinquishing something you truly love – something you thought you could never live without – then you know this feeling.

Ken and John Kappus, brothers born 11 years apart – and the third generation of Kappuses to work this century-old dairy farm – are weighing hard decisions these days about their future.

They know the parts of farming they love. The clean-lined look of their red barns on a sunny morning. The smells of oats and hay. The sight of newborn calves, still slicked wet with fluids from birth, wobbly. The feeling of well-worked muscles at the end of a 14-hour day.

But they also know this: They cannot farm forever.

Ken Kappus is 66, John 55. They work in a business that takes a toll on the body far out of proportion to one’s years.

“We’ve dedicated our whole life to it,” said John Kappus.

Together, the Kappuses have built Triple Oak Farms into a spread – replete with modern equipment, outbuildings, cows with good bloodlines – that their father and grandfather might not recognize today.

Along the way, they have invested themselves in this soil, these animals, this way of life.

The Kappuses have families and children. None of their family members, the brothers said, want to or are able to run the farm at this time.

That puts the brothers in a situation familiar to other farmers of their generation across the country.

“The difficulty is, the age of farmers,” said Paul K. Conkin, a farming expert and author who lives in Nashville, Tenn. “There aren’t as many young people coming into farming.”

Now, Ken and John Kappus face a turning point in which they must decide whether – and when – to put the farm into new hands, or change it drastically, or even let it go out of business.

The day on which they will decide that fate might not be this week, or even this year.

But it’s coming.

In the meantime, the Kappuses know what it’s like to live with a legacy – and prepare to set it free.

Which means they also know what it’s like to ask the hardest question of all:

How do you know when to let go?


Chapter One Afternoon on the farm

Four o’clock on a gray-skied summer afternoon and, in the distance, thunder rumbled.

“I’ll be right back!” shouted Ken, a thin, wiry figure in worn overalls, scrambling into the seat of a blue Ford tractor.

The machine churned out into the barnyard, then made a left and picked up speed down Shadagee Road. For a moment, the farm fell quiet.

The brothers’ dog, an ancient mutt with a shaggy red coat, trotted up. An American flag on a pole in front of the main milking barn flapped in a cursory way as the breeze grew stronger.

Rain was coming.

On a farm, especially a family-run dairy like Triple Oak, that means a lot must be done in a sudden, pressing hurry.

Ken and John had been working at a hay field down the road, baling hay and straw since 11:30 in the morning, in advance of the foul weather. Now, the pair hustled to bring back the last loads with a tractor wagon, so the bales could be put under shelter before the rain hit.

“It’s 4:28,” John noted at one point, matter-of-factly. He was measuring how much could be done before the evening milking, which starts at around 5 p.m. on the Kappus farm.

“We don’t need him,” replied the farm’s hired man, Ron Cork, gesturing at Ken. “He can milk.”

John shrugged, then smiled.

One last tractor-load held some 50 bales of hay and straw, weighing 50 or 60 pounds apiece. This week alone, the farm had put up about 1,500 bales of hay, third-cut alfalfa and orchard grass, not counting hundreds of bales of straw. The baler is one the brothers bought six or seven years ago. It was used, John said.

“Everything we buy, we buy used,” he said. “It’s like buying a car. The guy who buys it first takes the biggest hit.”

The men unloaded the wagon. With John directing the effort – his eyes sharp behind wire-framed glasses, under the brim of his habitual baseball cap – they finished a minute or two before milking. The air smelled sweet, like grass clippings; tiny fragments of hay floated through the air.

“Hay can be a pain when it gets wet,” John said. “Straw you can dry out. Hay never really dries out.”

Despite the rain, the brothers felt satisfied about the day, which had started at around 6 a.m. with the morning milking and would continue into the evening. On top of haying, the Kappuses had culled a 1,500-pound heifer from the herd, Cork said, sending her to auction. The animal had stepped on a teat, said Cork, making her unfit for the herd. This week, the brothers and Cork had also put 1,700 to 1,800 bushels of oats into storage in one of the barns.

In farming, this might be as good as it gets. Jobs done on time. Forward momentum. Weather – for the moment – holding off.

“We didn’t expect to get this much done today,” John said, looking satisfied.

