NEW WILMINGTON, Pa. — “I never thought I would end up back here at the farm,” said Jeanice Ferris (Britvich).
Ferris grew up on a farm that has been in her family since 2014. It has made many shifts over the years.
“My granddad Joe quit the dairy business in 1992,” she said. “My dad, Frank, worked with him and in the 1970s, decided to plant some tomatoes and sold them as pick-your-own. It went very well.”
After that, Frank Ferris added strawberries to the farm. At one time, Jeanice Ferris said, they had 10 to 12 acres of pick-your-own and ready-picked strawberries.
Jeanice Ferris returned to the farm in 2009, following a career in the mortgage industry. For a time, she owned her own mortgage company.
As she took over the farm, she hired Will Rumbold as her farm manager. Together they developed a thriving retail and wholesale produce business.
Ferris Farm includes 302 acres of land. For Ferris, it requires a lot of multi-tasking.
“Each year we experiment with something,” Jeanice Ferris said. “Last year it was the cherry husk tomatoes (also known as ground cherries). They are truly unique and customers liked them.”
These small fruits grow wrapped in a husk. When they are edible and ripe, they fall off the plant. Ferris sold them by the pint and offered them as samples on the sales counters at the Ferris Farm Produce stands at local farmers markets.
“We are growing the cherry husk tomatoes again. Our experiment this year has been hydroponic lettuce,” she said. “Heads of buttercrunch lettuce are now available.”
She also grew some tomatoes in the farm’s greenhouse this winter. They were successful and Ferris hopes to have tomatoes available throughout the year next season.
“Tomatoes are our main crop,” she said. They plant 17,000 plants, mostly Primo. This is a large tomato that does well as an early season variety. Ferris Farm plants them in succession to have product throughout the farm market season.
Many of the tomatoes are sold wholesale.
“Some go to grocery stores and restaurants,” Ferris said. “About 40 percent of the wholesale tomatoes go to area Amish farmers to sell in their produce stands. Any tomatoes that are left go to one of the area produce markets.”
The first crop of the season is strawberries. They are usually available around June 1.
Deer, as well as other wildlife, can be a real challenge when growing produce at the farm. Local hunters try to keep the groundhogs at bay. Ferris said they have tried all types of deterrents to reduce the deer herd.
“When we have no alternative, I call the game commission to see what the current rules are for removing deer for crop damage,” she said.
“We can’t keep the deer meat for our own use, but it can be contributed to local food pantries,” she said. “At least it isn’t going to waste.”
Currently, the greenhouse is filling fast with plants ready to move to the mid-tunnels. These tunnels are built around an area that will be planted into three rows of crop. The tunnels are 25 feet wide, about 8 feet tall and can be 100 to 500 feet long.
“Mid-tunnels are less vulnerable to the weather, especially wind,” Ferris said.
“We try to plant our first sweet corn by April 15, but this year the weather didn’t cooperate, so we will be a little late. We want sweet corn available for July 4th.”
The corn is planted in the field and is covered for protection from cold weather.
“We were cleaning the market out the other day and we had several people stop by,” she said.
The customers are anxious for spring and summer to arrive.
Ferris Farm is well known to people who frequent the area farmers markets. Ferris said, they sell at market Wednesday through Sunday, with two markets on Saturday. This year they will participate in a farmers market once a month at the University of Pittsburgh.
Ferris uses the least toxic plant protection products that she can.
“My family eats the same things that we sell. My kids like to pick and eat things right from the field. I want them to be able to do that,” she said.
She and her husband have two children and live on the farm.
She is often asked if she plans to go organic. Her answer is no. She feels she needs to use fungicides and other things to provide quality produce at her stands.
“I am very fussy about who works at our stands at market,” she said. “I want people who are outgoing and have a strong work ethic. Selling isn’t easy.”
Ferris Farm salespeople invite customers in to their tables and help them learn about the produce that is available. They offer value-added products as well. Amish canned goods are always big sellers.
The farm is also known for a planting tool called a poly planter, also known as the Ferris Polyplanter.
“My dad has a very inventive mind and in 1987 created a machine that plants seeds through plastic,” Ferris said.
His machine, the Polyplanter, is manufactured on the farm and is sold around the world. He also developed a Polyplanter Junior that is a hand-pushed model. These are popular with small farmers and gardeners.
The larger machine is recommended for farmers planting 10 acres or more. It is used mostly for sweet corn and beans, but there have been some requests from farmers planting industrial hemp.
The Polyplanter machine lays the plastic and pokes a hole in it and plants a seed. It can work on flat ground or raised beds.
There are different sizes of plates for the Polyplanter to plant seeds from a tiny cabbage seed up to lima beans, Ferris said.
It all keeps her busy.
For more information about Ferris Farm, visit them on Facebook.