Family ties, customer pressure at core of White House Fruit Farm success

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CANFIELD, Ohio – In the past year, White House Fruit Farm has given away more than 600 bushels of apples – one apple at a time. In the past several years, the farm market has also offered to quench the thirst of many of its visitors by offering its famous 10-cent taste of homemade apple cider, draining thousands of gallons of the drink from stock.

Personal touches like these lead the Hull family and employees at White House Fruit Farm to joke that a customer could eat their way around the market, taking advantage of samples of what the farm has to offer.

The same touches helped to earn the farm the Direct Agricultural Marketing Association’s Gene Cravens Distinguished Service Award in 2002, recognizing the family for its direct marketing efforts and success.

Family farm. White House’s 100 acres, the majority of which are located between Salem and Canfield, Ohio, on U.S. Route 62, have been in the family since 1870, according to Debbie Pifer, granddaughter of farm founder Jerome Hull.

Until the early 1900s, the farm was operated by Hull’s great-uncle as a general farm with grain crops and livestock. A stint raising purebred cattle proved unsuccessful, and foreclosure in 1922 gave an opportunity for Hull to purchase the land.

“He always had a yen to grow fruit,” Pifer said, and soon portions of the land were planted with apple and peach trees.

Hull, also the first superintendent of Mahoning County schools, filled the existing barn with turkeys in the early 1930s and the operation soon came to be known as Hull’s Apple and Turkey Farm.

In 1967, an aging Jerome Hull passed the farm to his son, David – Pifer’s father – the only one of nine children who elected to stay on the farm. The turkeys soon went, and the farm concentrated solely on fruits and vegetables. Strawberries were soon added, and most marketing was wholesale. The family maintained a small roadside retail stand of seasonal fruits.

Needing more. Throughout the early ’70s, David Hull figured he needed to do something to keep his kids in the business, Pifer said. He planted more acreage and cleaned up and remodeled a bank barn. By the summer of 1978, the roadside stand moved into the bottom portion of the barn, boasting one shelf of apples and honey, a cash register, and year-round hours of operation, Pifer said.

“At that time, we never thought we’d fill the bottom of the barn,” Pifer said.

By 1983, both Pifer and her brother, David, had graduated from Ohio State University and returned to the farm, creating a need for market expansion to support three families. In 1987, the family added on to the original barn structure, and added tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, blueberries and a “u-pick” option to the retail market.

“At that time, we took on a lot of ventures, trying to see what was out there,” Pifer said.

Added on. The family also built two lakes and installed a whole-farm irrigation system, and began offering tours to school groups and established a two-day fall festival.

“We found that families were coming in, and entertaining the kids might be helpful,” Pifer said.

Although the tours and festival have evolved into different things over the years, horse-drawn wagon rides are still a main attraction, she said. This year’s event will also feature a children’s straw maze.

In 1996, the facility was expanded once again, including the addition of a silo, purely for aesthetic purposes.

“It would have been so easy to slap on a pole building and get it over with, but we wanted to keep some of the flavor of the original barn,” Pifer said.

The retail area has posts and beams original to the barn, and “a lot of wood on the inside, to not destroy the feel and atmosphere,” she said.

“We weren’t building like other companies do, for profit per square foot,” she said.

Into the mix. The market has also expanded to products other than fruits.

“We thought that they’d maybe also buy other things while they were here, like specialty foods,” Pifer said.

The farm market added Ohio-made foods including cheese, bulk foods, snack mixes, jams and jellies, as well as homemade doughnuts and pies. Most recently, frozen fruits and vegetables were added to the mix, and tart cherry juice concentrate, a neutraceutical used to treat arthritis, aches and pains, and sleeping problems.

“Both Mom and Dad drink the juice and swear by it. Plus, it’s neat to be in on the ground level with such a new product in the area,” she said.

Other fruits and vegetables available include peaches, nectarines, asparagus, rhubarb, eggplant, cabbage, squash, cucumbers and pumpkins.

Family focus. “All of our additions and changes have been customer driven, and come from family ideas. We’re very much a team,” Pifer said. “We’ll try anything we think we can handle that will complement the business.”

The family team still includes Pifer’s parents, who do all buying for the market; her brother, David, and his wife, who oversee all fruit crops; John Pifer, who oversees vegetable production; and Debbie Pifer, who manages the store.

“Nobody has a job title, and no one person makes all the decisions around here, which is helpful when we need to bounce ideas off each other. And, if we want to take off for a few days, we’ve got someone to rely on and not have to worry about keeping that hands-on approach to things,” she said.

At least one family member is at the market at all times to answer customer questions about products, or to help select the right variety of apple, Pifer said.

“We’re really willing to spend the extra time to make sure that everyone is happy, and to help them however we can,” she said.

How they’re seen. The farm, although known today for more than its apples, still aims to keep the focus on homegrown produce.

“You ask some people about White House, and they’ll tell you about the pies they get here, or our wonderful doughnuts. But you ask others, and they remember our real focus and will tell you about our apples and fruits, our signature crops,” she said.

All fruits are picked fresh in-season, which allows control of quality and production, Pifer said. Cold storage extends the season for the farm’s apples. Out of season or when supplies are exhausted, the market buys from local producers or at the Cleveland produce terminal.

Somewhere fun. “As much as anything, we’ve found that people want somewhere fun to go where they can get a quality product,” Pifer said.

“We’ve gotten a bit into what we call the ‘McDonald’s Effect,’ with a talking cow for the kids to look at and a miniature train that runs throughout the top of the market,” she said. “We use every single square inch we can to provide a little more. Little things add as much to the atmosphere as anything.”

Looking ahead, the farm has set a goal to become less of a seasonal market and expand its year-round offerings in order to continue to compete with grocery stores.

“We’re not cheap, but we offer quality for the consumer who wants value for a good product,” Pifer said. “We’re a little farther out in the country, but coming here to buy has become a special trip, almost a destination for a lot of our customers,” she said.

Still, the market continues to be challenged to attract customers, particularly younger people, and faces land use pressure and agricultural production issues.

“Things like pesticide use are all over the place, but for us, we’re facing the consumer and the issue directly,” she said.

On the upside, the abundance of farmers’ markets in the region provides an opportunity for friendly competition and a tight-knit industry.

“We’re not cut-throat, and farm markets borrow a lot of ideas and work together. There’s enough business out there for everybody.”

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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