Things had gone so well that the brothers even had a chance of getting home in time to see their families before bed. That doesn’t happen every day. For John, who has a 9-year-old daughter, that can be difficult.

“We had that little window of time today,” John said.

Today at Triple Oak Farms, as is often the case in farming, timing was everything. Sometimes it works with you. Other times it seems to be against you.

And sometimes, it just adds up. Until you don’t know quite what to do with it.


Chapter Two: A long history

Members of the Kappus family might have done a lot of things when they immigrated from Germany to Western New York in the 1800s. They chose to settle in Eden and farm.

“There were three brothers who bought this block of land,” said Ken, who has lived his whole life within the same few miles in Eden.

Farming in the first two generations of the Kappus family was a more generalized pursuit. The first two generations to work the land along Shadagee Road raised chickens, pigs, cows, various crops – a smattering of all sorts of agricultural products.

“They used to sell the eggs and stuff to the people along the lake, the rich people,” said Ken.

The first John Kappus to work the land was the present-day John’s grandfather. The brothers’ father, also John, worked the farm, too.

Ethel Kappus, 89, the mother of Ken and John, said her husband never thought seriously about any other sort of life. After marrying John Kappus II at 21, she helped by caring for the farm’s chickens and selling the eggs, peddling them from the family car in Lake View.

“There’s a lot of work down there,” said Ethel, gesturing toward the farm property from the antique-filled living room of her home in Eden, which is not far from where she lived with her husband. “I don’t know how they did it.”

In 1981, Ken and John III – they have one other brother, who is not involved in the farm – took over the Eden farm from their father, who was then in his 60s. Their father died in 2001, at 83.

The farm – named Triple Oak decades ago for the three enormous oak trees that lined a main driveway – had a little more than 60 cows at the time they took it over, and it totaled some 75 acres.

“He was a commercial dairy,” said John. “Just get the milk check, and that’s it.”

When they purchased the farm from their father, Ken and John intended to change the way it operated.

And that is what they have done over the past 30 years.

Today, the general-purpose spread that the Kappus grandparents oversaw is solely a dairy. The farm has some 150 milking cows and roughly the same number of younger stock, the brothers said. Milk is picked up every day from the farm’s milking barn. The brothers produce hay and straw and corn – the fuel that feeds and beds down their herd. They oversee about 500 acres of farmland, both rented and owned properties.

Their father, a quiet man, is missed but hardly forgotten. When you grow up on a farm and take it over as an adult, the Kappuses know, you think of the generations that went before you all the time. Their past lives surround you; their imprints are everywhere. In the old granary that sits behind one of the barns, partially hidden by weeds. In the foundation of the old farmhouse, which was torn down years ago. In the Ford 7600 tractor, purchased new in 1976, the year John Kappus III graduated from high school.

“That’s the only kind of tractor my father would ever buy,” recalled John.

Even so, much was unsaid in this family, as in others.

“Somebody told us, ‘You would never believe how proud your father was of you, for taking over that farm,’ ” John said reflectively. “He never told us to our face.”


Chapter Three: A larger picture

The path traced by the Kappus farm over three generations is in some ways a mirror of the changes in American farming.

Many farms get passed from one farmer to another within the same family, over the years, observers said.

But that has never been a guarantee. And in the 21st century, it is perhaps less of one than ever.

“Every year, the number of full-time family farmers has been going down across the country,” said Conkin, a retired college professor who taught at Vanderbilt University and the author of “A Revolution Down on the Farm: The Transformation of American Agriculture since 1929.”

The reasons for that change are varied. Some of it is as simple as personal taste. Not everybody can make a living by farming or wants to try.

“That personality that’s going to make a farmer doesn’t always get passed down in the genes,” said Tim Bigham, area field supervisor for the New York Farm Bureau for the past 22 years. “Or, it doesn’t get passed down to everyone.”

In Eden, a town that was built by farmers, that’s as true as anywhere else.

“It can come down to those human elements,” said Glenn Nellis, an Eden native who has been town supervisor for 16 years and who worked on a farm growing up. “I’ve seen that happen.

“Or it happens that there is just no interest in the next generation.”

That’s where the Kappus family was luckier than some.

As Triple Oak Farms passed down through three generations – and over a century – it grew larger and more ambitious. The farm expanded with new buildings, increased numbers of livestock and modern equipment. Most of that has happened in the past several decades.

