Diversification may be key to farm survival in fourth farming generation

HIRAM, Ohio — It’s that time of the year again: The strawberries are blooming and the workload is doubling.

“Everything looks good coming on. We dodged frost one nights a couple of weeks ago, but now the crops are on their way,” said Roger Monroe, owner of Monroe’s Orchards.

Farming operation

Monroe and his wife, Sue, operate the 140-are farm on Pioneer Trail in Hiram.

They are joined by their son, Nathan, who is the fourth generation to operate the farm. The family also includes two daughters, Angela, 23, and Allison, 21, who help out on the farm during the summer.

Monroe’s Orchards has been around for 71 years and built a new market and expanded in size in 2002. But Roger and Sue point to three things that have helped the orchard survive: the Lord, customers and hard work.

Diversification is needed. Roger said diversification is the key to surviving the market right now.

The family’s crops include fruit and row crops. They grow 25 varieties of apples, five kinds of peaches and three types of pears.

Roger said they are very thankful to have a peach crop this year. Many orchards suffered too much damage in January when temperatures plunged well below zero. Monroe said the lowest temperature he registered at his farm was 13 below, but luckily his plants withstood the mercury plunge.

In addition, the family grows strawberries and has a raspberry patch. Plus, the family is developing a sweet cherry grove. They are hoping it will be ready for public picking in a couple of years.

The Monroes are involved in a partnership with another local farmer, Dale Brookover, where 50 acres of soybeans and wheat are grown.

Roger said the wheat is grown so the straw left over after harvest can be used in the strawberry patch.

Retail sales

Roger said the organization is attempting to scale back on the orchard development and instead diversify their products and marketing. He said part of the success for the business so far has been more retail sales and less wholesale.

“Our goal is to develop the retail end and go with that,” Roger said.

However, that arrangement can be tricky because they don’t always know how much a crop is going to sow that year. This could mean an abundance of the fruit the family just can’t sell in their shop, or not enough.

Maple syrup

In addition, the family taps 30 acres of rented land for maple syrup and they go to work producing the sugary substance in late winter. Last year, the family made 700 gallons. The year before was a banner year and they produced 1,000 gallons.

The family is using a tubing system for sap collection, and last year, the farm was able to install a new evaporator in the sugar house, which also made the production process easier.

“Of all the jobs on the farm I have to do, that’s the job I enjoy the most,” Roger said.

Harvest festivals

Besides maple syrup production, the orchard also specializes in manufacturing its own apple cider on the farm.

Roger said visitors are welcome to come to the farm and watch it being made. The farm hosts two Apple Harvest Festivals, set for the last Saturday of September and the first Saturday of October.

“It’s a family day of fun. We have all types of entertainment including a hayride and petting zoo for kids,” Sue said.

Future plans

The Monroes have planted a new apple orchard of a dwarf variety.

Roger said the initial investment was a little more, but added the smaller trees will mean easier access to the plants to help them grow, and an easier picking season.

Also new in Monroe’s Orchard is the planned replacement of the peach orchard, an increase in the sweet cherry patch and additional strawberry acreage planted.

Marketing used

The Monroes also do some marketing besides the usual signs noting the orchard. They offer a Web site where customers and visitors can check on fruit availability.

“People say that’s how they find us,” Sue said.

They use a mailing list and send postcards to let customers know that peaches, strawberries and apples are ready.

The group also uses an e-mail list that can be accessed through their Web site.

Sue said the direct contact with customers helps to bring them into the fruit market for purchases.

The Monroes are hoping by diversifying the orchard and coming up with ways to get the word out to people, the farm will succeed for a fifth generation.

So far it’s working. Nathan, who is the fourth generation to earn his living on the farm, has recently left his job as an auto mechanic and is looking for his niche in the orchard.

About the Author

Kristy Foster Seachrist lives in Columbiana County raising sheep and horses. She earned her degree from Youngstown State University and has worked in both print and broadcast journalism. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/fosterk96. More Stories by Kristy Foster Seachrist

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