Mar 19, 2012
Maryland farm owned by same family since 1902

There are several things Nathan Milburn credits for the continued success of Milburn Orchards, the family farm that has been in Elkton, Md., since 1902. Besides continued support from grower organizations, the strength and will of the Milburn family gets most of the credit.

Esma Milburn established the orchard in 1902. His son, John W. Milburn, ran the farm until his sons, Evan and John, took over. Now, Evan and John are technically retired, but show up often to help the next generation.

Nathan, Evan’s son, is the crop and field crew manager these days, while John’s three children have other responsibilities. Jay Milburn is the retail manager of the farm market. David Milburn is the site manager, and oversees all outdoor activities and special events. Melinda Milburn Palmeri is responsible for accounting, marketing and bakery management.

The farm has 400 acres, mostly planted in apples, peaches, cherries and other stone fruit. They also have a small acreage planted in raspberries, blueberries and blackberries, as well as grapes and a large pumpkin patch.

“The small fruit may be a smaller percentage of our acreage, but it represents a larger income for us,” Nathan said. “Berries are very hip right now and we, of course, are trying to capitalize on that.”

Growing up, Nathan said, the farm was 90 percent wholesale and maybe 10 percent retail. That has basically flipped. At least 80 percent of the crops go to retail sales and around 20 percent to wholesale. As they switched platforms to retail, they noticed a need to diversify crops.

“We saw that we needed to get more people through the doors in the fall and to make the season last longer,” Nathan said. “That’s when we added the cherries, berries and other crops to lengthen the season and keep things going. That’s also why we added more agritourism things and really expanded that side of our business.”

Besides a market and bakery, the Milburns offer a petting zoo, corn maze, u-pick sales, summer and fall festivals and an Easter egg hunt. They also host private parties, weddings and school tours. Weekends are very busy, and it is not uncommon for thousands of visitors to come on peak-season Saturdays, Nathan said.

One thing customers can count on is fresh produce. There is no controlled atmosphere storage. It keeps the seasonality of each crop, Nathan said.

“We want the customers to hunger for that crop,” he said. “You know how it is when you get to eat that first ripe apple of the season? That’s what we want to preserve for our customers. There is definitely something to be said about getting to eat those first ripe cherries of the season. It keeps them coming back for more.”

Most of the sales they have in the farm market are people buying smaller quantities of fresh fruit.

“I trade storage for eating quality and am happy to do so,” Nathan said.

Getting that eating quality can be tough, however, as Milburn Orchards lies in the middle of the region besieged by the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB) and Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD). For Nathan, SWD is the potentially more devastating pest.

“It wouldn’t be good at all for a customer to be sitting there eating our blueberries or other small fruits and have that little white larvae pop out at the wrong time,” he said.
Luckily, SWD is fairly easy to control when spraying constantly for BMSB. Spraying and other measures are ongoing at Milburns, due to it being one of the research farms used by Tracy Lesky, a research entomologist with USDA’s Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, W. Va.

“Tracy has been a huge help,” Nathan said. “If you’re on the ball and are careful, you can do OK even with these pests.”

Nathan said the International Fruit Tree Association – he’s a member of the board of directors – and the North American Raspberry Blackberry Association – he’s the president – are important to the success of his family’s farm.

“If you’re a grower, you really should be part of one of these or similar groups,” he said. “It is the best way to stay on top of things, learn new stuff and make friends in the industry.”

By Derrek Sigler, Assistant Editor

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