CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — It seems life always has a way of putting people in unlikely places.
For instance, 29-year-old Brent Barnhart expected to have his own dairy farm by now.
“I always wanted to be a dairy farmer, because that’s what I grew up around,” he said. “But then I seen it wasn’t going to be something that would work on my farm that my grandfather had had because it was a small amount of acres.”
No worries though. Barnhart has made a good business for himself, selling sweet corn and other vegetables on that same farm his grandfather bought more than 90 years ago.
He started Country Creek Produce in 2007 with 10 acres of produce. Now he farms more than 250 acres of field crops and vegetables just west of here outside the small village of Marion in Franklin County.
Barnhart finished high school and worked several years at a local dairy farm with the intent of saving up enough money to buy his own land.
Even though he enjoyed milking cows, he wanted to return to the old 48-acre family farm, but he soon realized the existing facilities couldn’t handle cows, even though he had also purchased a 25-acre tract just down the street.
“I probably could have tried it, but it would have been really tough for me to get started without the equipment, infrastructure to milk the cows and store the manure and be able to do things really right,” he said.
Knowing a branch of the Conococheague Creek runs adjacent to the farm, he started thinking about how to take advantage of the natural resource.
“And that gave me the idea of doing produce. Plus my grandfather grew a small amount of vegetables. I wanted to carry on the tradition,” he said.
He started with 10 acres of produce, with the rest of the 38 acres planted in corn and soybeans for the local dairy market. He then pursued a contract with a local Giant Foods store as an outlet for his produce.
“And it all grew from there,” he said. “We’re now at 200 plus acres of mixed vegetables and mixed corn and green crops.”
All of the acres on his farm are irrigated — drip or overhead — giving him an advantage when the weather gets dry. But he also does other things to get a leg up on his competition.
He uses two greenhouses, where he starts all of his crops early in the season.
That includes sweet corn, his largest vegetable crop, of which he grows 40 acres each year.
Barnhart started his earliest sweet corn this season in trays that were placed in one of the greenhouses on March 21.
Once the crop emerges and the weather is good enough, it will get planted into a rye cover crop that’s been killed with herbicide. The crop will then be covered with a floating row cover to help protect it from frost injury.
“That’s how we get some of the earliest sweet corn in the area. We usually have sweet corn no later than June 27,” he said.
Barnhart said he produces 700 bins of sweet corn a year, 60 dozen sweet corn ears to a bin.
He also grows 20 acres of cantaloupes, green beans, green and yellow squash, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, Roma tomatoes and seedless watermelons, all of which are also started in the greenhouse and later transplanted in adjacent fields. A good percentage is also grown under plastic, including strawberries started in the fall.
Barnhart also leases 200 acres just northwest of the home farm, where he plants field corn and soybeans for local feed mills. Some of that acreage will likely end up on the home farm this season, as he likes rotating his produce acreage to help prevent soil-borne diseases.
He’s even planning on irrigating his field corn this season to see how well it does and what sort of production comes from it.
Along with Giant Foods, he sells to 12 other “large-scale” grocery stores and nine smaller ones, as well as at two local farmers markets and a small stand on the farm.
“I just call everybody every morning and see if they are interested in local produce, and a lot of times, they are,” he said. “So it has really grown and the public seems to be asking for it. So the local stores seem to be wanting to provide it to their customers.”
Barnhart uses greenhouses through mid-July. He then cleans them and gets them ready for his other business, a fall corn maze.
“The agritainment come to my mind whenever I was getting people out for the fruit stands,” he said. “They seemed to enjoy coming here to get their produce. So I figured if I did the corn maze and the pumpkin patch, they might come out even more and get some word of mouth spreading.”
The eight-acre corn maze and six acres of pumpkins drew more than 3,000 people last fall in its first season.
Even though Barnhart has plenty of water to irrigate his crops, weather is still a challenge. The past two years he’s experienced damaging hail storms that destroyed some of the crop.
“You just keep your plantings spread out and a lot of times it don’t wipe out the whole crop,” he said. “It might wipe out some of it or damage some of it, and usually you pick up the pieces and go from there.”
Most of the planting and prep work started in mid-March was done by Barnhart, with the help of one full-time employee. He said he usually employs 17 seasonal workers during the peak of growing season.
With no children and a growing market for locally grown produce, Barnhart said he wants to grow, but not so fast that the quality suffers.
“We’re going to try to keep expanding. I’ve been trying to just hold my own here and try to grow slower,” he said. “I started out kind of on the large side and now I’m just trying to focus on getting control of my growing practices and trying to do a better job of growing and increasing yields.”