11/10/2012 10:00 AM
By Jennifer Hetrick Southeastern Pa. Correspondent
OLEY, Pa. — After the Dietrich family of Pike Township, Berks County, Pa., is done growing their main crops of asparagus, strawberries and raspberries in the warm season, they supplement their work in the cold months by running a bake oven and creating handmade wreaths to bring in additional income.
Mike and Barb Dietrich grew up in Berks County, Pa., but as a military family they moved away and lived in several different places. Mike eventually retired from the U.S. Army Special Forces after 28 years. He had served as a colonel and lived across the country and in Kuppingen, Germany, which is where the family first saw a rentable community bake oven.
The couple wanted to move back to Berks County before their children graduated from high school. They bought their current farm in 2006 and began working the land under the name, Oley Valley Organics, in 2007.
The almost-13-acre Pennsylvania tract they now call home had all of what they had wanted — a nearby natural water source, tillable land, a barn and a chance to be close to family.
The agricultural background of the family includes Mike’s father and grandfather running a John Deere equipment sales operation. Barb’s family had a crop farm.
The historic bake oven, not far from their house, stood as a unique asset to the farm. Barb has noticed that as word spreads about the bake oven across the region, people seek the family out just to see it operate and to buy bread made in it, too. She said she doesn’t have to advertise about it anymore.
The home on the property is known to be at least 120 years old, so Barb said she and neighbors she’s talked to suspect the bake oven may be around the same age.
It took the family about two years to test out and practice with the bake oven to make sure they knew all its quirks before preparing bread in it to sell.
More often than not, people visit the farm just to see the oven in action, so Barb frequently runs it in the autumn and winter to show people how it works. The oven is also a tool to tell potential customers more about the farm and what the family does in their work producing food.
The bake oven takes approximately four to five hours to reach 500 F. It takes an hour to cool down to 380 F while the flue is open slightly for baking breads. The bread is made from a mix prepared by Tom Kopel, also known as the Oley Baker, a few miles down the road.
The bake oven is used a few times per season. Since it takes so long to fire up, about 80 to 100 loaves are prepared every time and baked for 20 minutes each.
“A lot of the time, we don’t have loaves left for us,” Barb said about selling out of bread almost every time. If any is left over, she puts it in coolers by the roadside stand, and it sells within 24 hours.
Having tested out a few different kinds of breads, Barb now knows what people around the area prefer best and only bakes according to that rule of thumb.
“Most people like rye types of bread, so we do a light rye and a dark rye,” Barb said.
The bake oven is most often used when tours are happening in the area, including this upcoming Saturday, Nov. 17, when an antiques tour will be taking place in the region.
Handmade evergreen wreaths sold at their roadside stand, made to custom order or for fundraisers are the other main winter work at Oley Valley Organics.
Barb said that most of their wreath sales are for fundraising opportunities for regional Boy Scout Troops and other nonprofit organizations. She allows the organizations to keep 20 percent of total sales.
When she first started selling handmade wreaths, starting late the first year, Barb sold about 10 or 15. Today, she sells about 300 per season and even has people from out of state buying them, including residents from Florida, Kansas, Ohio, New York, Maryland and New Jersey.
Wreaths ranging from 18 inches to 26 inches cost anywhere from $25 to $45.
Her Jingle All The Way Wreath is the most popular seller, incorporating bells from Flower & Craft Warehouse in Blue Ball, Lancaster County, Pa.
Most of the Dietrichs’ wreaths and decorative holiday sprays include three sets of greens. For example, they might consist of white pine, Douglas fir, Norway spruce, blue spruce or arborvitae.
Aside from cutting greens from fallen trees around her area, Barb also sources wreath branches from Blank Tree Farm and Beekman Orchards, both in Boyertown, from Fife & Drum Tree Farm in Barto, and the Kutztown Produce Auction in Fleetwood, all in Berks County, Pa.
“Luckily, I will get a large quantity (of greens) from friends and family who had trees that were damaged from the storm,” Barb said about Hurricane Sandy.
Barb and Mike’s children, Nate, 17, Matt, 18 and Casey, 21, help to cut branches and prepare wreaths in winter. Barb’s sisters and a neighbor also help part-time.
While the bake oven’s bread supply and wreath sales only account for a small portion of farm revenue, Barb concluded that it’s nice to have some income before Christmastime.
For more details and information about the farm, visit http://oleyvalleyorganics.com online or call 484-336-9980.