Setting a hardworking example for success

Family farms survive because everyone pitches in—including the children—with chores. Oftentimes, society doesn’t understand the work ethic that drives the modern farmer and his family to stay competitive in the produce business. Vernon Hoover and his family, owners of Hoover’s Farm Market and Greenhouses located outside Lititz, Pa., live the farm life to the hilt, and their example is a blueprint for others interested in produce-growing success.

Family roots

In 1978, the elder Hoovers, Aaron and Elsie, began their farm business with a humble roadside produce stand by their farm. They added onto their business with the farm market in 1981. Filling a local need for fresh produce, the Hoovers expanded their business over the next two decades by building onto the farm market and adding the first greenhouse in 1997. According to Hoover, his farm market and greenhouse business has been “rapidly growing ever since.” He says, “My wife and I worked with my parents for several years. Then, we took full responsibility when they retired in 2002. I’ve lived here on the farm my whole life, being one of eight children. We all had to help weed and pick produce at a very young age. [Because of that], we’ve come to love farming and the challenges of growing produce.”

Photos by Wendy Komancheck.
A rainy Friday afternoon at Hoover’s Farm Market and Greenhouses. The business is “out in the country,” not immediately near any Lancaster County towns and highways. Hoover’s attracts a lot of locals (and some tourists who find themselves off the beaten path) for homegrown fruits and vegetables.

The Hoovers’ farm market is open from April through November (the greenhouses close in late July until the last week of August, when mums are sold until the end of October). They barely take a break from daily farm market duties. Hoover says, “We seed all of our seed-grown flowers using a Blackmore Needle Seeder. And, we root most of our own cuttings, such as geraniums. We currently have half an acre of growing and retail area in all freestanding greenhouses.”

Mums and gourds attract customers for fall decorating, as well as fresh produce.

Hoover says that his greenhouse flower sales peak in May, and starting in June he begins to concentrate on his produce sales. “Strawberries are our first main crop. They start coming in late May or early June. We’ve about 2 acres of strawberries, with 1 acre used for pick your own strawberries. Our main crop is sweet corn, which we plant 20 acres from April to July to ensure that we’ve enough corn [for sale] everyday. We try to have local corn available from the first week of July to the last week of September. Watermelons and cantaloupe are also large sellers. And, we plant three to four plantings [of watermelons and cantaloupes], but end up buying more at the local produce auction on the days we’re not picking.”

Hoover’s homegrown cauliflower comes in purple and white.

Hoover says that he’s fortunate to have the Leola Produce Auction outside of Lancaster, Pa., close by in order to purchase more produce to round out his sales. “About 30 percent of our produce [comes from the Leola Produce Auction] and from other local farmers and orchards. We finish up the season with a large variety of fall crops, including cabbage, spinach, turnips, broccoli and cauliflower. A lot of these crops are double-cropped with sweet corn giving us double the production. We also raise about 3 acres of fall ornamental and edible squash, but buy most of our pumpkins come from the produce auction.”

The Hoovers close up their farm market on the last week of November. After a brief reprieve, they begin the flower planting season in mid-December to ensure bedding flowers are retail ready by April.

Taking care of crops

The Hoovers sell about 50 percent of their own produce, which grows on their 40-acre farm. Hoover succeeds with a blend of Mother Nature and good equipment. He says, “One of our strong points is our excellent irrigation system. We pump water from a good creek bordering our property. All the main lines are buried with risers in every field. We use a Bauer Irrigation Wheel, which covers a 300-foot-wide field in one pass. Someone can set it up and be watering in 15 minutes. The irrigation wheel is probably our best time-saving piece of equipment, and well worth the price.”

In addition to the irrigation wheel, Hoover uses a Crop Care Produce Sprayer that Paul Zimmerman, Inc., located in Lititz, built for him. Hoover says, “We recently upgraded to a self-folding boom model and are very pleased with it. Previously, I’d get off the tractor and fold the boom at every obstruction. And, that got old fast because of all our small fields [which are separated by trees]. The boom has a 300 PSI pump and a 26-foot single side boom. It’s adjustable for height, and it self-levels from the tractor.”

When it comes to heating the greenhouses, Hoover buys his fuel ahead of time in order to lock in the price for the year. Hoover states, “We heat the greenhouses with propane, and it has really gotten expensive in the last few years. We usually burn about 15,000 gallons of fuel in a normal winter and lock in the price on about three-quarters of that amount. That gives us a chance to play the market a little if the prices would drop during the growing season.”

When it comes to beating greenhouse pest invasions, Hoover delegates the spraying responsibility to a trained employee, which allows him more time to work at other farming chores. Hoover says, “We usually don’t have any serious pest problems, and we stress more on pest prevention. Our greenhouses are squeaky clean when we start the season, and we don’t carry any stock plants over the winter. Everything gets powerwashed and sprayed with Green-Shield [a greenhouse disinfectant and algaecide developed through Whitmire Micro-Gen Research Laboratories, Inc.]. And, we use a Sebring Sprayer in the greenhouse, where we supplement with a Dramm Auto Fogger when the disease pressure is light.”

Challenges in the produce business

Hoover’s biggest business setback came when a severe thunderstorm brought hail in July 2005. It was a tricky time for the storm due to corn coming in and other plants starting to develop their fruits and vegetables. “It ruined most of the crops,” Hoover states. “Cantaloupes and watermelons were punctured; zucchinis and cucumbers were a total loss. It bruised the sweet corn, which didn’t pollinate well. The silk injury kept it from pollinating correctly. It was bad timing because we were gearing up to start harvesting. I was glad that strawberries were done. Yet, with the potatoes, I recovered the best crops ever.”

In addition to crop loss and damaged sweet corn, Hoover also needed to repair his greenhouses. He needed to replace polyethylene on seven structures that ranged in size of 1,000 to 7,000 square feet.

Hoover realizes his competition as his number two business challenge. He finds that the farm market business is more competitive than when his father owned the market. Hoover’s responds philosophically to this challenge when he says, “you do a good job, or you don’t survive. It’s about growing great products.”

The customers have changed over the years, too. Hoover notices that since many of his customers haven’t grown up on farms, their expectations are a little unrealistic. They expect their produce to be washed and ready for eating. Also, Hoover explains, “Potatoes are falling off [in sales] because people aren’t cooking as much. But, the fruit does well [at his farm market].”

Hoover gears up to produce the best vegetables and fruits for his customer base because he’s also competing with farmers who consign their produce to grocery stores. “There are some pretty great produce sections in [local] grocery stores.”

Fall fresh vegetables and fruits for sale in Hoover’s Market.

Still, Hoover has seen a 20 percent increase in his business over the past five years. “The demand has risen with the consumer. Customers are eating more fresh fruits.” And, the competition gets steep when he also competes with local produce stands, as well as grocery store produce sections. But, Hoover takes a positive approach. He notices that there’s less produce stands during dry summers, like this past one, compared to more roadside stands when the summers have been wetter. Since his irrigation system is superb, he’s able to keep up with the competition, no matter what Mother Nature deals him during the summer months.

Finally, he develops loyal customers. Since Hoover’s Farm Market is off the beaten path, he’s noticed that his customer base consists of more regulars than Lancaster County tourists. Matter of fact, his clientele consists of about 75 percent of Lititz customers, who want fresh produce, which means that they may stop in more than once a week to purchase it.

Hoover succeeds because he won’t accept anything less than best for his regular clients. And, he and his wife enjoy the family enterprise that his parents started as a roadside stand nearly 30 years ago, and which grew to a bustling farm market and greenhouses.

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