The bin porch offers customers a wide choice, and they can buy any mixture at a fixed price for a full bag. On this day, there were 17 varieties of apples and pears for sale.

The bin porch offers customers a wide choice, and they can buy any mixture at a fixed price for a full bag. On this day, there were 17 varieties of apples and pears for sale.

Richard Lehnert

What better way for a fruit grower to experience the true feel of consumer demand than by selling fruit directly to them?

At Hollabaugh Bros. in Biglerville, Pennsylvania, the family has been doing that since 1955, when the first generation of Hollabaughs, twins Donald and Harold, bought the land, developed the orchards, and decided to start a retail farm market in a small shed. That market expanded into a larger building, followed by seven additions, and next year comes a bittersweet moment. The colorful old barn will be torn down and replaced with a new, larger, more coherent facility.

Good Fruit Grower visited this Adams County farm and market last fall, focusing on the question: How does this direct customer contact influence your fruit operation?

We posed the question to two members of the third generation, Bruce Hollabaugh and his sister Ellie Hollabaugh Vranich, who entered the business during the last decade. Bruce manages the farm’s fruit and vegetable production with their father, Brad. Ellie manages the market with their mother, Kay. Other Hollabaughs are involved, six families of them in all, making a living off 400 acres of fruit and a few acres of vegetables.

Both Ellie and Bruce have degrees from Pennsylvania State University—Bruce majored in horticulture with a minor in Spanish, while Ellie majored in agribusiness management and Spanish. Both prepared ­themselves to return home and manage key parts of the operation.

The market is open from April, starting with asparagus, through December, ending with Christmas gift fruit boxes, and filled between with an enormous diversity of fruits, vegetables, and value-added items like gifts and preserves.

Bruce is looking to modernize the orchards, and Ellie is working to improve marketing, especially through the Internet and social media. She recently started a loyalty card program.

Reaction to varieties

One aspect of direct consumer sales is easy to see in a Hollabaugh marketing tool called “the bin porch.” On this October day, there were 17 bins of apples and pears—all different varieties—lined up on the porch on the store’s north side. Customers fill sacks of varying sizes with any apples or pears they want. These serve as votes. And the more they buy, the lower the price per pound.

A sign on the porch names the varieties. Surprisingly, the best-selling apple that day was not Honeycrisp. It was ­Nittany, a variety bred and introduced by Penn State University in 1979 as a processing apple. A cross of Golden Delicious and York Imperial, it is a large, juicy, sweet, crisp apple, very Honeycrisp-like, good eaten fresh, and ­considered exceptional for cooking. The Hollabaughs have found it a must-have apple, but it’s a local phenomenon virtually unknown elsewhere. “We actually send out e-mail blasts telling customers when the Nittany apples are ready, they are so popular,” Bruce said.

Ellie, working in the market, keeps her brother in the orchard informed about what’s selling and what she needs. Bins are not allowed to become empty. It is Bruce’s responsibility to make sure fruit arrives so those bins and all the other displays stay filled. The two work together, with Ellie forming a weekly marketing plan based on Bruce’s knowledge of what will be ripe that week.

It’s a huge task. The orchards produce 35 varieties of plums and pluots alone, 35 varieties of apples (plus multiple strains), 30 varieties of peaches, and 15 acres of European and Asian pears.

“Plums are a minor crop for us,” Bruce said, “but absolutely essential to our marketing. And we’re one of the few growers left in the county that still grow pears.” These crops, and other specialties like Nittany apples, shape the dynamic of the market, he said.

Bruce is also under the command of his uncle Neil and cousin Wayne, who operate the wholesale division. Wholesale has two parts, the bigger one being sales to small vendors who buy Hollabaugh fruit for resale at farm and farmers’ markets elsewhere. “Our wholesale enterprise is currently a bigger portion of our business than the retail market,” Ellie said.

Bruce finds these vendors are relentless, on the phone calling once or twice a week to find out what’s new, what’s coming this week.

