Over the course of my career, I’ve had the privilege to interact and work with many vegetable growers. They varied in age, farm size, diversity of crops, level of expertise, farming philosophies (from pure organic to chemical intensive or a combination thereof), widely differing marketing strategies (from large wholesale to direct retail to CSA) and differing views on the future of the vegetable industry. They each imparted valuable nuggets of farming knowledge to me and provided a real sense of the breadth and diversity of the industry and its strategic importance to the health and well-being of our country. This point has been driven home with the COVID-19 pandemic. I would like to share the story of one such farm: Peters Produce, a farm in Red Lion, PA, that has been in the family for over 100 years.
When I first arrived in 1997 in the Department of Horticulture at Penn State, one of the crops I had statewide responsibility for was potatoes. I wanted to do some research/demonstration on the potential usage of drip irrigation for the production of fresh market potatoes. At the time John Rowehl was the county agricultural agent in York County and he suggested I work with Denny Peters, his siblings Donnie and Joyce and their parents Doug and Ruth. My next interaction was around 2000, when we helped them erect a 17 x 96-foot high tunnel frame purchased from Ledgewood Farms in Moultonborough, NH. Through the following years I interacted with the family and we continued to work on projects/demos as they expanded and improved their operation. Denny related to me that his maternal great-grandfather Ira Riale started the farm. They grew wheat and corn had some beef cattle, hogs and a few chickens. The farm was originally 20 acres.
Denny and Donnie started growing a few vegetables in 1981, marketing them on a table in front of the barn which was located next to the road. This humble beginning of Peters Produce is similar to the story of many vegetable operations I’ve worked with over the years. Peters Produce continued to grow and expand each year. Denny and Donnie’s parents were instrumental in helping with the growing, harvesting and operating of the farm market. As they expanded their offerings each year at the market, they rented an additional 50 acres and purchased another nine acres on which to grow crops. This resulted in hiring an additional five workers during the growing season.
The variety of crops expanded over the years. Some of the varieties changed but the core value of Peters Produce – “striving to provide the freshest product possible to the consumer” – was the underpinning philosophy. As with most vegetable operations, they start with cool season crops and then transition to the main warm season crops, then back to the cool season crops again. Depending on the weather, their marketing season runs from around Memorial Day to around Thanksgiving. This is because they still market everything outdoors in front of the barn.
They begin with asparagus, spring onions (red and yellow), strawberries, red and green cabbage and sugar peas in the spring. Then they transition into field crops – tomatoes, string beans, lima beans, shell beans, cucumbers, muskmelons, seedless watermelons, all kinds of squash, eggplants, peppers (hot and bell), pumpkins, winter squash and black raspberries. In autumn, they go back to red and green cabbage, autumn-only broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. Denny mentioned “Yummy peppers” that stand out because of their small size, colors and excellent taste. In addition, he and Donnie both like Sugar Cube, a small, softball-sized muskmelon that is extra sweet. Pumpkins are a big seller at the market, and they like the stackable pumpkins, such as Daybreak, Royal Blue, Rascal, Blue Delight, Prism, Moon Whisper and Moonlight. They also grow the Jack O’Lantern pumpkins all sizes, but say the demand for the old neck pumpkins they used to sell by the wagonload has really dropped of. Some of the stackables can be used for cooking and baking, like the neck pumpkins. They still grow potatoes, although not as many as before, since people don’t buy 100- or 50-pound sacks anymore, but only buy enough for a meal – usually only a five-pound bag. They grow some old varieties such as Kennebec, Superior, Viking and Dark Red Norland, and some newer varieties such as Reba and Lehigh. Extra produce is sold at the Leola Produce Auction.
Denny and Donnie’s sister Joyce took over for their mom, and has really expanded the cut flower business. She grows a wide variety of cut flowers in the high tunnels and outside and is continually expanding that business. Many of her bunches go into the Philadelphia Marketplace. Denny noted “how people will buy cut flowers without batting an eye on the price but haggle over the price of produce.”
Denny said they buy all their sweet corn and strawberries from other nearby quality growers because of the deer problem they experience. They grow sweet potatoes varieties Beauregard and Covington, and Donnie said that “consumers seem to understand the nutrition and health benefits derived from consuming sweet potatoes.”
They utilize drip irrigation, fertigation and black plastic (both conventional and biodegradable). After purchasing their first high tunnel in 2000, they added a 21 x 96 and a 21 x 104-foot, all from Ledgewood Farms. In 2021 they are erecting another 21 x 96-foot structure. They grow both and early and late season crops of tomatoes in the tunnels. They have tomatoes from the end of June to Thanksgiving. They grow Red Deuce, Mountain Fresh, Red Morning and some grape and berry tomatoes. Joyce is growing and increasing amount of cut flowers in the high tunnels. Denny said his main reason to expand growing in tunnels is that “produce from high tunnels is far superior to the field” and he has more control over the environment, especially rain.
Peters Produce has seen many changes over the years. One dramatic change is in the clientele that frequent their market. Younger generations buy mostly for today’s meal. They mentioned that they observed more interest in canning and preserving produce this past year among people visiting the market. We’ll see if that continues or was it a flash in the pan. As far as marketing, they primarily rely on word of mouth and repeat customers – and the longevity of their farm and operation speaks for itself. People have come to know they are purchasing fresh produce at Peters Produce.
I asked Denny, Donnie and Joyce what they might consider doing in the future at the farm. They said maybe enclosing the front of the barn or renovating the interior to limit the impact of the weather on sales. They said the growing season for them is long enough, and like most growers, some down time is in order. I appreciate the opportunity to share the Peters Produce story with you and thank Denny, Donnie and Joyce for all their insights.