by Sally Colby
Those seeking fresh fruit and vegetables in the Canfield, Ohio, area don’t have to look far. While some White House Fruit Farm customers stop in weekly or monthly, others consider it a destination.
Third-generation grower Debbie Pifer said the farm has been in the family since the early 1800s, and has been growing produce since 1924.
“My grandparents started the fruit and vegetable business in the mid-1920s,” said Debbie. “Apples were our main crop. We sold mainly wholesale at the time, up until the late early 1990s. We had always sold retail on the farm seasonally, but we decided in the early 1990s to get out of the wholesale business and went to a year-round market. We currently retail all the crops we grow, plus many other things as well.”
When the family switched to retail, the existing apple varieties were suitable for the farm store. They grew about 30 varieties then and about the same number now, but today’s apples are very different varieties and trees are in intensive growing systems.
While Red Delicious apples used to be what drew customers, Debbie said the variety isn’t as popular today. As Red Delicious fell in popularity, other varieties were ready to take its place. Early season Honeycrisp, Fuji and Gala are popular, and the farm is also heavily invested in Evercrisp. “Because we’re a year-round market,” said Debbie, “we can sell them for the next 10 or 11 months. We start picking Evercrisp around October 20.”
Debbie said not many early apple varieties are grown because consumers don’t understand that they’re tart and not suitable for storage. The earliest apples are Lodi, which are ready in early July. “We grow just enough to get us through until Labor Day,” she said. “There is a market for early apples, but younger consumers don’t understand early apples.”
White House Fruit Farm draws two kinds of customers – the local “shopping for food” customers and tourists, which can be very different markets. “We’re not in a tourist area, but we are somewhat of a tourist destination in our area,” Debbie said. “We have more of the weekly and monthly customers because we’re open 12 months. It’s also a destination for day trippers who plan their time around visiting White House Fruit Farm.”
One draw for the farm is attractive landscaping throughout the property, which invites customers to spend more time. “We grow fruits and vegetables, and not everyone understands we do that,” said Debbie. “We sell fudge, ice cream, have a fish food feeder and run an outside fall market with craft items. We do festivals throughout summer and fall.”
The farm is known as the donut farm as much as it’s known as an apple farm. While many farms and orchards have added bakeries, White House Fruit Farm has made a name for itself with pies, breads, cookies and 40 varieties of donuts including creamstick maple iced, German chocolate, orange pineapple and red velvet. Debbie said that while the farm’s fruit and vegetables will always be the foundation of the business, additional items make a big difference in drawing customers.
Vegetables are started by a local grower then transplanted at the appropriate time. The farm is currently growing about 25 to 30 acres of vegetables. Asparagus starts the fresh season, followed by strawberries, blueberries, peaches and nectarines. Sweet corn is planted in several successions. Debbie said rather than struggle with growing early sweet corn, they purchase excellent sweet corn from southern Ohio to stock the market until their own corn is ready.
Debbie said there’s a mid-August slump in sweet corn purchases. “We have the first burst of early corn in middle of July, then there’s a dip the last two weeks of August,” she said. “Right after Labor Day when a lot of folks are done with corn, the demand rises again.” Debbie has noticed a change in consumers’ sweet corn habits. “We see the average sweet corn sales under one-half dozen,” she said. “We service a lot of older folks, and they buy a few ears at a time.”
Many customers come for slicing tomatoes, but the majority of business is in canning tomatoes. “We’re in an ethnic area,” said Debbie. “We sell a lot of tomatoes and peppers for canning. It’s still important for the older generation.” In contrast, Debbie said the buying habits of the younger generation are quite different. She said younger customers tend to purchase peaches or plums that are hard because that’s what they learned.
Produce is sold at the farm market, which is housed in the lower portion of the farm’s 1881 bank barn. The area has been added onto four times, and now includes just under 12,000 square feet of retail space. Cold storage is in a separate building.
One popular draw is the farm’s outside autumn market. The family decided years ago that pumpkin sales should happen outside, but they needed a place to sell more than pumpkins. “We built a new building for the outdoor market,” said Debbie. “We have an 8,000-square-foot outdoor fall market where we sell mums, pumpkins, corn stalks and a wide variety of gift items and fall décor. We operate that seasonally in September and October, and weekends through Christmas.”
Although the autumn market had no craft items 10 years ago, the family realized such items were in demand. Debbie said the addition of crafts was quite a plunge. “For someone who is a tourist or here on a day trip, it’s like shopping in a village because there’s more than one building to go through and more than one thing to do,” said Debbie. “It lengthens their stay.”
Because pumpkins are grown in a remote field, they’re cut and brought to the market. “We do horse-drawn wagon rides, so people have the experience of going through the orchard,” said Debbie. “We offer all the experiences, and some are different than what other farms offer.”
U-cut sunflowers are a popular draw from the end of August through September. “With all the rain last year, we planted sunflowers three times so they were late,” said Debbie. “But it worked to our advantage. It’s a separate activity and it took off well.”
The family is still considering how to handle autumn activities this year. They initiated a curbside-only service in April, which Debbie said was wildly successful once they figured it out. “We offered,” she said. “It was our choice.” Although the store is now open, customers can still purchase through curbside service. Debbie said it’s working well for now, but she anticipates many customers will want to visit the store on summer weekends.
“We have to look ahead and think about it,” said Debbie, discussing plans for the rest of summer and autumn. “Everyone in our business makes their profit in the fall, and we profit by packing the place full of people. If that can’t happen, we have to figure out how to do it.”
Visit White House Fruit Farm at whitehousefruitfarm.com.