By SUSAN CROWELL and BRIAN LISIK
CANFIELD, Ohio — White House Fruit Farm near Canfield and McMaster Farms near Columbiana hosted the annual summer tour and field day of the Ohio Produce Growers and Marketers Association June 25, drawing approximately 250 growers and industry representatives, despite rain that sprinkled, then poured, during the morning session.
White House hosted the morning tour and lunch, then participants headed to McMaster Farms.
White House Fruit Farm, built by David Hull and now operated by son David and daughter Debbie Pifer, is a 250-acre produce farm that raises apples; peaches; strawberries; blueberries, and vegetables. The Hulls developed a year-round farmers market on the farm that is now a tourism destination as well as local landmark.
McMaster Farms devotes 350 acres to sweet corn, which is sold retail on the farm, but predominantly sold wholesale; another 74 acres to pumpkins; and the rest of the 1,800-acre farm is in corn, soybeans and wheat.
The Columbiana-Mahoning county region used to be home to the largest cluster of apple orchards in the state, and David Hull knew he needed to differentiate his operation from the grower down the road. So, in 1978, his family cleaned out an old bank barn and turned it into a year-round farm market.
That focus on consumers continues to drive the family business.
“We don’t have a lot of fancy equipment,” said Hull’s daughter Debbie Pifer, “and we’re not the most progressive growers. We put most of our expendable dollars in what I call ‘front of the house.’
To that end, White House Fruit Farm has added amenities like a huge paved parking lot, shopping carts, automatic doors, modern restrooms and air conditioning in the market, which is no longer housed in the bank barn. It also supplements its own produce with products from other local and U.S. growers, as well as imported produce in the off season.
“We’ve chosen to carry as much of a full line of product year-round,” Pifer explained.
The market also has a full deli, bulk food items and is known for its doughnuts as much as it is for its apples. Pifer is upfront that 40 percent of the store’s dollars comes from produce, and 60 percent comes from other stock.
“We had a choice to fight that years ago, but our customer base pushed us in that direction,” she said. “People come to our market who don’t know we even grow anything.”
But, Pifer added, once they’re at the market, they’re exposed to the farm’s production side, too.
The farm has also built a schedule of festivals and agritourism events monthly from May to October to provide an entertainment element to the farm market trip.
“We want to be a unique business,” Pifer said. “We spend money to create a place where people can come to have fun and buy quality things.
OPGMA Executive Director Michael Geary called the event a success on a number of levels.
“Feedback from those here has been great,” Geary said at the lunch break.
Geary described the tour as both a social and educational event for OPGMA members. Each year, two Ohio farms are selected as host sites.
“We do two ‘experiences’ — the tour, which usually has some sort of retail aspect, and then a demonstration component,” Geary said. “The focus is on both growing and selling; getting growers to think about getting into the retail market.”
Geary said the community atmosphere of the event is also important.
“It is a quick little summer event, to commiserate or get excited about the season at its mid-point,” he said. “And the OSU people are out here to talk about problems growers might be having.”
It’s both the education and the community aspect that drew Hillcrest Orchard owner Merle Hershberger to the tour.
“I like seeing other orchards, the different types of training, how they’re planted and the spacing,” Hershberger said. Plus, he added, “It’s just nice to see another grower and meet other orchard guys.”
Food safety, in general, remains a primary focus of the OPGMA’s efforts, Geary said, especially in light of the Food and Drug Administration’s new Food Safety Modernization Act.
The OPGMA and its member farmers, have addressed the issue in a number of ways. These include the creation of the Ohio Produce Marketing Agreement, which allows farmers a more affordable way to become certified.
The agreement is significant from a government regulation standpoint, Geary said, but perhaps even more so because of customer demand.
“A whole lot of farmers will be exempted (from the Food Safety Modernization Act regulations) because of their size,” he said. “But no grower can say ‘that food safety law doesn’t apply to me.’”
Carrie McMaster emphasized food safety during the afternoon tour of McMaster Farms, explaining the bar coded labels that are attached to every pallet, every bag, every crate. The labels can trace that food product back to exact fields, which variety and when it was planted and harvested, to help identify sources in the event of a problem.
She offered to be help any grower get ready for certification or an Ohio Produce Marketing Agreement audit.
McMaster also explained the custom-made counting machine for their sweet corn, and briefly demonstrated how it works. The corn is emptied from each wagon onto a conveyor belt, and crews on either side sort and grade the corn, and place ears in individual guides on a shoulder-high conveyor that feeds through the counter.
Each ear of corn is counted, then falls into a bag or bin. The belt stops when a preset number is reached. When using bags, a wheel-like bag holder is manually rotated to an empty bag when one is full.
Much like the issue of food safety, “buy local” remains a growing industry catch phrase among consumers and retail customers, OPGMA’s Geary said.
“It has been around forever, but there has just been more attention paid to it,” he said. “What is changing is that local school systems want to buy local, and there has been a growing interest in it from grocery stores in general.
“It creates a huge opportunity.”