SENECA CASTLE — At 87, Cliff Kunes still makes it to work once in a while to the company he started 50 years ago. It’s not a long commute; in fact, the founder of Castle Harvester Metal Fabricators lives just across the street.
“Every Wednesday I come and dump the garbage,” he joked. “It’s interesting to see what’s going on.”
Cliff Kunes lives in cabbage country — and it was his invention of the Castle Cabbage Harvester that heralded the start of Castle Harvest Metal Fabricators in 1969. He went on to develop and produce beet harvesters and fruit-picking machines, which remained the company’s focus until about 1980.
Today, Castle Harvester Metal Fabricators is owned and operated by Cliff’s son, Michael, a 1981 Alfred State College graduate who earned a degree in design and drafting. Michael Kunes worked for Goulds Pumps in Seneca Falls for three years until he returned to his father’s company in 1984.
“I’ve been here ever since,” said Kunes, now 59, who took over the business in 2000.
Today, Castle Harvest Metal Fabricators has moved beyond agricultural machines and does all sorts of metal fabrication for food processors, manufacturers and small, custom fabrication projects. In fact, Michael Kunes said the agricultural portion of the business is only about 10-15 percent and involves making parts for or repairs to agricultural machines. He estimated about 50 percent of the company’s work is for the food-processing sector, while the remaining 35-40 percent is small, custom fabrication projects.
The business has remained on Seneca Castle Road since 1969 but has undergone eight building expansions, according to Cliff Kunes. Today, work is performed in two buildings that total about 12,000 square feet and include about 20 different machines. The welding and machine shops are in separate structures.
The company’s seven employees include three full-time welders and two full-time metal fabricators. One, Ted Hurlbutt of Stanley, has been with Castle Harvester since the beginning.
Earlier this week, several projects were in the pipeline — Michael Kunes said spring and summer are generally the busiest times:
• Todd Hurlbutt of Stanley was cutting and deburring base plates for stainless-steel hand railings for the village of Clifton Springs.
• Jay Learned of Rushville was drilling holes in the leg of a catwalk that was being produced for frozen-food processor Bonduelle USA Inc. of Bergen, Monroe County. The company also is making a conveyor for that company for a squash-splitting table.
• Ted Hurlbutt, the dean of employees, was TIG-welding a stainless-steel parts basket for CDS Lipe of Liverpool, which provides specialty materials handling automation to all kinds of industrial companies.
“It’s always something different,” Michael Kunes said. “We don’t have many projects that repeat.”
Cliff Kunes concurred.
“It’s not like an assembly line,” he said. “It’s a real change day to day.”
Michael Kunes said Castle Harvester’s clients, for the most part, are in upstate New York from Albany to Buffalo, plus a few in Pennsylvania. Castle Harvester is affiliated with three material-handling sales organizations that help connect the company with potential clients.
Cliff Kunes believes the secret to Castle Harvester’s longevity is the personal attention paid to customers. He recalled delivering a Castle Cabbage Harvester to a buyer in Iowa and helping to set up the machine and work out the kinks. He says his son does the same thing.
“If you’ve got the boss right there, that’s it,” Cliff Kunes said. “Every one (we made) I went with it, and they knew if it didn’t work they had the owner right there.”
More recently, the company has done projects for Canandaigua Wine, fabricating catwalks and making moving carts for filling machines. Michael Kunes also said they did metalwork for the recent Rochester Airport upgrade — namely, sign parts for the gate numbers.
“They were pre-designed by the architects,” he said. “We took the drawings and made them.”
Castle Harvesters has done plenty of work for Bonduelle, primarily stainless-steel conveyors and catwalks.
“It’s changed a lot,” Michael Kunes said of Castle Harvester’s customer base. “Kodak and Xerox, those places are still there but we do next to nothing for them.”
To mark its 50th anniversary, the company will bring its first Castle Cabbage Harvester to the Ontario County Fair July 23-27, and also have a display booth about the business and its history.
As for the future, Michael Kunes has no firm plans but is considering adding some new equipment such as laser-cutting machines.
“I enjoy what I do,” he said.