Nov 2, 2015
CSA, u-pick sales expand farm market’s customer base

Offering u-pick fruit all summer through fall helped an old farm market bring in young customers.

Strites Orchard turned 100 last year. The orchard and farm market is well known in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area but its customers base was getting older. When the Strite family decided to expand its u-pick offerings from just strawberries to raspberries and other berries, as well as peaches, apples and pumpkins, it started to attract a younger crowd – mostly moms and their kids, said Jon Strite.

Jon manages the business with his brother Matt and cousin Stephanie, all members of the fourth generation of family farmers.

They’ve found other ways to expand their customer base as well. They started a CSA a few years ago, which today has just under 500 customers. There’s more interest, but they have to cap the number of participants every year to avoid doing more than they can handle. Right now, the CSA can’t get much bigger than 500 members, Jon said.

The Strites grow so many crops that guaranteeing a good mix for CSA customers isn’t a problem, he said.

Most of their produce is sold through the on-farm market and CSA. Most customers are local, but they do get some tourists visiting nearby Hershey. They put up a billboard on a nearby highway this year, which seemed to bring in a lot of people. They don’t have any agritainment attractions, which tend to tie up the parking lot and conflict with their regular customers, Jon said.

They grow crops on about 300 acres, roughly half of them fruit and the other half vegetables. About 40 of the acres are apples, which are probably their biggest moneymaker. They start in spring with crops like spinach, asparagus and spring onions, and move on to crops like strawberries, tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, sweet corn, raspberries, peaches, plums, sweet cherries – wrapping it up with apples and pumpkins in the fall, he said.

Offering so many crops spreads out risk and satisfies local customers, who like the diversity. The Strites try to only sell what they grow, Jon said.

If they have a big apple crop, like they do this year, they’ll sell some to a processor. They also make apple cider from the end of August through the following April. The market is open year round now. Its baked goods, cider, high tunnel winter greens and storage crops like apples, squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes allow it to stay open all year, he said.

Four full-time employees help with the field work, and they hire about a dozen during peak picking season. Several employees help run the market as well, Jon said.

The Strite family has been farming around Harrisburg since 1843. Joseph Strite planted the first fruits and vegetables in 1914. His son Earl opened the first farm market in 1950. Earl’s sons Tom and Joe eventually joined the business and helped expand it. Tom and Joe passed things on to the fourth generation a few years ago, Tom said.

Strites’ Orchard sits on an elevation called Chambers Hill, an offshoot of the Appalachian Mountains. Joe said the location is in a “weird microclimate,” which, despite its weirdness, gives the orchard several advantages, including good air drainage (“We’ve never lost an apple or peach crop to spring frost”), storm avoidance (“You can see thunderstorms come and split; they go down the river and above the mountain ridge”) and a scenic view (“You can see Hershey and Three Mile Island from our height”).

Matt Milkovich

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