NEW DANVILLE, Pa. — Not even the rainy, chilly weather could keep a steady stream of customers from stopping by the Cherry Hill Orchards outlet store.
According to Thomas Haas, owner and operator of the store and its adjoining orchard, business has been underway as usual for this time of year.
“I can tell what each week’s going to be,” Haas said of the seasonal customer flow. After years in the business, the change in visiting customers is about as predictable as the cycle of the fruit trees just outside.
The outlet store opened for business in 1980, when Haas was still in high school. His father, Richard, has grown and sold fruit in the area for over 50 years. When the younger Haas graduated school, he decided to enter the business with his dad.
They have maintained the orchard on the 165-acre farm since then. Haas grows apples, plums, peaches, cherries, blackberries, sweet corn and apricots.
With around 40 varieties of apples, it’s plain to see where the big draw is. This time of year in early April, only about a dozen or so remain up for sale in the store.
The fruit is distributed in thirds, with one third sold retail in the store, one third sold wholesale and one third available as pick-your-own when in season. Cherries and peaches are also big attractions.
The pick-your-own side of the business has also been in the community for generations.
“We have people who came here as kids bring their own kids now,” Haas said.
Their long-standing reputation in the area is key to the success of the business. Marketed as the largest pick-your-own and retail operation in Lancaster County, Cherry Hill Orchards has built a name for itself over the years that Haas strives to maintain.
According to Ryan Shenk, assistant orchard manager, the outlet store sells as much from Lancaster County businesses as it can — and is clear to advertise that. Besides the fruit from their own orchard, the store also sells varieties of honey, jellies, baked goods, maple syrup, salsas and fresh vegetables.
A selection of flowers from greenhouses just down the road add a colorful splash to the outside of the building.
Customizable gift baskets are also available at the store. Along with fruit, soup and pastry mixes, selections of meat and canned items may be added to the baskets. Each of the baskets is made on site by one of the store’s workers.
The operation has around 30 full-time employees who work at the different sectors of the business. Most of the employees work in the store or assist the pick-your-own operation. Haas said the real challenge is keeping people in the orchard during the harvesting season to pick the rest of the fruit.
Seasonal work for long days in the hot sun isn’t always appealing to local people. Increasingly, the business has had to turn elsewhere to find the manpower needed to prune, pick and sort the acres of fruit trees.
Haas has relied on migrant workers from Mexico for years, but stricter immigration rules and regulations have recently hindered that. The new challenge is trying to ensure that he can both keep these workers on for a season and have them return, especially while running the rest of the business.
In the fall, the orchard also offers pumpkin picking and hay rides around the property. Both pull in a good flow of additional customers during the cooler months.
Haas said it’s less about mainstream agritourism, and more for showcasing the natural beauty of the orchard and surrounding farmland to the public.
“We’re ambassadors to not only the farm, but agriculture too,” he said. Keeping up a long-standing presence in the community and opening the orchard to visitors is a crucial part of that vision.
Striving for the right quality in all the produce helps too. The “best eating quality” is looked for in every piece of fruit put up for sale. If a customer finds a problem with a purchase, they can bring it back to the store and exchange it.
Haas has received his fair share of accolades for the time and commitment that goes into his business.
In January, Haas received the Grower of the Year Award from the State Horticulture Association of Pennsylvania at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Growers Banquet.
He also serves as a member of SHAP’s board and strategic planning committee.
That work ethic is evident even during the orchard’s off season.
“It’s seasonal work, but a year-round job.”