Ard’s Farm Diversified to Stay Alive
LEWISBURG, Pa. — It’s no secret that being a successful agricultural producer is a challenge. Staying ahead of the curve is a must. Some producers are finding it beneficial to diversify their operations.
Ard’s Farm is no different. Tracing back to 1952, Nancy and the late Ray Ard, and their son Alan, were full-time dairy farmers along Route 45 in Union County.
But in May of 1990, family friend Dan Baylor suggested that the Ard’s consider starting their own farm market.
“It was the topic of discussion the rest of the day. Mom was on board right away,” Alan said.
Six months later the Ards decided to go for it and broke ground on Jan. 2, 1991. Opting to put all of their time and energy into the market, the dairy cows were sold on March 28 and the doors of the market opened on April 9, 1991 on the original farm property.
“We started with 3,000 square feet, just a store with a deli. We had no plan, no nothing. Two weeks before we opened, Dan suggested that we put in a deli because they had an extra case at the (Country) Cupboard,” he said. “At first we just had produce, limited crafts, bought some candies, and the deli case.”
Alan said that they try to keep all of their products as local as possible. Besides growing most of their own pumpkins and sweet corn, Ards cultivate some of their own produce.
If not purchased direct from the producer, Ard’s buy some of their products at Buffalo Valley Produce Auction in Mifflinburg, Pa.
“About 75 percent of our products are local,” Alan’s wife, Kyle, added.
From the start, Ards has had a pumpkin patch and hayrides to the field. “But that was it,” he said, referring to their current agri-entertainment ventures.
Their first venture into agri-entertainment was in the fall of 1993 with a one-day fall festival. “Everything pumpkin you can imagine, food vendors, crafty items,” he said.
With business growing at a steady pace, the Ard’s decided to expand their deli in 1996 — a 40-by-30-foot addition — with a second refrigerated case.
Then came the corn maze in 2001 and their “agri-entertainment business went ballistic,” Kyle said.
“I figured it was a passing fad,” Alan chuckled. “But now we’re adding themes and stuff every year. Our first maze was Australian Outback.’”
Ard’s Farm is a Maize Quest franchise (www.mazecatalog.com).
It was “all Kyle’s idea with the maze. We’ve kept the agri-entertainment growing, adding more and more,” Alan said.
“Every year we try to add one new thing. By doing this we now have enough to keep (guests) here all day,” Kyle continued.
The maze park includes the corn cannon, fossil digging in The Lost Goat Mining Company, the Fun Barn, the kid’s maze the rope maze, tile maze, web maze and corn wagon.
On top of all that, there’s a petting zoo, built in 2001. After touring another farm, Alan came home with the idea to build a jungle-gym-type area for his goats, rabbits, and even a pot belly pig. Guests can put feed into a cup attached to a belt, turn the wheel, watch the food get carried up approximately 16 feet and dropped into a feeding pan for awaiting goats.
Over the years, more and more items have been added to the farm market as well. In addition to a third expansion of the deli case. The market now features candy cases where the Ards hand-dip all sorts of items into chocolate — everything from pretzels to potato chips, Oreos, marshmallows and nuts.
They also utilize this candy area for the creation of their chocolate gift baskets, a popular holiday gift idea which is gaining momentum as a corporate gift to employees.
In addition to all of the locally grown produce, the farm market features a refrigerated section with items ranging from bison and elk meat to eggs, ice cream and smoked cheeses.
Ards offers candies, baked goods, jams and jellies, homemade peanut butter made with honey roasted nuts, and flowers.
To help them keep generating ideas, the Ard’s are members of the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association (NAFDMA). Their mission is “to nurture the farm direct marketing industry,” reads www.nafdma.com.
Once the Ard’s started their corn maze, they discovered that “people were staying here 4 to 5 hours and we had nothing to feed them but hot dogs,” Kyle said.
And so they expanded their operation yet again, and by 2002, they were cooking chicken barbecue on the weekends on their own outdoor fire pits.
Their next big venture came in 2005 when they decided to enter the catering business. They decided to build a kitchen onto the restaurant with a small dining area, opening in January of 2006. That summer saw the opening of their outdoor patio dining area.
“We greatly increased our per capita spending when people come here,” he said. “The catering is growing at a crazy rate.”
“It’s much more than we ever expected. We expected it to be a small piece of our pie. Now it’s a huge piece. We didn’t know what we were getting into. It’s been rewarding,” Kyle added.
The catering business can be taken to an outside venue or Ard’s has facilities available for indoor and outdoor events — wedding receptions and rehearsals, business meetings or birthday parties — both at the market and a leased facility.
In February 2012, they had the opportunity to begin leasing an old potato farm, The Cellars at Brookpark Farm, Lewisburg, Pa., that features a rustic barn feel with chandeliers, capable of seating 250 guests.
“We did it mainly because we were turning away groups of people, particularly in the winter. There’s a need in this area for something (like this),” Kyle said.
While the catering business was expanding, so was their restaurant and barbecue venture. The menu now includes things like baby back ribs, beef brisket, pulled pork, ham barbecue, twice barbecued chicken, traditional breakfast specials, burgers, soups, sandwiches, wraps, hoagies, a salad bar, and a “Hot n’ Trot Buffet” featuring different items each day.
“The smoked items are a huge part of business: cheese, bacon, ham, the deli, ribs — a lot of ribs. The barbecue is my end of things. I only trust one person to help me cook,” Alan said.
“The produce (in the market) is key to the restaurant. We can push certain things. We throw out a lot less with the restaurant,” Kyle said.
At the end of the day, the Ards believe there are two main reasons for their success — “the quality of the products we put out and customer service,” she said.
“If you don’t want to buy it, don’t sell it. It’s not worth it to lose a customer,” Alan added.
As for the future, the Ard’s plan to remain a family business. Their oldest son, Justin, manages the kitchen and restaurant. Their four younger children help as needed, and are considering returning to the family enterprise.
“The key is to make yourself a destination. Try to address the needs of your customers. Be flexible and don’t be afraid to try,” Alan said.
“We’ve diversified enough to get through the tough times. If we were just a market, we’d have closed already,” Kyle said.