Lancaster grower reflects on 50 years farming

GO-MR-3-Lancaster grower 3by William and Mary Weaver
During the 40+ years that the Haas family has been operating Cherry Hill Orchards in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, they have developed an impressive direct marketing operation. About a quarter of the fruit they grow on the 164 acres they own and lease is marketed Pick-Your-Own (PYO), and about half is sold retail through their Orchard Outlet store, built in 1980. The other quarter of their crop, mainly apples and peaches, is sold wholesale.
This year Richard Haas is celebrating 50 years of growing and marketing fruit in Lancaster County, and along with learning a lot about growing and merchandising fruit, he has also figured out how to successfully and without rancor pass on the farm to one of his four children, his oldest son Tom.
The large orchard currently includes 45 acres of apples, with 40 varieties, harvested from July through November. As new strains and mutations become available that have better flavor or color, Richard and Tom are quick to incorporate them into their orchard. “We’re constantly planting new strains and varieties to be able to offer our customers the best flavored, highly colored fruit.”
Jonagold, for example, was developed in Geneva, NY in the mid-1960s. “It has excellent flavor,” Haas explained, “but the color was weak, so we eventually dropped the variety. Europeans, though, who emphasize flavor (they see apples as a dessert item) stuck with Jonagold, and eventually came up with better-colored strains which are needed for the American market, such as Jonaprince and Jonagored, developed in Belgium and Holland, and we have incorporated these into our orchard.”
“We’ve recently tested a Swiss variety, Modi, which was so well-received that we’re planting 80 to 100 Modi trees this year.
“Our old Stayman variety has been replace by a mutation with much better color found on a tree in Virginia by a grower named Alfred Snapp. We’ve also discarded many Red Delicious strains because they lacked full color. We have to compete with displays in the supermarkets, and to do that, our fruit must have high color as well as flavor!”
During the last 20 years, all of the trees planted at Cherry Hill have been semi-dwarf or dwarf (with the exception of their Montmorency cherries which are on standard rootstocks called Mahaleb.)
“We prefer Bud-9 rootstocks for the apples,” Haas continued. “The M-9’s don’t stand well enough to be free-standing. With Bud-9s, if we’re careful to get them straight, some will be free-standing, although we do trellis some too.”
Cherry Hill offers 40 acres of peaches, harvested from June through September, which are marketed for PYO, sold picked at their Orchard Outlet, and sold to wholesale customers. Ten to twelve of these are the highly colored Flamin’ Fury varieties. “Developed in Michigan, they adapt well to our area,” Haas noted, “and they are more resistant to bacterial leaf spot, a real problem here, than varieties developed in the very dry, low-humidity areas of California.”
Cherry Hill also has five acres of nectarines; an acre of plums, including Japanese and European varieties; an acre of apricots; 20 acres of cherries in 30 varieties, both dark sweet and Montmorency tart; and an acre of blackberries, mostly thorn-free varieties. The blackberries, like all their other fruits, are available both for PYO and at the Orchard Outlet.
In addition, the operation grows their own sweet corn, a bi-color, which Haas calls simply “Rich’s Choice,” which customers say is the best sweet corn in Lancaster County. They also grow 10 varieties of pumpkins.
Their Orchard Outlet Store, built in 1980, added a new dimension to their direct marketing, and has become a destination for folks looking for top-quality fruit.
Passing on the Farm Smoothly — Richard Haas’ Style
“My oldest son Tom has been working here since he was six years old,” said Haas. “When Tom graduated from high school, I asked him if he’d like to work for me. He said, ‘Yes.’ He’s been working here ever since.”
When Tom turned 20, and his other three children were headed in other directions, Haas decided, after careful thought, to begin to make Tom a stockholder to give him a stake in the business.
“Tom bought shares, I gave him more, and since then, it’s been all downhill for me and uphill for him,” Haas chuckled. “For more than 10 years now, Tom has been full owner of the farm and the store, and I, his Father, just work here.”
How have they avoided the usual intergenerational friction that plagues so many farm businesses? “I didn’t grow up on a farm,” Richard explained, “and I heard about the family squabbles and desperately wanted to avoid that.
“Tom and I made a pact between us at the outset that either one of us can veto any action involving spending more than $1,000. We discuss it, give our opinions, and respect one another’s opinion.”
Haas has a low-key, thoughtful style, which in itself would seem to help minimize friction. But there were three other children in the family who also had equity needs, and Richard spent a lot of time mulling over how to be fair.
“I didn’t want the one who had the stock and who had helped to produce the equity in the farm to have to sell out.”
Finally, Haas decided to sell the big farm, (which he has leased back every year since he sold it) and put the proceeds into commercial buildings. Each of the children received shares in the commercial buildings.
“I never had a child come to me and complain about how things were set up,” he explained. “I always told all four of them in advance what the plan was, gave them time to think about it, and tried to treat them all fairly.
“As the senior person,” Haas continued, “the father has to take the initiative and set the pace. The children learn that’s the best way to deal and respond in kind. I started trying to figure out the best way to do this when I was 50. I’m 77 now. A lot of potential problems have been avoided and are behind me.”
As he reflects over the last 50 years of growing and working with his family, Haas says, “I look back on those 50 years with a great deal of appreciation and satisfaction!”

2013-04-02T12:20:52+00:00April 2, 2013|Grower East|0 Comments

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