by Rebecca Jackson
A farm founded on faith and hard work five generations ago by a family near the central Virginia community of Rustburg stays competitive in the agriculture market today by wedding tradition with contemporary marketing strategies and products for today’s consumers hungry for the back-to-the-land experience.
Sorting and stacking rows of sought-after ripe red and bright green tomatoes in Yoders’ Farm’s vestpocket store, Lowell Yoder is surrounded by things that contribute to his family’s success – items and services that make customers seek them out again and again, like chocolate whoopie pies baked in Lowell’s wife Juanita’s kitchen or bundles of fresh asparagus picked that morning. Outside, children trudge from a five-acre strawberry field, muddy and beaming, their buckets full of fruit.
The family owns 120 acres and rents more for cattle, corn and grains. Three big greenhouses produce their tomato crop. The farm transitioned out of a dairy operation eight years ago. Three generations of the family are actively involved.
“The kids love picking. We like our families here,” Yoder said. “Seeing people enjoy what you produce, especially our corn maze and strawberries, makes you happy.”
They grow four different varieties of strawberries: Chandler, Albion (a recent introduction to this area from California), Ruby June and Sweet Charlie, all timed to ripen at different intervals during the six-week harvest and picking season.
“It’s very intense,” Yoder said of the season, when they welcome throngs of visitors coming from up to an hour’s drive of the farm. Homemade pound cakes, fruit breads, local honey and other edibles that pair well with the season’s first fruit sell well this time of year. Visiting youngsters also get acquainted with small farm animals at an on-site petting zoo.
The Yoder’s grow 800 tomato plants hydroponically nearly year-round. They are the farm’s main cash crop, sold wholesale to markets in the region and retailing in the farm store.
Diversity is key to the Yoder family’s success. Yoder also credits social media with the operation’s marketing success.
“We try to be very efficient in what we do,” Yoder explained, welcoming son Dawson in from school for the day. Yoder’s father, Delvin, worked stacking crates nearby. “We try not to put all of our eggs in one basket and serve several different high value, niche markets.”
Like all farmers, the Yoders gamble with the weather. Fortunately, this season has been favorable for production, despite a very wet winter. “Everything seems to be on track,” Yoder noted.
As for the future, Yoder said they are considering adding blueberries and blackberries to the U-pick rotation, aiming for the right mix. They also grow and sell a seedless English cucumber.
“Some farms diversify too much,” Yoder said. “We like to think we’re doing it right. Pumpkins and the corn maze kick off the summer and fall, with tomato production going from November through July.”
It’s his children’s choice as to whether they will follow him into agriculture, Yoder added. He and Juanita met when both were serving as missionaries in Guatemala for the Mennonite Church. With extended family living close by, the Yoders hire little outside labor to operate the farm, except during picking season.
Yoder advised young, aspiring farmers to start out modestly, incur as little debt as possible and gradually work their way into agriculture.
“When people get in debt, they get into trouble,” he said. “We started out with 1,000 strawberry plants 10 years ago. We tried hard not to go crazy into debt.”
Active in the farm-to-table movement, Yoders’ Farm participates in regional and statewide cooperative efforts to market their produce in urban areas like Charlottesville and northern Virginia, where customers savvy to the nutritional benefits of locally grown vegetables and fruits live.