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This century-old round barn was converted to a direct farm market by the Knouse family and opened in 1994.  by Richard Lehnert

This century-old round barn was converted to a direct farm market by the Knouse family and opened in 1994. Photo by Richard Lehnert

Many growers whose orchards are in or near urbanized or suburbanized landscapes grab the opportunity to sell their fruit directly to consumers. They do so either from markets they operate at the farm or at the growing number of farmers’ markets that dot cities and small towns.

In the northeastern United States, this integration of rural and urban has led some of the country’s best-known orchardists to add retailing to their operations.

During the International Fruit Tree Association’s summer study tour in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July, about 200 visitors toured well-known on-farm markets in Adams County and also visited three orchards that have made marketing at farmers’ markets their most important way of selling fruit.

The IFTA planners, led by Dr. Tara Baugher, Penn State extension educator in Adams County, used the historic Gettysburg location to build a theme they called “heritage and innovation.” No better examples of the integration of old and new could have been chosen than the two farm markets, Hollabaugh Bros. and Knouse Fruitlands.

The Hollabaughs, with the longer tradition of farm marketing going back to the early 1950s, are in their first year using a facility they built to replace an aging, rambling structure made up of an original building and six successive additions. The new facility recalls the original  farm-building look, with open trusses and walls of varnished wood, but it’s air-conditioned and as comfortable and organized as a supermarket—with more staff having more knowledge.

The Knouses, who got into direct farm marketing more recently (1994), have built on Adams County’s apple history by marketing from a restored century-old round barn located in what is reputedly the oldest apple orchard in Adams County. It’s called the Historic Round Barn & Farm Market.

Retailers routinely mark up products 50 to 100 percent, and that’s the lure of retailing. Even when wholesalers are willing to pay growers $60 a box for Honeycrisp, that’s only $1.50 a pound for apples that retail for twice that or more. Selling retail can be like doubling the size of the orchard in terms of gross income.

A key thing to realize is that the people who shop at farm markets are not like the ones who used to show up at farmers’ doors in bygone years, looking for produce—maybe with a few defects—at a reduced price. Kay Hollabaugh said they do sell some like that, but they don’t advertise it. They charge supermarket prices, or more.

Both Bruce Hollabaugh and Brian Knouse were eager to show their horticultural skills to the IFTA visitors, most of whom were more interested in rootstocks than retailing.

Today, Knouse Fruitlands has two parts, fruit and vegetable growing, and the Round Barn market. The company operates eight farms totaling more than 1,200 acres, of which about 700 acres are fruit. Retail sales account for less than half the income.

The name Knouse is virtually synonymous with processed apples. The family’s ancestors include Milton E. Knouse, who gave his name to Knouse Foods, the largest fruit-processing company in the East. Not surprisingly, 60 percent of the apples grown on Knouse Fruitlands go there for processing, and the rest is either packed for fresh or sold through the Round Barn Market.

The large family enterprise is headed by matriarch and president Janet T. Knouse, who retired from active participation in 2007, turning it all over to daughter Tonya Knouse White, who is general manager, sons Milton II and Brian, who are production managers, and grandsons Kyle and Kevin.

The business has been in continuous operation starting with Milton Knouse and has never been owned by anyone outside of the Knouse family.

The Knouses purchased the round barn in the 1980s and converted the lower level—once used to house livestock—into the marketing area, and the huge cathedral-like upper feed storage area into a center they rent for weddings and other events.

Brian showed off his GPS-guided tree planter that plants arrow-straight rows and his special planting of more than 20 rows of more than 20 varieties of trees, all on Bud.9, arranged by order of ripening. The idea was to use it for pick-your-own, with pickers able to start at one end and advance to new rows as the season progressed. They have since abandoned you-pick.

The planting is still useful, Brian said, “just so you can see how the different varieties grow.”

Brian is proud to be one of the first to grow Honeycrisp. “I started 20 years ago,” he said, “but people didn’t know them and wouldn’t buy them, so I quit planting them.” Now, of course, Honeycrisp is an important variety for their market, and they’re planting more of it.

The market itself follows the shape of the barn, with long curving lines of shelves. One area contains a small museum of antique hand tools. The barn was built in 1914 by the Noah Sheely family. It is 87 feet across and 60 feet tall. Noah Sheely is credited with having planted one of the earliest apple orchards in Adams County, in 1878.

Hollabaugh Bros.

Like the Knouse operation less than eight miles away, Hollabaugh Bros. is a successful family operation. It was started in 1955 by twin brothers Donald and Harold and passed on to Brad and Kay, Neil and Georgia, and Steve and Vicky. Now, their children, Bruce and Amanda, Ellie and Erik Vranich, and Wayne, have joined in. Kay said the recent expansion of the market came when their children committed to the business.

Early on, the Hollabaughs wanted to keep their orchard people-friendly and planted dwarf, pedestrian orchards. Only recently have trees become taller as they have adopted high-density 3.5- by 13-foot plantings on three- and four-wire trellises, and they are using platforms for thinning and training trees.

While the Hollabaughs maintain both retail and wholesale operations, much of the wholesale involves direct sales to people who also sell direct through farmers’ markets and buy the fruit they sell. In either case, it is extremely important that the orchards have something ripening every week throughout the marketing season.

Bruce and Brad say the market dictates much of their daily activity. They have to know what will be ripe, communicate that to Kay and Ellie who run the market and to Neil who runs the wholesale business, and then respond to calls for fruit from the orchard.

While the farm is heavy to apples—350 acres of the farm’s 550 total—Bruce says, “We have everything but cherries in fruit, and all the vegetables.”

The new market retains the bin porch, one of the most popular ways the Hollabaughs have of selling peaches in their season, and apples later. Customers buy a bag of small, medium, or large size, paying $10, $15, or $20 and the right to fill it with any combination of varieties in any of the bins. The new bin porch is inside and air-conditioned, but fruit is sold free choice from as many bins as there are varieties in season—sometimes 15 or more.

The new market has a 20,000-square-foot cold storage attached to make stocking the market easier.

The farm is a frenzy of activity—with a scratch bakery with a viewing window, a frozen-food section also selling pork, lamb, and turkey meats, shelves filled with food items of many kinds, and an ice cream window (“The only one in the area,” Kay said).

They also conduct school tours that attracted 4,000 children last year and a summer reading program for kids, provide classes on cooking, canning, and preserving fruits and vegetables, and operate a CSA for summer fruits and vegetables. •