Fruit Growers Transition Farm Business to Support Multiple Generations

11/30/2013 7:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter

BIGLERVILLE, Pa. — The Oyler family has been around Biglerville, Pa., for a long time. The family’s fifth and sixth generations are now operating the 360-acre Oyler’s Organic Farms here in the rolling hills of Adams County’s fruit country, and the seventh generation has already made its presence known.

Not too long ago, the mantra in farming was “get big or get out.” The Oylers haven’t gotten bigger, nor have they gotten out. They’ve gotten better. Better at figuring out who their customers are, what they want and how to get it to them. From a conventional orchard operation growing mostly apples and peaches, they have become a fully organic producer of apples, peaches, vegetables, eggs and grassfed beef from a closed cow-calf herd. And they’re looking to add to that list of products. Their customers would like, for example, to see organic broilers with the Oyler label, and pastured pork.

The Oylers recently have built a modern store, packing line and commercial kitchen on the farm. The store is in its first year of business, but it already draws a steady clientele from Adams and neighboring counties as well as from Maryland, which is 40 miles south of the farm, and from as far away as Pittsburgh and State College, Pa., both of which are pretty much an all-day hike from Biglerville.

In the store, the family sells its fresh produce, grassfed Devon beef, organic brown eggs from free-range, pastured hens, and a wide variety of products from other organic producers. There’s raw milk — both cow and goat — artisanal cheeses, grains, lip balm, holistic honey, gourds, ice cream, and the list goes on. Almost all is from nearby producers. Even the wild-caught Alaskan sockeye salmon comes to the store via a family of fishermen from up the road in Bloomsburg, Pa.

Mary Ann and William Oyler’s daughter, Sara Baldwin, grew up on the farm and in the business, graduated from Penn State with a B.S. in agroecology and a double minor in horticulture and agronomy.

“We are serving a niche market for locally produced organic fruits and vegetables,” she said in a roundtable discussion with her mother (an Indiana University of Pennsylvania grad with a B.S. in family and consumer sciences) and her sister, Katrina (currently a student at Penn State Mont Alto, majoring in business), and little baby Rebecca Baldwin, who has yet to matriculate anywhere. During the discussion, Mary Ann Oyler’s husband, William Oyler (a Gettysburg College grad in business administration) popped his head in to see how the interview was going, then quickly left to resume putting up round bales with son Jacob Oyler.

Combine motivation, a six-generation farming legacy and relevant education, and you’ve got a recipe for a successful farming business serving a growing market. Sara Baldwin talked at length about the science of producing organic fruits and vegetables; Katrina Oyler talked about marketing and Mary Ann Oyler discussed some the general challenges facing the business — food safety regulations, for one example, are a big issue right now.

So, does everybody have a specific job?

“No,” Sara Baldwin said. “My dad believes in cross training, and we all pitch in wherever we’re needed.”

The farm transitioned to a certified organic enterprise in 2008. Prior to the transition, the farm had grown fruit with conventional methods including chemical fertilizers and sprays. The family grew exclusively for the processing market. They would pick the fruit, load it onto trucks and haul it to a nearby processing plant. It was a fairly uncomplicated way to do business, but not a business model that could continue to provide a living — not just for William and Mary Ann Oyler, but for their children and spouses, as well.

Farming is never just about dollars and cents, of course. In an email, Mary Ann Oyler shared one of the family’s guiding principles: “We believe that organic foods are healthier for our bodies, and restore and maintain the ecological balance of the soil.”

Post-transition is a whole new life and way of doing business. The Oylers’ approach to organic production is science-based and document heavy. And there are always new science findings and new documents just over the horizon.

For example, there’s a science to controlling pests without using conventional sprays, Sara Baldwin pointed out.

“We use mating disruption for insect control,” she said. “We have traps in the orchard to monitor for potential pests, like moths. If there’s a problem, we put plastic tags containing female sex pheromones in the top third of the trees. The male moths use the pheromone scent to find the females. But if the orchard is blanketed with the scent of the pheromone, it makes it harder for the males to find the females.”

Documentation is now also vastly different from the farm’s earlier days selling to processors. Oyler’s Organics is certified by Pennsylvania Certified Organic, a USDA-accredited organization. Mary Ann Oyler said they had just recently gone through their yearly review. The PCO inspector looked at their record-keeping methods, inspected the farm, checked their practices and, in general, made sure the Oylers were doing everything they need to do to maintain their organic certification.

The biggest change for the family, going from one customer — the fruit processor — to literally thousands, is a challenge and an opportunity that the family seems to have embraced. Their brand new facility includes an automated packing line that takes apples at one end and delivers them washed, brushed, graded and sized at the other end. The apples that don’t grade number one or two are used for cider.

The Oyler number one apple doesn’t look like the picture-perfect apple at your local Giant grocery store. The Oyler apple may have a spot or two. Mary Ann Oyler said their customers appreciate the difference in taste between organically grown and conventional apples and they don’t mind a few spots.

The number two apples are sold mostly to people who make their own applesauce, or they are made into unsweetened, organic applesauce in the Oylers’ onsite commercial kitchen. The kitchen is used to make other value-added products, like dilly beans and salsas. The brightly lit kitchen is big enough for the occasional cooking class. Recently, a class on fermentation was conducted there by Marlene Diaz, who heads the local chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation.

The kitchen is also used for catering, and for hosting events at the farm. In August, for example, the Oylers held a summer harvest festival that featured a fully stocked organic buffet that began with grassfed beef meatballs in organic tomato sauce and ended with a spelt pound cake glazed with peaches from their organic orchard. In November, they hosted the Gettysburg Young Farmers group, with tables set up in the packing room and food brought out from the kitchen just a few steps away.

The Oylers sell directly to retail customers at their new store as well as at Farmers on the Square in Carlisle, Pa. They wholesale to a number of like-minded retailers in the region, such as Common Market, MOM’s Organic, Roots Market, Sonnenwald and Lemon Street. And they partner with three CSAs (community supported agriculture). Spiral Path Farm CSA in nearby Loysville, Pa., has 2,000 members and 40 pickup sites. The Oylers also provide apple shares to CSAs operated by Dickinson College and Wilson College.

The Oyler name is certainly getting a lot of exposure these days, but even so “ ... there are a lot of people who don’t know about us,” Sara Baldwin said. “Our customers are interested in organic fruits and vegetables. They don’t want preservatives, artificial colors, high-fructose corn syrup or GMO products. They’re not concerned with looks as much as they are with how something is grown and how it tastes. And they want to have a connection with the farmer.”

“It’s a niche market. But it’s growing.”

Does milk have a lot of untapped potential in today’s competitive beverage market?

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