Sidney, left, her father David, and Katy Lesser Clowney sort apples that have come back from the market unsold. They may go to Knouse Foods, the cider mill, or into the cull bin.
Before joining the family business at Cashtown, Pennsylvania, Sidney Kuhn earned a degree in landscape architecture from North Carolina State University in 2001 and worked at a land conservancy that acquires development rights to keep land in farming.
“In 2006, I asked my parents if I could come back home,” said Sidney, who represents the fifth generation at Kuhn Orchards. Her parents, David and Mary Margaret Kuhn, had been working to get more of their fruit into fresh markets. They made a deal with their daughter. They formed a limited liability company, which Sidney owns, to market fresh fruit and vegetables at ten farmers’ markets in northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Sidney pays her parents for the produce in the form of half the proceeds from the market. Her parents are continuing the other parts of their orcharding business. They still grow some blocks of apples for processing, and they have a wholesale business selling high-quality fruit to vendors who are, essentially, following the same marketing strategy Sidney does. Some 75 percent of their fruit is sold in this manner.
During a visit to the farm in October, Good Fruit Grower asked her how much revenue a space in a farmers’ market could generate over the May to November season. She thought a minute, then said, “They average about $60,000, but it varies a lot, especially between weekday and weekend markets, and new and well-established markets.”
She estimated that those who operate retail markets make about eight times as much revenue per unit as growers will get selling wholesale, and they’ll get three times as much selling spot-picked, tree-ripe fruits to vendors who also frequent these upscale markets.
The farm is smaller than it once was. At one time, it had 350 acres, including 150 acres in apples, 75 in peaches, and some in tart cherries. Most of the fruit went to Knouse Foods for processing.
When Sidney’s parents became the fourth generation to own the farm about 20 years ago, they realized that growing fruit for processing and wholesale was becoming less profitable, and they began selling fruit at tailgate farmers’ markets. They began diversifying the produce line. Today, they grow 25 acres of apples, 60 acres of peaches and nectarines, and small acreages of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, apricots, plums, and cherries, as well as various vegetables and cut flowers.
The Kuhn family still raises a few blocks of apples exclusively for processing, but Knouse serves now mainly as an outlet for less-than-fresh-market-quality fruit.
Sidney says she needs to know about the production side of the business for marketing purposes, and likes orchard work, but has decided to put her energy into marketing. She has hired Katy Lesser Clowney, who once worked for the Adams County Extension office in Gettysburg and did much of the early testing work on the Darwin string thinner, as an assistant.
The two of them, working together, organize all
the people and products needed to attend ten farmers’ markets each week. “Signage is very important,” Sidney said. When you offer a lot of nice varieties that won’t be found in many supermarkets, people have to be informed about what the variety is and why they want to try it. “We sample everything,” she added.
Three of their apple varieties fill a special niche—early-season sales. While vegetables are the opening items in May, they offer GoldRush, Pink Lady, and Fuji apples they stored in their own controlled-atmosphere storage before the new crop is harvested.
It might seem like finding a niche in a market would be difficult, but Sidney said she’s usually invited by market masters seeking vendors. New markets keep popping up as the “buy local” “and “buy from a farmer you know” trends continue. She is pleased by people’s new interest in their food but dismayed that people’s knowledge about food seems to be falling even as their interest rises. Their misconceptions about production methods, including organic production, are huge, she said.
The Kuhns hired a young man, Rusty Lamb, to manage production of both the orchards and the vegetables and small fruits. He works closely with Sidney to coordinate his activities with her marketing needs. They meet every Monday at 1 p.m. to discuss what will be available to sell; orchard blocks are repeatedly spot-picked to generate smaller quantities of many varieties, 15 or more at the height of the apple season. She says coordinating between orchard and market is challenging and critical.
“If they ask, am I organic, I just say no. If they want a further explanation, I’ll tell them how we grow our fruit. I don’t need to apologize for the way I grow my fruit. I’m beyond that.”
Organic production in eastern states, with high humidity and rainfall and the pest pressures that come with that climate, is extremely difficult. The Kuhns use integrated pest management practices, like mating disruption, to help control pests. Appearance of the brown marmorated stinkbug, and damage to the late-season apples in 2010, has caused them to shift to more targeted pesticides, tighter spray intervals, and more intensive spraying of orchard perimeter rows.