“Those two kids, they have put a lot of money into that farm. And a lot of hard work,” said Ethel Kappus, of her sons.

The farm also became more specialized and more scientific. It was on the brothers’ watch that the farm moved to breeding registered Holsteins. Ken is now quite the student of heifer bloodlines, his brother jokes. The brothers, neither of whom graduated from college, work with experts from Cornell University to hone their stock. They also collaborate with a nutritionist from Ohio State on the cows’ feeding program.

“There’s no such thing as a dumb farmer,” said John. “There’s so much technology with it now. … It’s all scientific.”

The way the Kappuses see it, the farm was a basic, workmanlike dairy under their father. That was all right. But they wanted to build it into something different – something more.

This transformation is what they have done with their inheritance.

But that, too, has meant hard choices.


Chapter Four: The lay of the land

That’s part of the bigger picture for farmers like the Kappuses. Many feel pressure to grow in order to stay competitive. But there’s only so much a single person – or even a pair of brothers – can do in a single day.

The Kappuses decided, in the end, not to grow any larger.

They didn’t push the size of their herd much above 300. They haven’t added lots of extra hired help, beyond Cork, 40, who has been working for them since he was a teenager, and a few weekend helpers.

“This is as big as we’ve ever been,” said John. “But it’s small by today’s standards.”

The brothers said the reason for that decision is simple: They would rather manage cows than employees.

“You manage people or you manage cattle,” said John, walking through one of the farm’s barns. “We manage cattle. We do the work.”

At the same time, the Kappuses reflect on another change that is happening in many areas of the state, and beyond: Farmers are getting older.

The average age of the principal operator of farms in New York State was 56.2 years in 2007, the last year statistics were collected, according to U.S. Census of Agriculture data provided by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

That age was steadily increasing. In 2002, the average age of a farmer in the state was 54.1 years. In 1997, it was 52.9.

That figure becomes especially relevant when you are a farmer in your 50s or 60s, trying to keep up a busy family farm.

And perhaps especially where dairy farming is concerned.

Days spent dairy farming are difficult and draining, said Tom Rivers, a former Batavia newspaper reporter who worked on a dairy farm to write about the experience in a book.

“You are standing on wet concrete for 12 hours,” said Rivers, who wrote about his attempt in “Farm Hands: Hard Work and Hard Lessons from Western New York Fields.” “I’ve noticed that dairy farmers, by 50, they get this ‘dairy farmer walk’ – the creaky knees.”

“You get kicked – these cows are 1,300 to 1,500 pounds. They step on you. You just kind of roll with the punches.”

You don’t have to remind the Kappus brothers of that.

To see the toll a lifetime of dairying takes on a man, they need look no further than their memories of their father.

“My father was hunched over when he died,” said John, “from just back-breaking work.”


Chapter Five: Milking time

One recent day, Ken was going about his morning routine in the farm’s red milking barn. Milking happens twice a day at Triple Oak.

In the chilly interior of the barn, on cement floors covered with rubber mats in cheerful shades of yellow and blue, Ken guided cows filing into the space. He attached milking equipment to the udders of animals in two parallel rows: six cows on each side, 12 altogether, for a milking cycle than can last 10 minutes or so for each set of six.

As the milking went on, Ken watched the animals to make sure everything was working properly. Clad in jeans, a worn white T-shirt bearing a Molson Canadian logo, and rubber boots, he was already flecked with mud and manure. Every now and then a heifer stamped on the mud-slicked floor, sending up fresh splatters.

“It’s hard to get anybody to milk cows,” said Ken, his voice muffled by the machinery’s rhythmic click. He laughed, his eyes twinkling under the brim of a Yankees cap.

“It’s not the cleanest job,” he said. “Look at me already.”

As milk streamed out of the cows – at just above 100 degrees – it was transferred to a tank where it was chilled to between 35 and 40 degrees. The brothers added this holding tank in the late 1980s, as part of their changes to the farm.

Ken said he has been injured by kicking cows, and he knows how hard it can be to milk cows for hours on end, even with automated milkers.

Still, he said, there is so much about this job that he loves.

“Crops, you either hit it big or you don’t,” said Ken, gesturing with his hand in a flat line. “We’re kind of steady.”

