RED LION, Pa. — Seventh-generation farmer Karen (Flinchbaugh) Doyle never intended to marry a farmer.
But in one of those classic twists of life, not only is this native York County resident wed to a farmer, she’s become a savvy, veteran farm marketer herself. Working with her husband, Rick Doyle — who retired a year ago from his full-time, off-farm job — Karen is the spark plug behind this successful family farm business.
“We started with Christmas trees, 25 years ago,” Karen Doyle says, as customers come and go at Family Tree Farm on a busy August afternoon.
But today, instead of looking at holiday evergreen selections, visitors are carting off bowling ball-sized cantaloupes, plump red tomatoes and sweetly fragrant peaches from the farm’s attractive, red, barn-style roadside produce market.
And, across Dairy Road, which slices through the Doyles’ Family Tree Farm in North Hopewell Township, rows of colorful annual flowers attract clouds of butterflies visiting the bright blooms, beckoning to the farm’s cut-your-own-bouquet customers.
And, few customers leave without lugging along a bag of the market’s midsummer piece-de-resistance, freshly picked sweet corn grown just steps away in the Doyles’ farm fields.
“Selling produce started about the same time as we got into Christmas trees,” Karen Doyle said.
“We put out corn and tomatoes in a wagon,” she said of the family’s modest start-up of summertime sales. “Customers paid for what they bought on the honor system.”
As the population of the area has grown steadily, so has Family Tree Farm’s clientele — newcomers to the area along with long-time customers returning again and again for the Doyles’ fresh, local, farm-grown favorites.
For those who want to get even more up-close and personal with their produce, the Doyles offer U-pick flowers, apples, pumpkins and their namesake, Christmas trees.
“We are off the ‘beaten path’ a bit, but people seem to like to come out to the country,” Karen Doyle said.
As the area has grown, so has the traffic, which passes steadily on the busy road past the market, one that she remembers as a relatively quiet dirt road when she was a youngster.
“Our stand doesn’t open until July, when the sweet corn is ready,” Doyle said.
By that time, other produce grown on-site, like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and melons, has also reached readiness.
A family wedding held on their farm prompted Doyle to branch out into the cut-your-own flowers addition seven years ago.
“A great-niece wanted to have her wedding here on the farm, and wanted to have Mason-jar-type floral decorations,” said Doyle about the family event that spurred the addition of the popular blooms. Now, long rows of colorful annuals, including zinnias, snapdragons, cockscomb, lisianthus, gloriosa daisies and a host of others, allow customers to browse through the beauties, selecting their favorites, accompanied by the fluttering of the ever-present butterflies.
At $12 per large container, with a capacity to hold several dozen blooms, the cut-your-own bouquets offer a reasonably priced alternative for wedding flower selections. Brides and their wedding planners can come to the farm to see and select exactly which flowers and colors they want.
Other wedding couples have taken advantage of the beauty of the floral displays, which also provide a lovely setting for photographs. The Doyles’ son was married on the farm five years ago, and plans are underway to host another upcoming family wedding in a few weeks.
Based on her experience of the past two-dozen years, Karen Doyle advises others considering starting into on-farm marketing to “start small and build a following.”
Start-ups also need to check first with their municipalities, she said, to learn the rules and regulations, and get the proper permits required for an on-farm sales business.
“Focus on quality,” she advises, as a requisite for perishable produce sales. “Everything is put into (our) cooler right away to keep it fresh, and produce is stored in the cooler overnight to maintain quality and freshness.”
“We grow most of our own things and we’ve learned through trial and error, through our mistakes,” Doyle said.
With the heat of the summer, most of the farm’s produce is running about two weeks ahead of last year. Apples will soon be ready to pick and most pumpkins have already turned orange. A cool August evening or two will spur customers to begin thinking about autumn decorations and Halloween festivities.
“The heat and humidity of the weather has been a challenge and this year has been a bit extreme,” Doyle said about the near-record-setting thermometer readings of recent weeks. Not only does the market produce need to be carefully managed to maintain quality, Doyle is keenly aware of keeping the folks — such as Tim and Sandy Royer — who help sell the produce, cool and hydrated as they wait on the steady stream of customers.
“The seasons just sort of run into one another,” said Doyle, noting that the fall favorites will begin overlapping late sweet corn. And post-Halloween days will have customers looking ahead to plans for Christmas tree selection. Admittedly, by the time the last evergreen has been cut and sold, the family is ready for a breather.
“Learning is something we like to do,” she said, noting that the “down” time of the winter months allows them to attend various horticulture meetings and events to keep up with business changes and innovations.
Family Tree Farm has been part of the family heritage since 1810, when a Strayer purchased the farm south of the village of Red Lion. According to the Family Tree Farm’s website, the farm was awarded Pennsylvania’s Bicentennial Farm Award for keeping the farm in the family for over 200 years. Karen’s grandmother married a Flinchbaugh, who raised tobacco crops. Later, Karen’s parents operated the farm as a dairy, until the 1980s, so she grew up helping with chores on the family’s dairy farm. When Karen’s dad retired from dairy, Rick Doyle — whose family ran a successful, longtime Maryland tree farm — suggested the Flinchbaughs plant a Christmas tree farm. So, Karen’s dad grew the holiday trees until 1998, when the farm passed to the Doyles. Now, as the seventh generation operating the farm, Karen hopes to see it continue with her family’s lineage. The Doyles’ three children all have careers off the farm, but two granddaughters, ages 13 and 14, are regular assistants with the produce sales.
“Agriculture is in our blood,” Karen Doyle said with a smile. “But there are no plans to expand the business beyond what it is currently.”
Family Tree Farm is located at 4688 Dairy Road, Red Lion, or online at familytreefarm.com.