Homestead Gardens Finds its Niche

Photos by Wendy Komancheck.
An example of basil in a sterile grow bag with spaghetti drip lines.

Ron and Rosene Weaver of Ephrata, Pa., make a success of their small produce business, Homestead Gardens, by focusing on niche marketing. They grow herbs for wholesale buyers, and cultivate vegetables for the Food Trust Farmers’ Market in Philadelphia, Pa., and Karetas, a Reading, Pa.-based food distributor that serves institutions and restaurants.

Getting their start

Since 1983, the Weavers have been in the growing business. In the beginning, Weaver rented a greenhouse to grow tomatoes. In 1985, he and his family moved to their 2-acre home, and in 1989, they added a small amount of bedding plants to their part-time business. And, in 1995, Ron took a leap of faith and left his full-time job to concentrate on his farming business full-time while working part-time as a truck driver.

Weaver gained much of his experience in the produce business when he worked full-time for Four Seasons Produce, a wholesale produce company in Ephrata, Pa., as a quality controller. When he started buying produce for Four Seasons, he realized he could be a wholesaler in business for himself.

When Weaver left Four Seasons 12 years ago, he started with an early crop of tomatoes and bedding plants. “I wanted to see what I could grow.” He found that his first two crops were a good fit. To keep an income coming in after the busy summer season, Weaver contacted Stauffers of Kissel Hill (SKH), in Lititz, Pa., about selling some of his herbs in their grocery stores. He clinched the deal with them by guaranteeing fresh cut herbs well into December. Today, he provides eight herbs to SKH: rosemary, basil, chives, oregano, thyme, sage, tarragon and spearmint.

Weaver begins his herbs and vegetables with seeds from catalogs. He’ll only buy plantings if he discovers that he’s running short in plants that he started from seeds.

A family affair

The three youngest sons, Rylan, 16, Randon, 14, and Rendell, 10, help their dad with the business. “I usually have a list for them when they get home from school,” chuckles Weaver. The other four children are not involved in business.

From April through the end of June, the Weavers are extremely busy. Along with Ruth Bruckhart, Rosene’s mother, they propagate bedding plants, arrange planters and serve the locals who purchase pansies, geraniums, impatiens and other springtime plants.

Ron, Rendell and Rylan Weaver in one of their greenhouses.

“It’s our bread and butter. My wife and I work together, and we don’t sell any fall crops, like mums, because the spring is so busy. We transplant all of our flowers by hand. A neighbor lady and Bruckhart help Rosene with the transplanting. And, Rosene [designs] all of the planters.”

A sampler of herbs that Weaver propagates for SKH.
 
A sample carton with bar code tag attached.

Approximately 1 acre of Weaver’s land is dedicated to greenhouse growing. The remaining acre is used for growing outdoor vegetable crops. Once the rush of the flower business slows down in late June, Weaver concentrates on the vegetable and herb sides of his business. He stays busy with the farmers’ market until mid-November and the herbs into December. In addition to the herbs and vegetables that he grows in greenhouses, he grows lettuce, melons, carrots and some herbs, which he sells at market, on the outside fields.

Weaver maintains five greenhouses. Two are cold frame and three are covered in standard double-polyethylene plastic. He grows all of his squash and cucumbers in-house because of the squash bug and the cucumber beetle, which are indigenous to south central Pennsylvania and will destroy his crops. Instead, he sets up screen intakes that allow air to filter through the greenhouses, but keeps the bugs outside. Weaver reasons that this method prevents the use of pesticides.

Challenges and how they were overcome

Every farming business faces challenges, and Mother Nature usually throws some curve balls into the mix, too. Weaver explains that his main challenges stem from destructive insects. “[In the greenhouses,] I close-crop my plants. There’s not a long time in between plantings, and some insects carry over.” These insects include aphids, spider mites, white flies and thrips.

Weaver explains, “I use integrated pest management because there aren’t herbicides labeled for use on herbs. I work like an organic farmer by using predatory insects, like the parasitic wasp and the aphid predatory midge. And, these good insects carry over, too. I saw numerous aphid outbreaks over the summer, and I had good control over them.” Weaver noticed that midges came back this past summer, and he saw the “best success over aphids because the midge larvae ate them.”

The summer of 2007 saw a large influx of Japanese beetles. Since they eat basil leaves, and Weaver plants some of his basil outside, he and his sons persisted in saving their outdoor basil crop. “It was a bad summer. The beetles went nuts. We stayed ahead by picking them off the leaves and putting them in soapy water, which is a more humane way of killing them,” he says.

Weaver also encounters plant diseases that threaten the life of his business. Again, he applies the natural method, similar to what organic farmers use, for controlling diseases. For instance, in the greenhouses he uses plastic grow bags where the roots are in a sterile environment within the plastic and are grown in sterile potting mix. “I can get two crops from one bag without changing the soil. And, the soil stays dormant for a month before I do the second planting,” says Weaver. Yet, he must rotate his crops when utilizing the same bag to ensure successful plantings. Before implementing the grow bag, Weaver faced fusarium and Pythium, both soilborne diseases that targeted the roots.

In addition to the grow bags, he also uses a drip system with spaghetti tubing to irrigate his plantings. “The drip system is sterilized, and each plant gets the same amount of water, even if the bag lines aren’t in an even line. It’s a pressure-compensating emitter that levels out the water.”

A greenhouse filled with lateseason tomatoes.

Weaver grappled with where he could carve his niche in the competitive produce market. “I don’t do much wholesale [anymore]. Before the farmers’ market, I sold wholesale produce through Four Seasons. The Food Trust Farmers’ Market has been successful [where he sells directly to his customers], and I found my niche market [through them].”

As the potential for growth materialized, Weaver realized that he wanted to work full-time at his business, which meant finding buyers for his herb crops over the wintertime. Fortunately, SKH has provided that outlet. “I can sell herbs in spring, summer and fall to SKH. During the winter, I don’t bring in a good herb crop because of the poor growing conditions [in the greenhouses].We do the cutting and packing of the herbs, and SKH provides the bar code labels. The herb packet is ready to sell once it’s delivered to the warehouse.”

Finally, Weaver irrigates his greenhouse crops using two wells: a 30-foot hand-dug well that came with the property, and a 300-foot well that he added onto the property as his produce business grew. Both wells provide him with enough water throughout the winter and into early spring for watering his greenhouse crops. Yet, the wells can’t provide enough water for the greenhouses and the outside crops during the growing season. So, from early spring until fall, he relies on a 9,000-gallon cistern at his farm to provide enough water for his 1 acre of outside crops. “It [the cistern] provides me with enough water during the early spring. But, if we have a dry summer, I need to buy water to fill it up.”

Throughout his years in the produce-growing business, Weaver has focused on niche marketing and learning from the problems that Mother Nature threw his way. And, he sells produce and herbs to a local grocery chain, two food industry suppliers and a farmers’ market, which allows him to be a full-time grower.

The author is a freelance writer based in Ephrata, Pa.