Apr 7, 2007
Community Gathers At Terhune Orchards

When Pam and Gary Mount bought Terhune Orchards in 1975, they weren’t just looking to run a farm. They wanted to create a community gathering place, and they seem to have succeeded.

More than 500,000 people visit the farm each year. Of course, in the Terhunes’ neck of the woods near Princeton, N.J., where 54 million people live within a 100-mile radius, it’s not as hard as it sounds to attract half a million customers, Pam said.

“If you can’t figure out how to sell out here, you’re not doing something right,” she said. “The challenge is to get busy people to come to your farm every few days. Tourists don’t spend enough money. We’ve tried to cultivate people who see this as their community farm.”

Terhune has diversified its offerings over the years to attract the widest variety of customers. Today, the farm grows more than 35 varieties of fruit and vegetables, many of them u-pick, on 300 acres in the Princeton area. The Mounts own three farms and rent one, Gary said.

The main farm has expanded over the years. It includes a farm store and bakery, where much of the farm’s produce is processed and sold. Terhune’s crops include 35 acres of apples, 20 acres each of sweet corn and pumpkins, 15 acres of peaches, five acres of raspberries and blackberries, two acres each of cherries, blueberries, strawberries and flowers, one acre of pears and 15 acres of miscellaneous vegetables.

“We’re relatively new to vegetables,” Gary said. “You need to give people a variety. They won’t use a gallon of gas just to buy a gallon of cider.”

If you sell retail out of a farm market, you need to grow early crops like asparagus and rhubarb to keep customers coming in during off times. Blueberries are a popular u-pick item, because they can stay ripe for a month. Apples must be picked when ready. Pumpkins and gourds in the fall are essential. Cherries are another popular item, but are hit or miss, Gary said.

The Mounts have worked hard to modernize their farm since they bought it 30 years ago. They remodeled the cold storage facility and farm store, added pasteurization equipment to the cider-making process, replanted the orchards with more productive varieties of dwarf apple trees, initiated soil conservation measures, installed trickle irrigation systems and instituted integrated pest management procedures.

An important addition was the agrichemical handling facility, or “spray shed,” as Gary called it. The facility cost $26,000, but Gary only had to pay $3,000 of the total. A New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection program took care of the rest, he said.

“I welcomed their involvement,” he said. “This lets them know we’re handling (chemicals) properly. It helps make a lousy job a bit better.”

A nearby school for autistic children complicates spraying operations on the main farm.

“We have to be extra careful,” Gary said. “We worked out a notification system with the school.”

However, being near a school can be an advantage. The students visit the farm and enjoy the experience. They’re some of the thousands of local children who visit the farm every year, the owners said.

It’s important to give customers a real farm experience. Terhune has become a local destination for multiple generations of families, thanks to its rural atmosphere, diverse activities and effective marketing methods, which include a Web site, www.terhuneorchards.com, and a quarterly newsletter, Pam said.

Of course, the sheer volume of visitors can be overwhelming at times, especially in October, when the farm is full of pumpkin pickers and fun seekers. The farm store is open year round, and expands outside in warmer weather, she said.

Crop-eating deer are a major problem for New Jersey farms. The only way to permanently solve the problem on the Terhune properties was to install triple-galvanized, 6-foot and 8-foot fences on the borders. A concrete cattle guard was installed under the gate at the main farm, to keep deer out while the gate is open, Gary said.

“We could not stay on this farm without excluding the deer,” he said. “They’re ravenous. Groundhogs are a challenge, too.”

The farm has 15 year-round employees, many of them Mexican. It hosts an English class on Tuesdays that has proven popular with its Spanish-speaking workers, Gary said.

“Nobody misses Tuesdays,” he said. “They don’t want to get stuck speaking Spanish. They’re thinking of their kids. They want to be part of the United States.”

The English program has paid off and will likely continue.

“If you help people who work for you advance and grow, they’ll help your business grow,” Pam said. “The talents they bring are immeasurable.”

The Mounts are active in local and state politics. Their main farm is part of New Jersey’s Farmland Preservation Program, an attempt to preserve the state’s remaining farmland. As part of the program, the state government purchased the farm’s development rights. Houses can’t be built on the property, Gary said.

About 10 years ago, Pam came up with a novel way to get rid of the farm’s leftover produce without wasting it. She joined with the New Jersey Agricultural Society to start Farmers Against Hunger, which collects more than 2 million pounds of leftover produce per year from state farms and distributes it to the needy through community organizations.

Terhune Orchards’ proximity to the state capital, Trenton, makes it a popular place to visit for key policymakers. That helps shine a spotlight on farm issues at the state level, which is greatly needed, said New Jersey’s Secretary of Agriculture Charles Kuperus.

“We’re always under pressure here,” Kuperus said.

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