by Sally Colby
John Boyer grew up on a dairy farm and continued to milk cows as an adult. Although the dairy enterprise ended 18 years ago, Boyer continues to farm Honey Haven Farm in Ashland, Ohio.
“I didn’t know anything else,” said Boyer as he talked about his move from dairy farming to growing plants and venturing into agritourism. “But some things about farming are the same, like agronomy, growing plants and fertilization. It was a small switch to go from corn and alfalfa to petunias.”
The Boyers started a fall festival, featuring U-pick pumpkins and a corn maze, then added a greenhouse business and an on-farm market. Boyer put up the first greenhouse on the farm about 15 years ago. “I started out with a 20-by-96, then added a 30-by-96,” he said. “I have two high tunnel tomato houses, and I should be picking tomatoes by early June.”
Each season, Boyer selects tomato hybrids based on high yield and good flavor. “I pulled about 30 pounds of tomatoes per plant last year,” he said. “There are 250 plants in the house, so I had 7,500 pounds of tomatoes in that building. I sold them all from the farm store.”
Boyer will grow about 12 acres of sweet corn, planting every five days for a good succession. “The first planting was one and a half acres,” he said. “We can’t have enough corn for customers the first week we have it.”
Boyer’s four sisters have been instrumental in helping to distinguish Honey Haven. “Once a month, they go to thrift shops to pick up baskets and containers,” said Boyer. “They bring in old broken chairs and I’ll put pots in the seat. They brought me two old mop buckets with rollers on the top – I planted them and sold them for both for $50 each. I’ve used old saucepans with wooden handles, and old shoes and boots. I plant succulents in old tree stumps and in wooden blocks.”
With an assortment of unique containers at hand, Boyer continues the theme by making each one special. Boyer said customers often pick up several planted pots to share with neighbors or family members, and like the feeling of having something unique.
In addition to the unique containers his sisters bring to the farm, Boyer obtains baskets from a local distributer who puts out a large display of baskets and polls customers to see which ones they like. The results determine what that distributer will offer the following year. After that event, Boyer makes a deal to purchase all the baskets. “I come home with things that are so odd,” he said. “My sisters say ‘No one is ever going to buy that.’ But everyone has different taste. Every pot has a lid, and you’re going to find that lid for every pot.”
As a long-time farmer, Boyer is accustomed to making changes and adapting to circumstances, and that experience prepared him for handling this season’s challenges. Although it was difficult to determine what kind of season he’d have, Boyer said more people at home with spare time has led to increased sales. “We’ve more than doubled last year’s sales,” he said. “People want to fix things up and they have time for plants and gardening.”
To help customers select plants and planters, Boyer created a picture gallery on the Honey Haven Farm website. An entire page is devoted to photos of baskets with descriptions of the plants in each container. Each item is numbered to make it easy for customers to select and order online. Customers can pick up orders in the store or request curbside service.
One of the most anticipated spring events at Honey Haven Farms is “Build a Basket.” “People bring their kids out to build a basket for their mother or grandmother,” said Boyer. “It’s a six-inch or eight-inch pot, and there’s a big tub of soil with sand shovels. We let them pick the flowers, help them plant and teach them about plants. We sold about 500 of those last year. On Mother’s Day weekend we had two lines outside, two tubs of soil and four people to assist.”
It wasn’t feasible to hold that event this year, but Boyer’s daughter Lauren Smith, farm manager, figured out how to adapt it. “She came up with a kit,” said Boyer. “We put a measured amount of soil in a baggie, added the hanger and the basket and provided a selection of plants. They could pick it up here or order it online.”
An integral aspect of Honey Haven is the farm store, and customers are allowed to shop following Ohio’s guidelines. With inevitable changes in what will be permissible throughout the season, Boyer said he’ll goes with the flow, make changes as necessary and figure out how to market various items as the season progresses.
Planning this year’s fall festival has been a challenge, but Boyer said he and his family take the slow approach when it comes to making decisions for the farm. “We have a family sit-down jam session and talk,” he said. “One idea will spur other ideas – there are no bad ideas.”
One idea for this summer and the fall festival is bringing out the farm’s ice cream truck. “Every afternoon when my farm market is open, I’ll have a portable soft serve ice cream stand out here,” said Boyer. “We’ll also have food trucks and our cider slushies, but no picnic tables.” Boyer knows people who come for ice cream will often make other market purchases while they’re at the farm, and they’ll also learn about the fall festival.
Honey Haven’s 20th fall festival was last year, and Boyer said the farm regularly hosts about 20,000 guests throughout October. Although Boyer’s autumn plans are still evolving, he’s aiming to create a store in an open shed where he’ll display pumpkins, gourds, Indian corn and other fall favorites. Boyer realizes there are some features that won’t work, and without knowing the status of regulations this autumn, he has already scaled back.
“There will be no hay rides and no petting zoo,” said Boyer. “We’re going to streamline things and make a few adjustments so people can socially distance in the pumpkin field and corn maze. We’ll make the trails five feet wide instead of 30 inches, and make sure there’s room to pass.” Features such as pumpkin slingshots and corn cannons that involve close contact will likely remain on hold this season.
“We’re always thinking about the possibilities,” said Boyer. “I can’t always be the cheapest and I can’t always be the best, but there’s one thing I can do that’s always a winner, and that’s customer service.”
Visit Honey Haven Farm online at honeyhavenfarm.com.