Progress Edition: Produce farm ‘brings country to the city’

LAKE CITY, Pa. – What started as two young boys’ pony project, ended up becoming their livelihood.

The brothers, John Jr. and Joe, wanted a pony so bad that they agreed to raise half the money if their parents would ante the rest. So they took the fruit from their parents’ strawberry fields and went to work.

“It’s the typical story: Card table, two little kids, 12 and 10, selling strawberries in front of their house… But we had the money for the pony in three days,” said John Mason Jr. of Mason Farms in Erie County, Pa.

The rest is stuff stories are made of.

Options. Their parents, John and Susan, had a processing operation. It was all tomatoes, grapes and corn for years until the area’s processing industry phased out. The couple and their children had to switch to retail or go bankrupt.

They started small and rented almost all the land they planted. A small roadside stand – first a card table, then a picnic table – marked the farm.

Now, almost 30 years later, a glass sky of vibrant, hanging flower baskets marks Mason Farms.

The greenhouse and market in the Erie resort district are complete with a bakery, ice cream shop, gift shop, two glass greenhouses and all the flowers and bushes a customer could imagine.

Stepping up. In the early days, things went so well at the roadside stand that the family stepped up to the next level. Four days a week, 14-year-old John Jr. was dropped off on State Street to sell at a farmers’ market.

By the mid-1980s, the Masons were looking for a permanent location for their produce in bustling Erie – “bringing the country to the city,” as their slogan goes.

The Masons set up shop in a building they shared with a surf store and rented the parking lot for an open-air market.

Although things were successful with the produce business, paying rent was 12 months out of the year and selling in-season produce only paid a few of those months.

With insight John gained from his parent’s floral business, the Mason family started selling flowers in the summer and Christmas trees in the winter to stretch their income through the year.

Things continued to go well at their rented location while the boys were in college, but as they neared graduation, their father needed a decision: Were his sons going to come back to the family business or pursue their college degrees?

Both decided to come home.

With three families then involved with Mason Farms, they needed to expand. They bought the location across the street, started building and haven’t stopped yet.

Farming. Around the corner and nine miles out of town is the farm’s home. This is where they raise 350 acres of grapes, sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, raspberries, green beans, strawberries, peas, pickles and rye.

Fifty percent of what they produce is sold through the market in town and the rest is sold wholesale at the farm.

The Masons haven’t completely outgrown their roots. They still have a small summer roadside stand sitting in the yard at the farm. They also have a pick-your-own option.

Joe runs the eight growing greenhouses at the farm. The farm greenhouses supply 25 percent to 30 percent of everything sold at the greenhouse in town, and the Masons do their own hanging baskets and potted plants.

His dad, John, is the overall manager and has his hand in each venture but enjoys farm work best.

“There’s nothing like sitting in your field by the road and watching a semi load of tomatoes leave your farm on a truck – knowing that you provided them for others,” John said.

Customers. A lot of the operation’s growth is because of customers’ requests. The family sold produce, then customers asked for jelly, then to have the produce sold by the bushel for canning, then for the specialty knives to cut the fruit, then the crafters who saw utensils for sale wanted to consign crafts. On and on it went.

The Masons’ biggest challenge is making the bakery work. It’s hard to compete with a grocery store that sells baked goods for $1.19, John Jr. said, but he works to prove the quality of his product by offering free samples and special promotions.

It’s all about putting a business together that will be busy all year long, John Jr. said. Starting the bakery was a solution for the winter lull.

In addition, Mason Farms sells hard-dip ice cream, has a chocolate shop and specializes in gift baskets at Christmastime.

Head to head. Competition is the highest hurdle. While many growers worry about rivalry with other greenhouses, Mason Farms also worries about the growth in chain stores.

The near-by Wal-Mart, Lowe’s and Home Depot are all threats. But that doesn’t deter John Jr., who changed his marketing scheme to get a leg up on the competition.

Even though all the goods at Mason Farms might not be cheaper than the competition, John Jr. makes sure there are at least several excellent deals at his store.

“There will be some products we don’t make any money on, but that’s just the way it goes,” he said.

He’s also worked on his advertising. The operation worked so long making an image of itself as a high-quality store with high-quality goods, but John Jr. realized he needed to make a distinction: He didn’t want customers to equate high quality with high prices and then head to Wal-Mart instead.

So he’s changed his campaign to include that although it is a high-quality store, it also has good deals.

Another advertising change, is that John Jr. now doesn’t hesitate to mention his competitors in his ads, citing their cost vs. Mason Farms.

Change. Willingness to change is one of the keys to the operation.

“If my parents had stayed in the processing business, we probably would be bankrupt,” John Jr. said. “If you won’t change, someone somewhere will nail you and take over.”

If change is the top key to success, devotion runs a close second. And John Jr. is an example of that devotion to this business.

“Even if you’d like to take off and see a kid’s soccer game, you can’t always go,” he said.

While John Jr. and his family are devoted to the farm, it’s hard to find that same unwavering loyalty elsewhere.

It’s hard finding experienced and knowledgeable labor willing to put in the time, he said, especially in such a labor-intensive business.

Twenty years ago, if his father put an ad in the paper, everyone who responded had at least a small barn and was familiar with farming. Now, things are different.

“The generation now has only visited a farm – and that was just on a school trip,” he said.

Operation. To run an operation like this, it takes more than the family’s dedication and endless work. Sixty to 70 people are employed by Mason Farms during the busiest times of year, including 10 full-time, year-round employees. John Jr.’s wife, Amy, and Joe’s wife, Shannon, also help part time.

Through the years, Mason Farms has been no stranger to achievement, John in particular: a five-time state champion tomato grower, president of Pennsylvania Vegetable Growers Association, Conservation Farmer award winner, Master Farmer and Young Farmer of the Year by the local Jaycees.

Having ‘something.’ While some farms go under because of unwillingness to change, Mason Farms continuously changes and, therefore, thrives.

“We started with zero and created something we can all live on,” John said. “We had nothing and kept adding and adding and now we suddenly have something.”

(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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