FREDERICK, Md. — A group of 51 farmers took two days off from their busiest part of the season to visit select farm markets during the recent “Are You Crazy?” retail farm market tour.
Organized by Penn State Extension, the annual tour gives farmers the chance to glean marketing and operational ideas from their colleagues. Farmers came from as far away as Connecticut to board the tour bus, which departed from Lancaster, Pa., on July 22 and spent two days visiting farm markets in Maryland.
Each year, the tour visits farm markets in different areas of the Northeast.
“Last year we were in Connecticut and New York City to see what other people are doing,” said Carla Snyder, a farm market educator with Penn State Extension, who was on her third tour. “We toured Ohio and Pittsburgh the previous year.”
“The idea is to get a break from home and a couple of days away,” said John Berry, an ag marketing educator with Penn State Extension and organizer of the tour. “Let’s go see what other people are doing so we can steal some good ideas. The Cooperative Extension was built on people learning by doing or learning from others, so we got the idea to go see some markets when people are actively busy.
“We learn at the market from the people that are doing it and we talk on the bus between the markets. We call it a classroom on wheels because we talk about what we just saw,” Berry said.
Each stop includes a specialty topic of interest to the group. The first stop on this year’s tour was Catoctin Mountain Orchard on Route 15, just north of Frederick, Md., which has been operating since 1948 and specializes in plum varieties. The group got a look at the farm’s bakery operation, orchards and their specialty products.
“I am looking for CSA, high-profit bakery treats and dairy bar information,” said Hugh McPherson of Maple Lawn Farms in southeastern York County, Pa. “I get more out of it than if I just drove down here myself to look around.”
The next stop was Baugher Farm in Westminster, Md., where the group toured the market and bakery, and saw how the farm manages large crowds during its busy you-pick season, where they get up to 5,000 visitors a day. This family operation has transitioned to the third generation that now operates the farm, a market, a restaurant and local school tours, but the owners say they wrestle with how to charge accordingly for the entertainment value they provide.
“This is the fifth time we have done this,” said John Blew, hailing from his 160-acre Oak Grove Plantation fruit and vegetable farm in Pittstown, N.J. “We started a CSA program based on what we saw at previous crazy tours and we just started a commercial kitchen on the farm so we can make our own products. There is a commercial kitchen in almost every farm we visit, and I am looking forward to the McCutcheon tour to see their canning and jarring operation.”
Most of the farmers on the tour stock McCutcheon’s Apple Products in their markets and the group stopped to get a tour of the factory in <\h>Frederick, Md., and explore large-scale food production. The family owned company sells their natural food products to farmers markets, garden centers, and mom-and-pop grocery stores. They process more than 3 million pounds of apples, 175,000 cases of preserved products and 50,000 cases of other items a year, including jellies, apple cider, tea, juice drinks, pasta sauces, soda, pickles, relishes and more.
Butler’s Orchard in Germantown, Md., rounded out the first day of the tour. The stop included a look at the orchard’s farm market, pick-your-own orchard, bakery and agritainment events.
The tour not only provides a great way to see what other people are doing, but also provides valuable feedback to tour hosts.
“When we get back on the bus, we have a sheet of paper where each person lists the things that struck them as positive about the market and things that as a manager for a day they would change,” Berry said. “Back at Penn State, we will summarize the information and send it back to the markets we visited. They really value seeing their market through the eyes of their peers. It is worth the extra work they do for the tour because when 51 of your peers show up, you do that little extra cleanup and water the flowers, as you want to look good.”
“I like this tour because at the end of the tour, they mailed me a copy of what everybody liked about my place and it was almost like hiring a consultant to come in,” said John Preli, owner of Belltown Hill Orchards in Glastonbury, Conn., which was visited last year. “I have 150 acres of diversified fruit and I am curious to see what other people are doing. I am just keeping an open mind and hoping to find that one thing that helps us.”
The second day started with a visit to Larriland Farm in Woodbine, Md. Larry and Polly Moore started their large pick-your-own fruit and vegetable operation and market in 1973. They grow strawberries, cherries, blueberries, peaches, apples, pumpkins, and other fruits and vegetables.
Richardson Farms of White Marsh in White Marsh, Md., was the second stop. The farm grows more than 300 acres of fresh produce and has the largest farm stand in Baltimore. In 2010, they opened a new kitchen where an executive chef supervises whole meals. They offered tour visitors tips on “chefing” and how to incorporate foods from the farm into restaurant menus.
From White Marsh, the tour traveled to Weber Cider Mill Farm, the oldest cider mill in continuous operation in Maryland, and heard how three generations of Webers handle cider processing and market varietal ciders.
The last stop was Milburn Orchards in Elkton, Md., which has been family operated since 1902. The family’s transition into a new market facility was the main point of discussion.
“What has been very evident during this tour is the passion of sharing what these people do,” said Jim Stauffer of Lancaster Pa. “This is an opportunity to get away and see other business in the peak of their season and come home with new ideas so we can do things better. I’m crazy like the tour.”
“When I first talked about this with some farmers, most of them said, Are you crazy? I am going to leave my farm at the peak season?’” Berry said. “So that is how we got the name” of the tour.
“It seems like a big commitment. You are two days away from your operation and you may have to drive two hours to the pickup site,” Berry said. “Although it costs about $300 to participate, I have never had anyone say they were sorry or asked for their money back.”