Sep 18, 2015
Crop mix keeps customers coming back for more

When the Erbs talk about the diversity of their crops, they’re not exaggerating. They grow 74 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, 54 varieties of peaches and nectarines and more than 100 varieties of pumpkins, for example, as well as strawberries, sweet corn, apples, plums, pears, pluots, squash, zucchini, popcorn, Indian corn, eggplant, peppers, spring onions, peas, okra, field corn, soybeans – too many crops to list fully, including “crazy stuff” like figs, Jim Erb said.

“There are few markets that do the extent of what we do around here,” Jim said.

His daughter Diana put it another way.

“We’re a bit crazy,” she said.

The Erbs – Jim, his wife Romaine and their daughter – run Brook Lawn Farm Market near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A popular market that’s been around for decades, the recent interest in buying local has pushed the family to diversify their crop offerings even more. Running a small operation, however, they’ve probably reached their limit.

“We’re maxed out in terms of what we are growing,” Diana said.

They’re also maxed out in terms of space. The market building has no more room to grow. Located along a main road and surrounded by residential developments, the family property – both farm and market – is hemmed in and feeling the squeeze. But they want to grow and sell fresh produce as long as they can, Diana said.

“This is in our hearts,” she said. “There’s more in it than just money. Being able to share this awesome produce is really what it’s all about. You can’t put a price tag on that. I don’t know what the future holds, but we plan on being here as long as we can.”

Brook Lawn’s orchards and vegetable fields – about 120 acres total – are located behind the market. The two main crops are probably sweet corn (25 acres) and peaches (5 acres). Most of the other crops are grown on smaller plots, Jim said.

The market is open April through October, Monday through Saturday. During peak season, they’re “working 24/7 and still can’t get it all done,” but that’s just how it is, Diana said.

They “float back and forth” in their responsibilities, but Jim generally oversees production and harvest, while Romaine and Diana spend a lot of time at the grading table, sorting produce. About three dozen employees help in the market and fields, Jim said.

Other farms supply Brook Lawn with “normal” tomatoes, melons and other crops, leaving the Erbs to focus on the “weird stuff,” like bumpy pumpkins and heirloom tomatoes. They grow more heirloom varieties than they can keep track of these days, but those tomatoes fill an important customer niche.

“We’re about having top-quality produce, as fresh as possible,” Diana said.

She used sweet corn as an example.

“We’ll pick as needed throughout the day,” she said. “If it’s left over, we’ll sell it another way. I will not put day-old corn on that wagon tomorrow, and our customers know that.”

Brook Lawn is on Lititz Pike, a busy road that cuts through the center of Lancaster County. About two miles north of the city of Lancaster, it’s the first farm market most people pass when driving to and fro. The road is more congested than ever and recent construction has made it worse, but people are still stopping to shop. Some visit daily, leaving exact change on the counter for their four ears of corn, Diana said.

The family’s farming tradition goes back to the 1930s, when Jim’s parents, Roy and Ruth Erb, started growing peaches, potatoes, beans and tomatoes. They set up a temporary stand every summer to sell their peaches, and by the ’50s there was a permanent stand near the road. The market has expanded several times since then.

Jim and Romaine have been running the farm and market since 1978. Diana, who studied horticulture and business at Penn State University, always wanted to come back to the farm. She has a younger brother who’s a landscape designer in New York City.

The Erbs sell as much produce as they can through the market, and do a small amount of wholesaling when they have to. On top of their own crops, they sell bananas, blueberries, melons and other produce grown at other farms. If they grew it, the market sign says “Our Own.” If another local farm grew it, the sign says “Lancaster County Home Grown.” They also do wagon rides in the fall, taking customers to the u-pick pumpkin fields. That’s become a tradition for many local families, Diana said.

The market sells flowers and mulch, too. Mulch deliveries in spring “jumpstart” sales before there’s a lot of produce, and have become a crucial part of the business. They have as many as five trucks on the road in spring, delivering mulch nonstop, she said.

Peak season

Riding through their fields during the height of the season, Jim and Diana went over some of their crops in detail. Jim said deer love to munch on the pumpkins, but it’s not too serious of a problem. He planted the last block of sweet corn in late July, which will be ready in October. They plant multiple blocks to spread out the harvest, which starts in June. A new block is ready for harvest every couple of days.

Diana said local customers prefer white sweet corn, but some have a taste for bicolor corn as well. Whiteout, Mattapoisett and Silver King are their three main white varieties; Providence bicolor also is a favorite.

As for peaches, some clingstone varieties are ready for picking by late June. Red Haven and other freestones start a few weeks later. Brook Lawn grows a lot of old-fashioned varieties and likes to ripen them on the tree as much as possible to get the most flavor. They grow about a dozen varieties of apples, some on very old trees. The first Sansas start to appear about mid-August, then the Ginger Golds; harvest really starts to expand with McIntosh, Red Delicious, Jonathan and others, Diana said.

She highlighted some of their heirloom tomato varieties, mentioning a few by name – Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Heirloom Orange, Evergreen – and raving about how delicious they are.

“We have a lot of fun with these heirloom tomatoes,” she said. “People talk about them nonstop.”

Matt Milkovich

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