Almost everything is spot-picked two to four times, Bruce said, with pickers doing the sorting as they choose which fruit to pick. At the end of a variety’s season, what’s left is stripped and shipped to Knouse Foods for processing, to Kime Orchards for pressing into juice, or to Rice Fruit for fresh sales of all that’s suitable but in surplus after wholesale and retail sales.

Customers come from a variety of places, Ellie said. Many are local, and she is working to encourage them to shop more regularly at the market. Hence the loyalty card program. Many are tourists who come to historic sites like the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg a few miles south. The National Apple Harvest Festival, first held in 1961 and held the first two weekends of October at nearby Arendtsville, ten miles from Gettysburg, draws thousands.

A fair price

Through their bin porch, the Hollabaughs offer deals to customers who buy in bulk, usually a peck or more, and choose their purchases from field-run fruit. There, they sell at a compromise price between wholesale and retail and sell some lower quality fruit at a discount. In October, customers could buy a mixed bag of apples and Asian pears off the bin porch for 76 cents a pound—two to three times the wholesale price, but less than half the going retail price. The sign on the porch said the apples would cost $1.89 a pound at the supermarket.

Inside the market, customers buy sorted and select high-quality fruit and pay more for it.

“We don’t charge small prices,” Ellie said. “We know the quality of our fruit.”

More income per acre

All this effort translates into more income per acre, Ellie said. How else would you support six families from 400 acres of fruit?

“Purchasing additional land isn’t really an option,” she explained. “Most of the good orchard sites are already planted or have been developed for other uses. Bruce would like to plant in larger blocks.”

All the Hollabaugh orchard land is contiguous, and Bruce is reluctant to purchase fruit ground farther away.

The need for diversity in the market—both to have lots of different kinds of fruits and to have them available fresh, in season—means managing small blocks, moving crews, boxes, and machines several times a day.

A fruit block should be an acre, minimum, Bruce said, but there are exceptions. Because of other factors, like weather risk, one variety of fruit might be grown at multiple locations. The spray program, which Brad handles, is very complicated as well. Brad manages the pest ­management program and is the company’s general administrator.

“Spot picking is the name of the game,” Bruce said, and that adds to the number of operations that need to be done.

Responding to demand for new and different varieties requires an orchard renewal plan. “We have a renovation plan in place,” Bruce said. “It keeps a certain amount of our land out of fruit at all times.”

Most Adams County fruit sites are quite old, and Bruce’s renovation plans normally call for four years between fruit crops. The land will be rented out to field-crop farmers for two or three years, he said, and then the last year planted to Dwarf Essex rape for its soil fumigant properties. Dagger nematodes are a problem, vectoring tomato ring spot virus on peaches.

“It’s hard to take good fruit land out for four years, and then have to wait even longer for fruit,” he said. “But time and time again, we’ve seen the benefit in healthier trees, better quality fruit, and longer tree life.”

“We’re definitely in a transition period,” he said. “We actually sell fewer apples now (about 80,000 bushels) than when I came back to the farm (120,000 bushels). But we have many new plantings, now and production will rise rapidly in the next few years.”

Bruce is making most of his new apple plantings on a post and four-wire trellis system, primarily on Malling 9 rootstock, at tree densities from 650 to 1,000 per acre. He’s moving toward a tall spindle training system and even higher densities. Red and Golden Delicious trees are being replaced, as age and productivity dictates, and new varieties—dictated by what’s selling in the market—are being planted.

“The constantly changing contours of the ground in Pennsylvania make it very difficult or, at times, impossible to plant orchards as close as they use in the West,” Bruce said. “Almost no ground on our farm is flat enough for that.” His latest plantings are on a 4 by 14 foot spacing, and he wants to squeeze down more, toward 3 by 12 feet, or 1,313 trees per acre.

Hollabaugh Bros. has about 40,000 bushels of cold-storage capacity and uses it to carry popular varieties of apples beyond their harvest season. The demand of the marketplace dictates just how long any one variety is kept.

“Every year seems to bring its own marketing challenges. Our goal is always to adapt to an ever-changing market—both in what we grow and how we sell it,” Bruce said. “We’ve always been direct-market oriented. Popular varieties can change the whole dynamic of the market.”