100-year Pa. farm getting out of produce biz

10/27/2012 6:45 PM
By Associated Press

YORK, Pa. (AP) — People used to line up at the Fitz family's farm stand in New Eastern Market before it had even opened for the day.

Some 30 to 40 years ago, the market opened at 3 p.m., and customers would show up faithfully every afternoon to buy enough food for a week, making several trips to the car with baskets full of produce.

"Back then, we sold 10 times what we do now," said Robert Fitz, who owns Fitz Brothers' Farm in York Township with his brother Joel Fitz.

Because of financial strain and mounting debt, the brothers made the "very tough decision" to close the 100-year-old produce farm, Robert Fitz said.

Friday will be the last day for the business and farm stand in New Eastern Market, he said.

The land will be converted to grow soybeans and field corn, which will be sold to granaries and mills, Robert Fitz said.

The farm will continue to offer its annual pick-your-own strawberry event each year, family members said.

Fitz attributed the business's downturn to a few main factors.

"People don't cook as many meals at home, and, other than the fruit, most of what we grow needs to be cooked," Robert Fitz said.

Customers also don't can produce like they used to, he said.

"Lifestyles are much faster now, and a lot of people take things from the freezer and put them in the microwave," he said. There's also stiffer competition.

"Grocery stores' produce sections used to be very small and not very fresh. Today, you can get good, fresh produce at a lot of stores," Robert Fitz said.

He and his brother loved the work as farmers and growers, and tried to keep the business going as long as they could, but they started "hurting bad from money," Robert Fitz said.

"I'd always joke and tell the employees, 'When I grow up, I want to work at Fitz Brothers' Farm,' because they get paid every week. My brother and I didn't," Robert Fitz said.

Besides the owners, the farm employed eight employees-all members of the Fitz family.

Both owners would often work 90 to 95 hours a week in the summer and not get paid, Robert Fitz said.

Robert, 56, and Joel Fitz, 55, also took second jobs to help keep the family farm alive, the older brother said.

"Another thing that prompted our decision is that we're both in our mid-50s with no retirement and no money laid aside. We always put any profit back into the business," Robert Fitz said. "If we're going to get out of debt and have money for retirement, we need to start saving soon."

Even though it was necessary, the decision wasn't easy, he said.

"It hurts. I really can't describe how it feels. I'd rather continue farming as we have been, but the circumstances don't pay the bills. I've gone way into debt trying to make this work," Robert Fitz said.

From fertilizer to health insurance, the cost of farming has increased.

"Health insurance as a farmer is astronomical, and farmers don't make astronomical wages," he said. "Expenses on the farm have gone up a whole lot more than what we can increase prices."

The change also tugs at the heart of Don Fitz, the 61-year-old older brother of Robert and Joel Fitz.

"It's our heritage. Four generations of our family have had this business," Don Fitz said.

The business was started more than 100 years ago by his great-grandfather, Howard Fitz, and continued by his grandfather, Howard Fitz Jr. His 83-year-old father, Marlin Fitz, who moved to assisted living in March, still works at the farm stand on Fridays. And Don and his younger brothers will also be there this week for the stand's last day.

"I was there when it opened. I used to sleep under that stand when I was 3. I'll be there the last day, too," Don Fitz said.

The hardest part, he said, is saying goodbye to the customers.

"We've had customers sob when we told them we were closing. We've built generations of relationships. It's hard because we have customers now we know we may never see again," he said.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/PtiqYa

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Information from: The York Dispatch, http://www.yorkdispatch.com


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