During the meeting with fellow growers, the Scholls discussed their operation and some of the elements that have led to their success. Founded in 1948 as a side business, Scholl Orchards has grown and changed a great deal over the years. The farm currently supports three families and several employees by marketing fruit, vegetables, and other products through two farm markets, an on-site farm stand, as well as wholesale and restaurant accounts.
The meeting was largely an informal discussion about the operation as a whole. We had the chance to hear the story of a family farm that has been passed down through the generations and which has found increasing success over the years. George Scholl recounted the farm's beginnings, while his sons, Jake and Ben, led the discussion on their current business model including marketing, diversification, production, efficiencies, and infrastructure, just to name a few topics.
It became clear during the course of the evening's discussion that we had become privy to the Scholl's list of "Keys to Success". Each family member highlighted aspects that they felt the business couldn't thrive without, and we thought we'd share a few:
- Diversification of product offerings: All three of our speakers for the evening emphasized the importance of diversifying product offerings and continuously adding to their value-added product line. Jake and Ben explained that in a farmers market setting, as overwhelming as it can be, you have to be able to offer your customer a wide array of products. People are more than willing to spend their money for one stop shopping. Scholl Orchards is best known for their delicious peaches, but by adding vegetables to their offerings starting in 2012, they were able to build upon their customer loyalty and market sales. Likewise, the Scholls regularly add to their line of value-added products, which has become essential for reducing waste and capitalizing on the produce that isn't picture-perfect for the markets and farm stand.
- Picking the right array of marketing outlets: Ben, who handles the bulk of this end of the business, explained that having a variety of outlets is important because each has its unique benefits. The markets and farm stand are an important way to connect with customers on a personal level, create customer loyalty, and capitalize on the "eat local" and "know your farmer" movements. Wholesale is an important way to unload large quantities. Restaurants, in the case of Scholl Orchards, has proven to be a good way to get their name out to the public as well as get a great price for their produce, especially if it's headed into the city. The Scholls are also careful to continuously evaluate their outlets, and aren't afraid to drop one that isn't working for them whether for financial or logistical reasons.
- An unrelenting quest for knowledge and something "new": Jake talked about what can only be described as an addiction to new information and methods when it comes to the production end of farming. The Scholls highlighted the importance of being open to and in constant search of improvements in growing methods, varieties, equipment, etc. Trying new things keeps farming challenging and interesting. If your knowledge base isn't expanding, it will be very difficult for your business to expand.
- Proper investment in appropriate infrastructure and equipment: The Scholls are big believers in capital investment, but they do so methodically and responsibly. Often times they have rented or borrowed equipment until they've determined that it is the right investment for their operation. They will sometimes go cheap on the first purchase, until the usefulness of the equipment has proven itself. For example, after a cheap forklift proved to dramatically improve efficiency, other forklifts were eventually purchased and future infrastructure such as the pack houses were planned in part to maximize the use of the equipment.
- Constantly striving to increase efficiency: Jake shared that one of his continuous goals on the farm is to increase efficiency in any way possible. Everything is considered, from pack house set-up and container choices to field equipment and operations. When you're a busy farmer, every minute counts and every minute costs money. Achieving greater efficiency can allow for a better quality of life and greater success in farming.
- Knowing who to take advice from, or NOT take advice from: George put it simply by explaining that over time, you learn who you should listen to, whose example to follow, what research and publications to pay attention to, etc. Jake added, that you also learn quickly who NOT to take advice from.
- Communication: When asked about communication, Jake said he talks to Ben first thing in the morning, throughout every day, and often, last thing at night. Communication is constant and absolutely has to be, between the logistics of two farm locations and multiple marketing channels. The lesson here is not to partner with someone who you can't imagine having to communicate with on a nearly 24/7 basis!
- Acknowledging, accepting and working within the boundaries of team-members strengths and weaknesses: In a farm business run by more than one person, knowing your team-members strengths and weaknesses can go a long way in helping develop a natural division of labor. Over time, Jake has tended toward the production side, while Ben has leaned more toward the marketing end of things. Their sister handles a great deal of the PR and social media work, while George is apt to keep track of books and general financials. The division has come pretty naturally, but everyone still has a hand in all aspects of the business. Perhaps more importantly, they know what each other's weaknesses are and rather than letting it become problematic, they accept and work within that reality.
Penn State offers opportunities for exploring, start-up, establishing, and next generation farmers. Visit the Start Farming website to find more resources.
This project is supported by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Grant # 2015-70017-22852.