by Sally Colby
John Roba had a dream: to own a Christmas tree farm. That dream came true in 1984 when he and his wife Sue purchased a former dairy farm in Lackawanna County, PA. They started planting Christmas trees and opened for cut-your-own tree in 1990. But they didn’t stop with Christmas trees.
“In 1993, we planted a small pumpkin patch,” said John. “The idea was that people would come in fall for pumpkins, see the trees while they were here and come back during the Christmas season to cut a tree.”
The business grew, drawing more guests every season. Since families were the primary visitors, adding attractions to keep children busy seemed like the best next step. Jeff Roba, one of John and Sue’s sons who is now an integral second generation member of the farm team, said his father probably didn’t envision the farm becoming what it did, but now, in their 27th season, thousands of guests visit the farm through autumn and the holiday season.
Although the first attraction at Roba Family Farms was a kids’ sandbox and a cow train, the agritainment aspect now includes well-planned attractions that encompass almost the entire 50-acre farm. As agritainment took more and more ground, the family purchased another farm, known as Lakeland Orchard and Cidery. The location is dedicated to Christmas trees, an apple orchard, pumpkins and, more recently, flowers for U-cut.
“The thought was that we could get the farm at a decent price and grow trees on it,” said John, adding that the second farm is under ag preservation. “Christmas trees were planted first, then apple trees. Without apples, there’s no agritainment, and without agritainment, there’s no sale for apples.”
Despite the elevation, gently sloping ground and seemingly good drainage on the new farm, Phytophthora was killing trees. To solve that problem, the Robas started planting Christmas trees on ridges. A V-plow attachment is used to create ridges, followed by a bed former to complete the process. “The ridges are six and a half feet on center, and we plant on the ridges,” said farm manager Gene Hahn. “Once we got trees off the ground, there was no sign of Phytophthora.” Hahn added that even on ground unaffected by Phytophthora, trees grown on ridges grow faster and are market-ready about two years faster.
Today, Douglas, Fraser, Concolor, Canaan and Korean fir and blue spruce thrive on close to 100 acres. Although Frasers are the top seller, Hahn said Douglas firs are a close second.
Hahn described the choose and cut process: “As soon as fall activities are over, I come out and start tagging all the trees we want to sell. Trees are marked according to height and species, and priced. If a tree doesn’t have a tag, it isn’t available for cutting. The two-part tags are secured to the tree with a zip tie.” He added that he usually tags every other tree in a row to improve air circulation for remaining trees.
The entire farm is irrigated to provide young trees with plenty of water at every stage of growth. The irrigation tape woven between trees remains in place unless it’s disturbed by mechanical digging for B&B trees. All trees are hand-planted, and basal pruning prior to the holiday season provides greens for wreaths.
Rather than planting trees between stumps, the Robas clear an entire area and prepare it for a new planting. Any remaining stumps are either pulled or ground. When possible, rye is established in tree fields one year prior to planting, followed by plowing, disking, ridging and replanting.
A wagon takes guests to the Christmas tree fields and drops them among the tree species they’re interested in. After selecting and cutting a tagged tree, guests use tree carts to move trees to the edge of the field, where employees load trees onto landscape trailers. Guests and their trees return to the parking area where trees are shaken, baled and drilled.
Precut trees are sold at the main location and comprise the majority of the tree business with 4,000 to 5,000 sold each season. About 1,200 trees leave the Lakeland farm as choose-and-cut trees.
Although a significant number of trees are sold each season, John said Christmas trees don’t account for the majority of farm income. To draw attention to Christmas trees, John started an apple orchard in 2011 directly across from the Christmas tree fields where it’s easy for guests to see the carefully manicured trees.
For the orchard, John designed a tall spindle system with dwarfing rootstock and said it’s working well for U-pick. Today, the farm includes 20,000 apple trees on 15 acres. “One of the beauties of this system is you can teach anyone to train these trees,” said John. “Any side branches bigger than your thumb are cut off in winter pruning.”
Although the orchard includes a variety of apples, John said the most popular choice among customers is Honeycrisp, a variety notoriously challenging to grow. “It’s difficult to get the crop load right,” he said. “If there aren’t enough apples on the tree, there’s a lot of vegetative growth, which takes calcium, and calcium deficiency causes bitter pit. If there are too many apples on the tree, it won’t bloom the next year. It’s a real juggling act.”
John said that although the U-pick concept wasn’t common when he established the orchard, he has waited patiently for customers to embrace the idea. “I thought it was going to be easy,” he said. “But it wasn’t a tradition here, and we had to educate people.” Because a given number of visitors will spend time on the farm but not purchase anything, the Robas have come up with a unique U-pick model: people pay admission, and the price includes a quarter-peck bag for U-pick apples.
Orchard signage identifying and explaining the characteristics of each variety helps guests decide what to pick. Employees use a platform to pick apples beyond the reach of guests, and those apples are for sale at farm stores at both locations. Future plans for the Lakeland farm include constructing a dedicated cider barn to produce both sweet and hard cider.
While the Robas had already built a significant agritourism venture at the original farm, they didn’t envision the same for the Lakeland location until it became clear that it would draw customers. In addition to a growing number of unique attractions such as a corn box with 50 tons of corn, the Lakeland farm also features sunflowers and zinnias available for U-cut.
Roba Family Farms is truly a family-owned and managed business. John handles planting, scouting and spraying; Sue manages accounting, HR and onboarding of new employees. Jenn manages Lakeland Orchard and Cidery and helps care for the apple orchard, and Jeff splits his time between both locations, organizing new projects and analyzing the business component. Jake returns to the farm on weekends to co-manage the food areas.
As John and Sue continue to welcome guests with hospitality and the promise of a good time, their children are coming up with more ideas to keep the Roba Family Farms experience special.
Visit Roba Family Farms at www.robafamilyfarms.com.