Merely a Pumpkin Patch?

9/14/2013 7:00 AM
By Tabitha Goodling Central Pa. Correspondent

NEWPORT, Pa. — A mere pumpkin patch was just enough to start a farming business for Mark and Stacey Butcher of Newport, Pa.

They are owners of Butcher’s Farm and Market located on North Fourth Street. The farm itself is made up of 74 acres, divided among four locations, all in Newport, in Perry County.

The main farm is owned by Stacey’s father, Jim Hoover. Sixteen acres of vegetables line the field in that location. The Butchers also rent three other sites not far from one another.

Mark and Stacey met in the late 1980s at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa., where Mark, originally from York, Pa., was a dairy husbandry major.

“I always wanted to milk cows,” he said. Stacey was a business management major who grew up on a turkey farm in Newport. When the couple became serious and began to talk about their future, Mark recalled his future bride telling him, “I like you, but I don’t like cows.”

They knew they wanted to farm. So they decided to start small.

They started with pumpkins.

Before long they were growing and selling sweet corn in a “little Amish barn shed” in Newport from July to October.

The next addition was strawberries, which they sold from May to October.

“And then we bought this,” he said of the market.

The couple revamped an old gas station and made it what it is today. Years into the business they added a bakery. They offer for sale most of the vegetables that grow in the central Pennsylvania climate. Fruits such as peaches, apples and pears are brought into the store from farms in Adams County, Pa.

Mark said the business is profitable year-round, except when winter weather interrupts.

“Winter time can be profitable as long as no winter storm shows up on the weekend. Seventy percent of your business is on a Friday and Saturday,” he said.

Ninety percent of the farming business sales is directly through the farm market. Another 10 percent occurs through chain stores, restaurants and produce auctions.

New projects for the farm are funded through the Butchers themselves as well as NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), which funded a high tunnel system at the farm locations.

“We now have four high tunnels. We use raw covers,” he said.

Green beans are grown under plastic and are ready to pick in early May. Other early market produce covered by the plastic includes strawberries, zucchini and cucumbers.

“With the high tunnels we can keep the lettuce going until Christmas,” Mark said.

The months from January through March produce little from the farm.

Along with running a farm and a market together and employing 36 people come some challenges and hurdles for the Butchers.

Mark noted that the weather plays a major factor on the farm as droughts and floods can be damaging to the fields’ crops. One hurdle they managed to jump, he said, were problems with proper irrigation.

On the main farm, they had to go down 400 feet before reaching water, said Mark. After some careful searching, the Butchers were able to gain access to acreage on nearby farms with access to the local Juniata River and Big Buffalo Creek.

Another obstacle they have faced is keeping employees at the farm. Stacey manages the operations of the market and oversees employees. Mark runs the farm operations and keeps the hired hands busy.

Sixteen of the 36 employed by Butchers are farm helpers.

“We lose the high school kids,” Mark said, as soon as school starts up again and football and soccer and other sports take priority.

This is one problem they still face today.

“Few people want to work with their hands anymore,” he said, and explained that it has become more difficult to find a hardworking person to go into the fields and pick the vegetables and do other farm work.

One way the farm saves on workers is to use automated equipment. Sweet corn can be picked faster by means of a conveyor belt system.

“(With) any kind of harvester combine, you save on labor,” Mark said and added, “But that is nothing new, really.”

Despite the work that it takes to keep the farm running, Mark admitted he is content with this form of farming.

As a child, he said he always wanted to have a dairy farm. His grandfather had a dairy farm and sold it when Mark was about 8 years old.

“I was kicking and screaming. But who was to say I would be a farmer? At 8 years old, you could want to be a fireman one day, a farmer the next, and an astronaut the next day.”

However, that love for farm life remained part of him as he went off to college and met Stacey. When she told him, all of those years ago, that she didn’t care much for a life on a dairy farm, Mark said he was fine with that.

Today, he said that vegetable farming is exactly how he thought it would be. It’s a lot of hard work but he enjoys every moment of it — even if there is not a cow in sight.

“I just like relaxing on the tractor, spraying, at night. I just really enjoy it.”

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