EASTON, Md. — The berries are fat and sweet, but that’s not the only reason that people come.
Family Affair Farm, near Easton, is a small pick-your-own strawberry, blueberry and blackberry farm with a big pumpkin patch, miniature Hereford cows and a corn maze.
Each fall, Spookley the Square Pumpkin brings his message of tolerance to the farm in an effort to help fight school bullying. It’s a small farm which prides itself on a healthy helping of community and fun.
There’s a miniature donkey named Miss Patsy, who lets the miniature Herefords, half the size of the typical breed, know who’s boss and a pumpkin bounce designed with baffles so the big kids or parents can’t bounce their kids into the next field. There are slides and games, making the farm a popular destination for school trips.
The pick-your-own part of the farm began about six years ago when Donna Saathoff and her friend Nicole Barth decided to grow strawberries. The two traveled to North Carolina to meet veteran strawberry growers who were a tad surprised to see a pair of women.
They were greeted with “Honey, where’s your man?”
That story brings a smile to their faces and those strawberry growers love them now, but the beginning may have been a tad unsure.
That was the very beginning of a new direction for Saathoff’s family farm. They still grow corn, soybeans and wheat and raise broiler chickens, but she was looking for something new, something which reminded her of days picking strawberries and making jam with her grandmother.
She is retired and now works full-time at the farm. Her best friend Barth still works at nearby Chesapeake College as the program coordinator for agriculture and environmental science.
Visitors come back year after year and the pair learn about the news, good and bad, which helps make visitors less customers and more family.
“We are more community than just selling fruit,” Saathoff said. “We have never done things the way other farms do.”
“You see people grow up and go through things. They are more than just customers. They are basically family,” Barth added.
Saathoff said people have asked why they don’t just sell wholesale and avoid the challenges of dealing with the public, a public which sometimes likes to ask about GMOs and other thorny issues.
“We like people,” Saathoff responds.
Besides, somebody has to answer those questions and the pair like to think they are helping a younger generation learn about farming. Besides the school trips, they visit local schools and teach the kids to plant, grow and fertilize strawberries, all the way up until it’s harvest time in May and the kids get to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
“That is like nurturing the next generation,” Saathoff said. “I want somebody to take over farming.”
The payoff comes when they go grocery shopping or buy a cup of morning coffee and they hear kids say “those are the strawberry girls.”
Saathoff also believes that places like Family Affair Farm can help people regain their trust of farmers.
“Ag and people needed to come together, so they could trust us again,” she said.
Strawberries, together with asparagus, are sometimes seen as the first real sign that winter is gone and spring has arrived. So, people line up at the farm for the first day that strawberry season begins. It’s been a really good strawberry season, a nice bounce back from last May when 14 inches of rain fell on the farm.
“Last year’s theme was rain,” Barth said.
Saathoff said that Mother Nature on the Eastern Shore can’t make up its mind.
The farm is almost completely a pick-your-own operation, giving people and families the chance to get a little closer to their farming roots. The pair like to tell the kids to not walk on the plants and be careful how they pick.
Saathoff said the children listen and then scold their parents if they trample the plants. Berries are sold by the pound and more than a few get tasted first.
“People always ask us if we weigh the children first,” she joked. “We don’t, but we should probably weigh the parents.”
“It’s the best thing since sliced bread. Somebody pays you to pick your crop,” Saathoff said.
Saathoff and Barth have purchased a trolley, which they plan to use to offer tours of scenic nearby towns like St. Michael’s and Easton before taking visitors to the country to visit creameries, wineries and other local farms. Town and Country Trolley Tours hopes to have a “soft opening” in late summer before becoming full time on weekends next year.
“People can learn a little bit. I’m going to talk so much and make them so happy. Then, I’m going to take them to the winery,” Saathoff said.
Fall tends to be especially busy with pumpkins, the corn maze, games and school visits.
“It’s about eight weeks of no sleep and almost no eating,” she said.
They urge parents to turn off their cell phones, so that they don’t miss a moment with their kids.
Kids get to pet the miniature Herefords and visit with Miss Patsy, play games, do the pumpkin bounce, pick a pumpkin and go through the corn maze. There’s a wild west maze theme with props, costumes and riddles to solve.
The first year, the maze drew 800 visitors. By the third year, it had drawn 3,100 visitors and the pair hope for even more visitors this year. It’s family friendly with no smoking, no drinking and plenty of adult supervision.
They joke that if you get lost in the maze, “breakfast is at 6:30 a.m. and you’re welcome to join us.”
Fall is also time to meet Spookley the Square Pumpkin. Spookley was first seen in an animated film in 2004 based on a children’s book and he is now used in a national campaign to prevent bullying and promote tolerance.
Barth said they try to give their customers “quality fruit, family memories and a sense of community.”
To learn more, go to familyaffairfarm.wix.com/familyaffairfarm.