Pennsylvania vegetable farm sprouts success

VALENCIA, Pa. – Harvest Valley Farm should be renamed Hidden Valley because of its location on a backwoods, downhill, gravel path in southern Butler County, Pa.

But just because it appears to be hidden doesn’t mean it isn’t mighty.

Leaving behind careers and college degrees, Art and Larry King went back to their family’s roots in 1992 and took over the vegetable farm their father started in the early 1940s.

In just 10 years, they have become extremely successful, increasing their growth by a minimum of 10 percent each year. One year alone, they achieved growth of 28 percent.

Perhaps these brothers’ success can be attributed to the high tunnels used to extend the growing season, or the Community Sponsored Agriculture program, or the open house in the spring, or the pumpkin festival in the fall or any one of their countless innovative marketing and production techniques.

Now, as if all this doesn’t keep them busy enough, the brothers are opening a farm market, too.

Details. The main vegetables produced at Harvest Valley Farm are sweet corn, green beans, lettuce and tomatoes. In addition, the brothers also grow approximately 54 other varieties of vegetables. Some of the more exotic vegetables grown include okra, radicchio, arugula and leeks. They also grow many flowers.

The vegetables are planted on 120 acres, owned and rented. The Kings own the home farm but also rent two other farms.

The farm’s vegetables are sold at five farmers’ markets and five restaurants. Larry and Art said they get the advantage at farmers’ markets because of their post-harvesting methods.

What sets them apart at market is that once their vegetables are picked, most of them do not see the sun again, Larry said. The vegetables are immediately chilled and the majority of them get washed. The Kings also use ice when displaying their vegetables at markets.

Despite the brothers’ distinct personalities, Art said they complement each other well. Art does the ordering, while Larry takes care of the planning, spraying and pesticides.

“Larry’s great at determining prices at farmers’ markets,” Art said. “He can call the price really good. Sometimes I’m reluctant [to go with him on the price] but I go with him, and he’s right.”

Innovation. The farm’s newest investment was a 500,000 British thermal unit wood burner. It pumps 300 gallons of water to heat the high tunnels.

Although he hopes this will extend the growing season, Larry said he wouldn’t recommend the burner to anyone because of the amount of wood it uses.

Sitting next to the wood burner is a huge pile of wood, which Larry and Art cut to firewood themselves. The wood came from 22-year-old trees that had been 45 feet tall. These trees were planted specifically in case the farm ever needed firewood.

If they can grow lettuce year-round and have a crop in the high tunnel all year, then all the hassles will have been worth it, Art said.

The King brothers do not know anyone else who plants onions four rows across in plastic. The planting is automated, and Larry said the onions are one of their more profitable crops.

Art and Larry are working on an experiment they learned about from North Carolina State University. David, Art’s son, is making tomato cages from concrete mesh fencing. This will eliminate the stake-and-weave method they previously used to hold the plants upright.

The tomato plants are usually planted 18 inches apart with the stake-and-weave method; however, they are planted 3 feet apart with the cage method. Although there will be less tomato plants in the ground, Art and Larry anticipate the same yield because the plants will have more room, get more sunlight and will be healthier.

Another benefit of the concrete mesh cages is that they are reusable, whereas the stake-and-weave method is not. Art said the cost of the cages equals the cost used in the stake-and-weave method after two years.

Currently, one-fourth of their tomatoes are planted using this system.

Herb talk. And here is a horticulture tip that Art says “no one else will tell you:” Use garlic barrier to keep the bugs off basil. The problem with basil is that Japanese beetles bother basil and it cannot be sold retail with holes in the leaves. This is where the garlic barrier comes in.

Although it does not have a taste or smell, it acts as an insect repellent, Art said.

Although they may seem like entrepreneurs of the vegetable world, the brothers are still learning. This year they planted moss over their potatoes to add organic matter to the soil.

However, this did not work well because the moss kept out too much sun and it kept the warmth of the greenhouse from getting to the plants.

Next time, Art said, they will have to plant the moss after the plants start to come up.