Triple Oak was recently named a “Dairy of Distinction,” and it has won awards for the past 15 years for the quality of its milk, which is 4 percent butterfat, John said. All of the dairy’s milk goes through the DairyLea Milk Co-op to a cheese company, which uses the farm as a producer.

“We make as much milk in a month now as my dad did in a year,” John said.

First milking at Triple Oak typically comes before 6 a.m. On weekends, Ken said, he tries to begin at around 4:45 a.m. The workday can easily stretch until 8 or 9 p.m., sometimes later.

“It’s a 100-hour week,” Ken said.

The Kappus brothers are both married; their wives don’t work on the farm. Ken has two adult sons who work in careers unrelated to farming. Neither the brothers’ wives nor their children wanted to talk to a reporter for this story.

Ken said he isn’t really surprised that his sons decided to follow paths that led away from the farm.

“I think they see the way I work,” he said.


Chapter Six: The road ahead

Things are changing around the Kappus farm.

Some residents in the neighborhood recently got public water, with the installation of a main line in the area. Many families had wells before that. Some new homes are going up in the vicinity, too.

“Just last year there were three new houses that sprang up right around here,” said Ken.

As Eden changes, the Kappus family farm may end up changing as well.

The brothers have started to plan the next phase of Triple Oak – what the farm will look like in 10, 20 or 30 years.

They won’t be able to keep farming indefinitely, even though, as the brothers admit, it’s rare for a dairy farmer to fully retire.

“I would never totally walk away,” said John.

Families like the Kappuses have a few options for what they can do with the farms that have been the legacy of generations.

One is to slowly diminish the farm, reducing the size of the herd and milking operation and reducing the acreage harvested. At 100 milking cows, for instance, the brothers’ load would lighten, John said.

“That’s almost a semi-retirement to us,” he said.

Another option is sadder: to close Triple Oak – likely at a gentle pace, over a good deal of time. But the end would eventually come.

“You slowly go out of business,” John said of this scenario.

There is also the option to sell the farm, either whole or in parts, to another farmer, or to a land developer or private buyers. John said a housing development is the “worst-case scenario” in his mind.

Nellis, the town supervisor, said that the town doesn’t allow the sort of infrastructure that would lead to large subdivided developments on open farmland in the area.

Another option is more optimistic.

Ken and John said they are open to – and might welcome – the prospect of “transitioning” the farm into the hands of new, younger owners, possibly from outside the family, if the right situation presented itself. The brothers said they have even been talking in a very preliminary way to a local couple who have expressed interest in such an arrangement.

Such transitions are something that farmers who are growing older can look into, and that kind of transition lets younger people looking to farm get into the business more easily, experts said.

“Interestingly, there’s still a share of young people who are still willing” to go into farming, said Bigham, of the New York Farm Bureau, which offers educational sessions to farmers on transitioning family farms. “Some of them, their folks weren’t even farmers.”

Others said that making such a match – new, younger owners and a family farm of many generations – can be challenging.

“If you can get a responsible young farmer to get into it, that might be better,” said Conkin, the Tennessee author. “But that’s hard to do.”

John Kappus said it is important to him to leave open the opportunity for his daughter to run the farm someday. She is only 9, he said, and he was older than that when he knew he wanted to be a farmer for life.

“It’s got to work for everyone,” John said.

The Kappus brothers don’t know for sure when they will decide the fate of this farm they love, this land they have known so intimately.

But they do know, already, that the contemplation of that moment is in itself a difficult step to take.

“Transitions,” said John, succinctly, “are a stickler.”

Ken, standing in the milking barn, spoke about what he would do with the farm if he were younger, even by 20 years.

More automation, maybe. More ambitions, more plans, more dreams.

Today, he said, that kind of investment is one he can’t afford to make.

“How many more years am I going to do this?” Ken asked. “You’d never get the payback at our age.”

Even so, he said, he will never be able to stop caring deeply about what happens to this patch of earth along Shadagee Road.

He could be 86 or 96, not 66, and he will feel for this place as he does now.

“I’d like it to be the same,” Ken confides, over the hum of the milkers, showing the briefest glimmer of wistfulness. “I like open land.”

“You’re just – free.”