The Flinchbaugh family has been farming in York County, PA, since the early 1950s, but the fourth generation has taken the operation to a new level.
Julie Keene, who operates the farm with her brothers Mike and Andrew, said their great-grandparents raised beef cattle and processing tomatoes. As the farm grew, the family added poultry, hogs and field crops. The first fruit trees, which would become the center of today’s operation, were planted in the 1960s.
“My grandparents started diversifying the farm, and my parents took it further,” said Keene. “Diversification became even more important from a financial and management standpoint.”
As Keene’s parents, Ritchie and Sonia, continued to operate the farm, they encouraged each of their children to pursue higher education. Mike, Andrew and Julie each graduated from Penn University with ag-oriented degrees. “After graduation,” said Keene, “we had to work off the farm to make sure working on the farm is what we really wanted.”
The process to transition the farm to the siblings began in 2006 and was recently finalized, but Ritchie and Sonia aren’t fully retired. “They’re still part of the business,” said Keene. “They know so much and we are grateful they’re still active. When the transition has been planned and has been positive, it’s much smoother.”
Primary fruit crops include cherries, peaches, nectarines, plums, apples, pears and pumpkins. As new varieties became available, the Flinchbaughs switched out old trees for new, with appropriate rootstock in high-density plantings.
The Flinchbaughs’ most recent crop addition is flowers, which are proving to be a hit with customers. Two fields of sunflowers were added in 2019, and today, six to seven plantings over the season provide fresh blooms throughout late summer and autumn. Zinnias and cosmos are available for cutting from June through October.
Keene visited a Texas farm market where wildflowers were featured. Customers could purchase wildflower seed mixes to plant at home. Keene brought the concept home, adding wildflowers and making the seed mix available for purchase. “We planted them around the market and grounds,” said Keene, adding that word of mouth has brought new seed customers. “Now we sell a seed mix every year – people want to plant them at home.”
Flinchbaugh’s offers U-pick fruit, which Keene views as an opportunity to provide valuable on-farm lessons. “I like U-pick because it brings people to the farm,” she said. “As farmers, we want our food in the hands of people who will eat it. It helps continue to build trust.”
Like many family farms, the Flinchbaughs draw numerous visitors with fall activities. Guests can enjoy navigating the five-acre corn maze, picking pumpkins and other popular seasonal activities.
With more than 2,000 acres under production, the farm employ numerous conservation practices including IPM, drip irrigation, crop rotation, no-till, cover crops, grass buffers and precision planting through GPS. For their ongoing conservation efforts, the family received the Pennsylvania Leopold Conservation Award in 2022.
In her primary role as farm market manager, Keene is responsible for ensuring smooth market operation throughout the year. A simple garage served as their first farm market; the modern market was constructed in 2006. Keene said although the family visited other farm markets before finalizing the design, they still felt inexperienced.
“We decided that if we were going to expand our business, we had to be approachable by the public,” said Keene. “We had a retail market right in the center of the farm. We decided we needed to expand the farm market portion. We also wanted to be sure we were reaching the public – we want them to understand what we’re doing. People often see something in the field and don’t talk with a farmer to get answers.”
The decision to build the market was made before Keene graduated from college. “We went at it pretty green, but business has expanded through people coming in the door,” she said. “My customers tell me what they want and we provide it. It has grown and we’ve adapted based on what we’ve learned about our demographic, but we had to learn who are customers were before we started. We were going from a garage … to a full-blown market, and we started to see different customers. We were relearning who our customers were and what they needed.”
The 8,000-square-foot farm market has an open floor plan that allows for quick seasonal changes while providing a familiar shopping experience for customers. “We try hard to not mimic a grocery store,” said Keene, “but we try to have everything people need while being unique.”
The market includes a bakery with a variety of freshly baked goods, including pies made with Flinchbaugh’s fruit. Seasonal and themed gift baskets include assortments of fresh fruit, baked goods and preserved products such peach salsa, preserves or applesauce.
The retail portion of the business expanded more broadly than the family anticipated, and the agritourism aspect has also grown. “In 2020, people went back to the direct source [for food] because they couldn’t access it at the grocery store,” said Keene. “People have come to realize how tangible it is to have an outdoors experience and they relish it. A farm is a great place to visit – picking an apple from a tree and eating it seconds later is real.”
Realizing her market customers have expectations, Keene strives to provide the best possible quality fruit. One crop in which fruit quality can be influenced by handling is peaches, and Keene said handling them carefully makes a difference. Because consumers don’t understand field heat and the difference between purchasing peaches at the grocery store versus from a fresh market, Keene removes the guesswork.
“Peaches are our number one crop,” said Keene. “We pick firm, but not rock hard. We pick, grade and put them in our cooler to remove the field heat so they don’t ripen too fast. I put them out for a day to ‘defrost’ before bringing them into the market because they need to be back to room temperature – a little softer. If we didn’t go through that process, people would be getting over-ripe peaches.”
Although many customers expect to see favorites like Red Haven, the many varieties available at Flichbaugh’s have helped them try new offerings. “I think apples have led the way,” said Keene. “People have gotten used to having so many different apple varieties and they’re starting to recognize and accept that in other fruits.”
Keene realizes there’s a fine balance between answering customers’ questions adequately and providing too much information. She’s aware consumers don’t always need all the details. She shares as much information as she can and trains her staff to provide answers to customers’ questions.
“If we can leave people with a better understanding of how food is grown, we’ve done our job,” said Keene. “Our goal is to make sure people know more about how food is grown and respect what we do.”
Visit Flinchbaugh’s Orchard and Farm Market at flinchbaughsorchard.com.
by Sally Colby
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