Growing Magazine - March, 2011

NORTH FEATURES

Diversity is the Name of the Game

Growing success at Peaceful Valley Orchards
By Tamara Scully

They've come a long way since 2001, when Meredith and Jeremy Compton took over the operations at the defunct Peaceful Valley Orchards in upscale, bucolic Hunterdon County, N.J. The first priority was to revitalize the old, nonproductive trees so they would again bear high-quality fruit. Promoting the farm then took center stage, as the Comptons worked to establish a customer base. Today, that skill in promoting the farm, growing high-quality products and making the farm an intrinsic part of life for area residents, and a regular outing for returning visitors, is the foundation upon which they've built their operation. With a myriad of activities each season, the Comptons continue to reap the benefits of wooing the public back to the orchard.


Overview of the farm on a crisp fall day. Vegetable crops in foreground, orchard trees to the right, and the farm market and greenhouses in the background.
PHOTOS BY TAMARA SCULLY UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.

"I believe you need to be diverse in order to make a living in agriculture," Meredith Compton said. "Gone are the days where you can just grow sweet corn or tomatoes and put them out at your roadside stand."

Today, the Compton's farm stand, located just down the road, boasts an impressive new market building complete with a commercial kitchen, pick-your-own fields, picnic area, farm animals, greenhouses and high-tunnel production. They offer a frequent buyer program, a summer farm camp, specially designed educational tour packages for all ages and participate in the area's Buy Fresh Buy Local chapter.

All those activities keep visitors returning and keep the couple busy planning, marketing, overseeing a staff of 12 seasonal employees and, of course, farming. Because farming, as far as the Comptons are concerned, isn't just about planting and harvesting a crop. It's about making sales, keeping customers and growing their market share in order to keep the business profitable.

The Comptons don't own their farmland. It is permanently preserved land that they lease. The enterprising couple knew that in order to make a business from farming, they had to dive in and create a farm experience that would entice customers to stay, explore and come back. They utilize the 150-acre farm to maximize the visitor experience.

New idea of farming

"People want to be entertained. Everyday people call us and ask us what we have to do at our farm," Compton said.

That inclusiveness is something Compton caters to, creating the environment where quality, familiarity and special events mean daily or weekly trips to the farm for nearby residents, and return trips for those from outlying areas.

For those who need more than a full-service, one-stop, local fresh food market, there are farm animals that visitors can feed. An observation beehive in the market lends excitement as visitors see the honeybees in action. Pick-your-own begins with strawberries and includes peaches, pears, apples and pumpkins later in the season.

"People want to be able to come out and pick their own produce, feed the animals and have lunch at the picnic tables," Compton said.


The entry sign greets visitors.

While the Comptons host pumpkin-picking hayrides and a corn maze each fall, they strive to make many Peaceful Valley Orchard programs educational, as well as fun. The highlight is the one-week summer "farm camp" sessions, for kids from 7 to 10 years old. Many older kids come back as counselors, which is a good indicator of the success of the program.

At the weekly camp session - there are now two identical sessions each summer - the participants get down and dirty learning from hands-on activities. Planting, hoeing, harvesting, greenhouse growing, crafts and exploring all aspects of farming keep the kids active, and provide them with an understanding of the work a farmer must do. This appreciation of farm living is something the Comptons feel needs to be made relevant to children, even those who live in this primarily rural community.

"We started Farm Camp because we thought it was important that kids know where their food comes from and how it gets to the table. Even though we live in a pretty rural area, we didn't think many kids were aware of this," Compton said.

If farm camp isn't enough, the farm also offers private guided tours each season. A strawberry tour is designed for the preschool crowd each spring, and includes pick-your-own strawberries, meet the farm animals and a tour of the greenhouse. Garden clubs are treated to a guided tour of the greenhouses, the orchard and the vegetable crops, and get a question-and-answer session with the farmers. Other packages are geared to family groups wanting to learn more about farming in the Garden State.

Craft classes and vermicomposting sessions have also made it onto the seasonal lineup of activities. While these are geared towards adults, children love the six-week "fun and farming" programs offered each summer. These daily sessions feature a different farm activity each week, from composting to weaving to hiking to creating kid-friendly snacks from farm-fresh foods. To draw the parents into the market each week, all participants receive a coupon, good at the market that day only, towards a purchase of their choice.

The market

The Comptons give local residents a reason to stop by frequently. Their original farm market was under a tent. The market today is a full-service, diverse operation.

"They [local residents] also want to be able to stop in our store after work and get everything they need in one stop. That's why we carry milk, local eggs and even locally raised pork," Compton said.

They have their own bedding plants to start the spring season off with a colorful display, and they grow over three dozen of their own fruit and vegetable crops. They end the season with holiday displays of mums and do a brisk business in apple and pumpkin pies every fall. The market is open May through November.

With the new Farm Market Dollars program, customers can earn $1 towards a future purchase for every $20 spent. It's a fun, rewarding way to remind customers that purchasing from the market is the best way to get nutritious foods, support local agriculture and do so in a convenient, relaxing manner.

Community integration

The Comptons support a charitable cause that provides farm-fresh produce to local residents in need. The farm was an original participant in the America's Grow-A-Row nonprofit, founded by community member Chip Paillex. The Comptons donate land to Paillex and his volunteers so they can plant a garden and harvest the bounty for distribution via the local food bank. The couple also donates seed and equipment, allows volunteers to glean their fields, and hosts charity events for the program.

The nonprofit recently purchased a large parcel of preserved farmland near the Compton's farm. This presented the opportunity for the couple to lease some land directly from the group, increasing their own farm output, while also providing income for the charity.

Savvy choices

The couple decided to put their time and energy into expanding the farm market and farm activities. Even though it has meant hiring more staff, it's a worthy investment.

"It does mean more expensive labor and overhead. Many of our employees have been with us for years, and they are highly skilled in what they do," she said.

They plan on adding more high tunnel crop production. Season extension means more product to sell, and catching customers with the first and last crops of the season gives them an edge.

"This year we put in our first high tunnel for earlier season tomato production. We would definitely like to do more high tunnel crop production next year. Brambles would be a great crop for that," Compton noted.

Although they do participate in one tailgate market, that sales venue has proven more labor-intensive and less profitable for them. "Most towns have farmers' markets, but it's very difficult to find one that has the volume of customers to make it worth our while," Compton said.

They have, however, been able to make it profitable to stay farm-based. While the Comptons have proven to be savvy marketers, it's their genuine love of the farm and farming, and the desire to share that passion, that has made them pillars of the community. Their strategic planning has allowed the farm to weather a myriad of changes and to take root in the community.

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.