Despite the proliferation of farmers’ markets and farm-to-table dining, sustaining a small family farm in Pennsylvania is still a tough row to hoe.
Robert T. Lange, owner of Sugartown Strawberries
in Malvern, knows well the challenges of farming. His 230-acre Willisbrook Farm
has been in the family since 1896. It’s incredibly hard work from the growing season to harvest, April through November, says Lange. Field corn and soybeans draw low commodity prices. Deer helped themselves to his crops until he fenced off the entire property.
“The weather is the wild card in the mix," he explains. "You cannot control the weather and if it turns against you, you are out of luck... Being the last farm remaining in an area is difficult because the neighbors do not understand farming practices and become unsupportive and resentful."
Lange has kept the farm going by diversifying with specialty crops such as asparagus, strawberries, sweet corn, sunflowers and pumpkins. He is looking into expanding the sunflower business and selling bouquets commercially.
The farm hosts over 5,000 school children annually, an essential source of income and good will.
"Providing school tours for kids to come out, take a hay ride and pick a pumpkin has helped unbelievably to sustain the farm," says Lange. "The school tours provide a large portion of my yearly income. Allowing schools to come out and visit the farm allows me to help teach the kids a little about what a farm is. The hayrides and parties provide a venue for the community to enjoy the farm, often reaching new customers that would not normally have come to the farm unless they were an invited guest at a private party."
Innovations in agricultural science are critical, too.
"Advances in seed technology, modern farm equipment and herbicides allow a single farmer to accomplish by himself what it would have taken 20 people to do years ago," he explains.
Agriculture continues to be essential to Pennsylvania's economy, and that of Chester County in particular. The Chester County Economic Development Council
reports that one in seven jobs in the state are directly related to agriculture. In Pennsylvania, Chester County ranks first in value of crops, including nursery and greenhouse, and second in value of total agricultural products sold in the state including crops, livestock and their products.
The Board of Chester County Commissioners and the Chester County Agricultural Development Council
will honor Lange next week as 2014 Farmer of the Year
Source: Robert T. Lange, Sugartown Strawberries
Writer: Elise Vider