Dairy to Wine: Farm Family Bets Future on Diversity

9/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

PINE GROVE, Pa. — You would think that getting older tends to slow a person down, and for most people it does. At 75, Ralph Heffner is starting to feel his age.

“You have more aches and pains and so forth that are bothering you, but if you sit around and don’t do anything, the aches and pains get worse,” he said.

How does Heffner stay active? By putting in seven-day work weeks on the family farm of course.

Heffner, along with his wife, Annie, and two sons, Carl and Kurt, own Jersey Acres Farms & Stone Mountain Wine Cellars, which is tucked away among the rolling hills of southern Schuylkill County, close to Pine Grove.

The farm’s remote location might make it a difficult place to get to, depending on the time of year. However, Heffner and his family have made a name for themselves with a diverse operation that not only shows the quality and diversity of stuff they grow, but also how a family can operate multiple businesses to keep the farm alive.

The elder Heffner has been on the farm his whole life. He was born in 1937 in the house he and Annie currently live in.

His grandparents bought the farm in 1910 and started farming in 1911.

Like most farms of the time, it had a little bit of everything — cows, chickens, pigs, orchards.

After graduating from Cressona High School in 1955, Heffner joined the Army and spent two years in Frankfurt, Germany, employed by what was then known as the Army Security Agency.

He returned to Pennsylvania, earning his bachelor’s degree from Penn State in ag education and later a master’s degree in ag economics from the University of Delaware, where he served as host of a six-day-a-week radio show on farming and rural life.

He married Annie in 1961 and they returned to his family’s farm in 1963, when his father was still in charge of the operation. But changes were beginning to take shape.

The old dairy barn, which had room for only 25 cows that were milked using buckets, was replaced with a single-story barn with the capacity to hold 52 cows along with a milking pipeline.

The roadside market, which the farm is best known for these days, was opened in the late 1960s to market fruits and vegetables from the farm.

Then a big change occurred in the early 1970s, when Ralph’s father decided to stop working full time on the farm.

“He would come back and help, but he really wanted the break. It was about that time that I started buying the farm from him,” Heffner said.

The farm was incorporated in 1965 and he started buying shares from his father.

He also expanded the acreage, buying neighboring farms and growing the total acreage to around 500, although 150 of that is in woodlands. He leases an additional 150 acres from neighboring farms to make up the difference.

While most of the acreage was in field crops to support the dairy along with making money from cash grain, Heffner expanded the farm’s orchard to 40 acres.

“We used to sell 15 to 17 trailer loads of apples out of here. We didn’t have storage. We’d pick them in 25-bushel bins and send them out, and we did that for a number of years,” he said.

But times change and so did the market for the farm’s fruit.

Most of the apples, peaches and other tree fruit is now grown to support the market. The overall acreage in fruit has actually been cut in half from 40 to 20 acres, but there is more variety, including black and red raspberries, blueberries, plums, cherries and other fruits.

“That’s what you need for a roadside market. You need as many varieties in there” as possible, he said.

The late 1990s brought a lot of publicity to wineries in the state.

Seeing an opportunity to grow grapes to support the wineries, Heffner started a vineyard.

“It was before the big dairy expansion, and we planted two acres of Norton grapes,” he said. “Norton was developed on the East Coast. It gives you the kind of wine that is similar to a zinfandel or merlot or cabernet, a big, red, robust dry wine.

“It’s not highly susceptible to the rots or anything like that. The clusters are loose and small, they’re not something that’s going to do a lot of rotting,” he said.

It was challenging getting used to growing wine grapes.

“You’ve got all the elements you have to contend with, especially on the East Coast, that I guess was a little more challenging,” he said.

One advantage he had was the fact he could use existing equipment from his orchards in the vineyard and he already had hired help.

“Learning how to take care of the vines is a little bit different. You wind up having to teach a labor crew or something like that. The positioning of the vines, making sure they get abundant sunshine,” he said.

For several years, Heffner sold grapes to other wineries and had a pretty good business. But seeing yet another opportunity to bring people to the market, he started fermenting his own wine in an old cellar that was once used for short-term fruit storage.

He got a license in 2004 and started fermenting wine the following year. There are 30 different types of wine sold in the market, most of which range from $18 to $20 a bottle.

“Making wine is a fairly basic biological process where the yeast converts the sugar into alcohol. It really isn’t that complicated,” he said. “The things you have to be careful of, you’ve got to keep it clean.

“Once you have the fermentation complete, you have to keep the air away from it and keep a certain level of sulfur dioxide in the wine to preserve it,” he said. “That requires checking it from time to time and adjusting it.”

The orchards and vineyard are his main focus these days.

Annie helps in the market, talking to customers about wine, but she also finds time to do farm work, including helping pick sweet corn and helping out in the orchard.

“Just wherever I can fit in, I guess,” she said.

Over the years, the Heffners started selling portions of the business to Carl and Kurt, their two sons, who now run the dairy.

They also have two daughters, who are not involved in the family business.

“I think we’ve done fairly well in solidifying the route that this should take in the future, and we just recently did make a major change in our insurance policy,” Heffner said.

In 2006, a major expansion of the dairy was completed.

A new 200-head free-stall barn was built along with a new milking parlor — a double-eight herringbone.

The dairy is made up exclusively of Jersey cows, of which there are 180 head currently being milked.

The sons grow 200 acres of corn, 100 acres of which are grown for silage, 90 acres of soybeans, 75 acres of alfalfa and 40 acres of grass and hay.

Everything is grown no-till, with cover crops. The crop rotation is mostly corn-soybeans, although some fields are continuous corn.

The Jerseys produce a lot of butterfat — 4.6 to 4.7 percent on average — but even higher in the fall — 5.6 percent.

Working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the family has gotten money to put in two manure pits, along with money to install streamside buffers and other improvements.

The barn itself is unconventional. It looks more or less like a high tunnel covering on a long barn structure.

Black curtains are used to keep the cows warm in winter.

Natural ventilation keeps the cows cool in summer, as there are no fans.

Kurt Heffner said the idea for the barn was having more space for animals, but doing it without adding much debt or spending a lot of money. In fact, the family built the barn themselves.

While Carl and Kurt work year-round, Ralph and Annie take a break over winter each year, spending time in what has become their second home, Maui.

“It’s getting to the point where going to Hawaii is my favorite part of the year,” Ralph said with a laugh.

But with his sons focused on the dairy and his daughters living their own lives off the farm, he worries about the future of the market and orchards, which are big parts of the overall business.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” he said.

There is a possibility, he said, that one of his daughters might have some interest in running the farm market, in particular the winery.

Having that diversity, he said, has enabled the business to not only thrive, but keep his children around.

“We’ve always been diversified within the orchards. You also have the diversification of all the different crops with the vegetables to support the market in here,” he said. “To me, diversification is an important tool if you want to be around for the long haul.”


Will the new Dairy Margin Protection Program eventually pay off for farmers?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Unsure

User Submitted Photos

View photos      Submit your photos

9/21/2014 | Last Updated: 4:01 PM