Stimulating Innovation in the Next Generation of Specialty Crop Producers
Posted: July 14, 2011
On June 30, a group of young farmers from the Young Grower Alliance (YGA) traveled to Maryland for two such enlightening farm tours of some of the most innovative farming operations on the East Coast, Butler Orchards in Germantown and Catoctin Mountain Orchards in Thurmont. The trip proved to be highly educational in that it exposed the young growers to new agricultural practices and operations, as well as served as a forum for discussion.
Butler’s Orchards is a highly diverse and intricately planned farming operation that caters exclusively to a customer’s whims, surrounding them with the quintessential agricultural experience. With 300 acres in total, a visitor could easily get lost among the lanes of various fruit at Butler’s Orchards, but the farm is extremely visitor-friendly with many interactive options to choose from.
Butler’s Orchards is geared towards drawing the customer in for a unique and educational experience. “People come for the experience of doing it themselves,” said Hayley Butler, co-owner of Butler’s Orchards. Upon first entering their acreage, the eye is drawn to their market where you can find all kinds of freshly picked fruits or freshly baked pies. They also sell a multitude of different locally made products such as honey, granola, bell peppers, and the list goes on. “We try to help out the small local businesses whenever we can,” said Hayley Butler, “if we don’t grow it ourselves on the farm, we get it from other local producers and sell it in our market-place.”
Butler’s Orchards is more than a market place, customers can choose from a variety of agri-tourist operations, like pick your own fruit. “We are the forefathers of the Pick-Your-Own operation,” said Hayley Butler. “When we opened our strawberry patches to the public in 1955, nobody else was doing anything like it.” Pick-Your-Own is among their largest operations, and they offer a wide variety in Pick-Your-Own products. “Now we have 30 different Pick-Your-Own products, which include fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, and black raspberries, but we also offer produce other than fruits, such as kohlrabi, potatoes, flowers, and onions,” added Tyler Butler, co-owner of Butler’s Orchards and a YGA member, “It turns out people love the farming experience, so Pick-Your-Own offers those customers the perfect interactive activity and it saves us some work.”
“Approximately 50 percent of our gross income comes from our market, 25 percent from our Pick-Your-Own operation, and the other 25 percent from various other Ag-entertainment operations,” said Ben Butler, a co-owner of Butler’s Orchards. “We start the summer season with hayrides through our Bunnyland, we offer bonfires all year round, and from May through December we try to have something for people to pick,” said Tyler Butler.
Overall, Butler’s Orchards appeared to be a smoothly operated farm that was specifically geared towards creating a farming experience for their customers. To many young farmers on the tour, it represented a break from traditional agriculture in that it was open to everyone, not just experienced farmers. “The Butler operation has been very innovative in the agri-tourism sector of agriculture. I took away a lot of useful information from that tour,” said Justin Weaver, of Weaver Orchards in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, “Perhaps I’ll implement an idea or two on my own farm that I took away from them.”
Next, we journeyed north to tour the award winning Catoctin Mountain Orchards, owned and operated by the Harry Black family. Their 100 acres is a scrupulously organized matrix of orchards and vegetable and fruit blocks. In 2007, the Harry Black Family won the Farm Family of the Year award, celebrating four generations of caretakers of the farm land.
Not unlike Butler’s Orchards, Catoctin Mountain Orchards offers an array of Pick-Your-Own fruits and flowers, as well as an on-site market. However, in the interest of cutting down on waste, not all of their produce is open to the public. “We don’t allow Pick-Your-Own in some of our sectors because too much of the fruit falls to the ground. Once they hit the ground, nobody wants to pick them up and perfectly good fruit is wasted,” said Bob Black, co-owner of the Catoctin farming operation.
Instead of focusing on the agri-tourism operations, the Catoctin Mountain Orchards tour focused more on the technical aspects of farming and the best way to market products. Bob Black provided fresh insight into farming practices that would ensure high quality and yield, by maximizing sunlight interception. “My newly planted high density apple trees are trained so that each branch receives the maximum amount of sunlight,” said Bob Black. He continued, “I use trickle irrigation throughout all my fruit blocks, and I have designed a new trellis system on which to optimally grow blackberries.”
“Here at Catoctin Mountain Orchards, we are geared to flavor as opposed to appearance. For example, we sell Sugarcube melons which are tiny, but boy do they taste good!” said Bob Black. To prove his point, Bob Black allowed the tour group to taste all of the ripe fruits, like blueberries, plums, and black raspberries. “It was like a taste tour,” said one young grower, “he showed us his growing methods and then allowed us to taste test his produce. Everything was delicious!”
“Catoctin Mountain Orchards is an extremely technically-minded operation. Seeing their farm as a model was very informative and thought-provoking,” said Ben Keim, a young grower from Berks County.
At the end of the tours, the group of young specialty crop growers seemed satisfied with the information they had gleamed from Butler’s Orchards and Catoctin Mountain Orchards. Both farms provided different models for successful and innovative farming operations.
Penn State Extension’s Young Grower Alliance is dedicated to providing horticultural education to its 150—and growing—young farmers. It brings together producers from all over North America to equip the next generation of growers with the tools needed to succeed in agriculture.
Amelia Jarvinen is an Ag Innovations Program Assistant at Penn State Extension. Penn State is committed to Affirmative Action, equal opportunity, and the diversity of its workplace. Penn State Extension in Adams County is located at 670 Old Harrisburg Road, Suite 204, Gettysburg, PA 17325, phone 717-334-6271 or 1-888-427-0261, e-mail AdamsExt@psu.edu.