More marketing. Three years ago, the Kings started a Community Supported Agriculture program to encourage their community to become acquainted with farming. Members pay a set fee and then come to the farm once a week to pick up a variety of in-season vegetables and flowers grown at Harvest Valley Farm. The program starts at the end of May and runs through the end of October.

“You have to be diversified in farming,” Art said. “Marketing is 50 percent of your success.”

Although Larry is curious to see whether the members would rather come to the farm market, Art is adamant that the members will prefer the Community Supported Agriculture program because it offers more interaction with the farm.

“They want the farm experience,” Art said. “They want their kids to come chase the chickens and pet the goats.”

Fall farm fun. In addition to the farm’s two cows, five goats and many chickens, Art and Larry buy 100 baby chickens, three pigs and a calf for their annual pumpkin festival each October.

The pumpkin festival is open to the public and tours are available for preschool children.

The festival’s slogan is “Family fun on a real farm,” and Larry and Art said thousands of people come.

Visitors can pet the animals, find their way through a cornstalk maze, go through a straw tunnel and pick their own pumpkins. The Kings even built small bridges throughout the fields for convenience.

Harvest Valley Farm holds several other community events, including a greenhouse open house every May. Direct mailings invite people to come but other than that, Art said they do not advertise.

A Harvest Valley Appreciation Dinner is held in the fall to thank everyone who helps on the farm. This basically means it is a family thank-you dinner because Art and Larry’s six siblings are also active on the farm.

Their responsibilities include sales, taking care of the greenhouse, helping with the pumpkin festival and anything else that needs done.

In addition to the siblings, Larry’s wife, Laura, and Art’s wife, Kathy, are active in the operation although they work off the farm.

The Kings hire students to work in the summer, however they usually have to leave for school right before the busiest part of the season. Migrant workers are hired for the last 10-12 weeks.

Nagging issues. Although these brothers seem to have everything going for them, they still have worries.

Wildlife destroying crops is a constant problem, Larry said. Deer, raccoons and groundhogs are almost as bad as the bugs.

Although they have tried every means they’ve heard of to stop the animals, Art said they lose about 10 percent of their crops to wildlife and have to plant extra to compensate.

Like many other farmers, another concern is the weather.

“We live by the weather,” Art said. “The first thing I do every morning is look at the weather.”

While other farmers are busy battling urban sprawl, Art said, “I have a definite advantage in this business being as close as I am [to Pittsburgh].”

On the other hand, being close to a large city increases the property value.

Art isn’t worried, though. If all their rented land was taken over by urban sprawl, Art said they will still survive. They would just make the land they own more concentrated with high tunnels.

New beginning. The brothers’ latest venture into a farm market brings the worry about whether they will have enough vegetables to keep up with the demand.

“We love what we do at this point in our lives,” Larry said. “Now we can expand because we’ve done a good job so far.”

The market is actually a garage near their farm, but the inside is the interesting part.

The inside walls of the garage are made from the original wood of Art’s father-in-law’s barn, which blew down. Art said he looked at the barn after it blew over and immediately knew the future of their market.

“People are going to come to our market just to see the market, if we do it right,” Art said.

Within 10 years, Art and Larry are hoping to expand the market into fresh produce, a bakery and a lunch counter with salads made from the vegetables on their farm.

Their farm market is located at 610 Sandy Hill Road, Valencia, Pa., 724-898-FARM.

As for the rest of their future, Art said, “Ask God – it’s in his hands.”

Second impressions. Although neither had aspirations to follow their father’s footsteps into the vegetable business, the brothers went into partnership and took over Harvest Valley Farm.

“It’s a great life,” Larry said. “I wanted to give my kids the same life we had.”

Art agreed and said his major deciding factor was that by farming, he could spend more time with his three children.

Neither brother said he regrets his decision to become a vegetable farmer. With this career, they can spend time with their families, teach their children valuable lessons and further the relationship between farmer and consumer.

So at a closer look, maybe Hidden Valley wouldn’t be a better name after all. Harvest Valley isn’t hidden at all – it is a vegetable operation full of innovation and a promise for continued future expansion.

(You can contact Kristy Alger at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at kalger@farmanddairy.com.)

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