The Growers of Adams County
Adams County, located in south central Pennsylvania, is known by many as the Fruit Belt. Mountain ridges buffer the low valleys where farmers care for their fruit crops. The Adams County Fruit Growers Association, Young Growers Alliance and the Pennsylvania State University Fruit Research & Extension Center provide vital support and education to these farmers.
“Adams County is known to have first-rate growers who are invested in their area and industry. Additionally, industries to support the fruit growing industry can be found within close proximity to the Fruit Belt, including equipment dealers, packinghouses, processors, and large cities for farmers’ markets,” says Kyle Knouse, president of the Adams County Fruit Growers Association (ACFGA).
Adams County farming
The major fruit crops produced in the region are apples, which are also the number one crop in Adams County, as well as peaches, cherries, nectarines, apricots, plums and pears. “There are more berries going into the area, but it’s just recently [that] farmers are planting berries, [such as] strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. Also, there [are] vegetables grown in the area,” says Knouse.
Adams County ranks fourth in the nation, and first in Pennsylvania, for apple production, along with peach production. The unique layout of the land makes fruit growing profitable.
“What makes Adams County such a good place to grow fruit is, in part, the soils, climate, people and infrastructure. The soils of Adams County have a high water-holding capacity and are some of the best in the state. The Fruit Belt also has a unique microclimate created by the surrounding mountains that protects the fertile ground and forces many hailstorms to pass over the area. The climate is also favorable for growing a wide variety of fruit. Cold winters allow for dormancy; hot summers make a good peach; and cool falls permit large, quality apples to be grown,” Knouse explains.
How many farms, acres and income, earned through fruit operations, are represented in Adams County? According to the latest records from 2007, there are about 75 orchard operations in the county, with about 20,000 acres planted in tree fruits. Each year, there are about 300 million pounds of apples grown in Adams County. “The federal standard for a bushel of apples is 48 pounds. So, we grow about 6.2 million bushels of apples in Adams County,” Knouse says.
“The value of the apple crop comes to around $42.6 million. We produce about 8,000 tons of peaches, and the value is around $7.5 million. Not all of these farms are members of the association, but probably 90 to 95 percent are [members]. The total cash receipts for fruit grown in Adams County came to around $53.8 million in 2007,” Knouse explains.
Knouse is a fourth-generation farmer. In 2003, he graduated from Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa., after which he began farming full-time right away. “My family has been in the fruit growing business for over 80 years. We operate under the name Knouse Fruitlands, Inc. We are comprised of two parts: fruit and vegetable growing, and the Historic Round Barn and Farm Market (www.roundbarngettysburg.com).”
The Historic Round Barn and Farm Market serves as a one-stop shop where the Knouses sell their fruit, baked goods and many other items. Knouse explains that the round barn is unique to Adams County, where it replaced a conventional barn that burned to the ground in the early 20th century. The round barn was built by the Noah Sheely family in 1914.
“The circumference of the barn is 282 feet, with a diameter over 87 feet. As was characteristic of round barns, the barn was constructed around a central silo, measuring 60 feet high and 12 feet wide with storage capacity of 145 tons of silage. The silo acts as the hub of a wheel with 38 spokes that form the interior structure and support for the second floor. All but one of the spokes are single lengths of wood—each nearly 37 feet long. The barn, as it was originally constructed, could house 50 head of cattle and about 16 mules or horses,” from according to the Web site
In 1878, Noah Sheely planted the first large commercial apple orchard in Adams County, which included 2,000 trees and became known as the Round Barn Farm. In 1985, Knouse Fruitlands, Inc. bought the Round Barn Farm from the Linn family, a descendant of Sheely. At the time, the barn and orchard were in disrepair. The Knouses worked hard to renovate the barn back to a farm market and the orchards back into commercial production.
Finally, in 1993, the Knouses opened their farm market for the first two weekends in October, which corresponded with the National Apple Harvest Festival (www.appleharvest.com), held near their farm. The timing proved to be a great success for the farm market and inspired the Knouses the following year to open the farm market during the growing season, which is from early summer to fall.
Knouse says, “We offer a lot of products in the market; not only our fruits and vegetables, but I do hanging baskets and planters in our greenhouses to sell in the spring. We also have a wide selection of jams, jellies, butters, spreads, preserves, syrups, dressings, sauces, soups and canned and baked goods. There are lots of seasonal crafts, home decorations, gift items, candles and cider in the fall.”
Knouse says that his family’s company operates eight different farms, totaling 1,200-plus acres scattered over three south central Pennsylvania counties: Adams, Cumberland and Franklin counties. “On these farms, we grow apples, peaches, pears, plums, nectarines, apricots, pluots (a plum and apricot mix), cherries, corn, pumpkins, gourds and many different vegetables,” says Knouse.
Adams County Fruit Growers Association (ACFGA)
“I’ve been a member of the [ACFGA) since graduating [from college], but my family has been members since it was officially established in 1979. The association has board members that [serve] three-year terms [and] no more than two consecutive terms. The president term is usually held for a year. Before becoming president, [that person holds the office of] vice president,” Knouse explains.
The ACFGA (www.uasd.k12.pa.us/upperadams/fruitgrowers/acfga.htm), located in Biglersville, Pa., promotes the fruit growing industry of Adams County. There are 265 members, and the association sponsors five major activities throughout the year: an all-day educational meeting held every third Monday in February; a Ladies’ Night Banquet, which occurs either in February or March each year; the Apple Blossom Festival during the first weekend in May; the South Mountain Fair in August; and the National Apple Harvest Festival, which is the first two weekends in October.
The ACFGA’s annual Apple Blossom Festival serves as a fundraiser for the association, as well as a way to promote fruit growing in Adams County. “The Apple Blossom Festival is one of the promotional programs [that benefits the fruit industry]. It’s held the first full weekend in May. It’s a two-day event that is filled with things to do and fun to be had. It’s our main fundraiser for the organization, but more importantly, its purpose is to bring people into the area and educate them on the fruit industry.
“We also sponsor an Apple Queen program, whose purpose is to promote the fruit industry through education. The Apple Queen is chosen at the festival,” Knouse explains.
ACFGA also supports the Buy Local movement that’s taken off. “Local doesn’t have to mean in your community, it can mean in your region. We grow some of the best fruit in the nation, and the Apple Blossom Festival is the start of our growing season. It’s a great chance for people from all around to come out and see the blossoms on the trees and learn about fruit farming from the farmers,” Knouse says.
Knouse says that change is perhaps one of the biggest challenges that all fruit growers have to experience. “The fruit industry is constantly changing with new production methods; restrictions on pesticides; the changing consumer markets and trends; and the increased cost of fuel, labor and general production. What we do as an association is donate to research and innovation, which, in turn, is given as information to help our growers transition with all of these changes. We also have an education meeting on President’s Day that’s focused on these issues. We can’t grow fruit like we used to and stay in business. We have to become more efficient and always be ready for change,” Knouse explains.
It’s hard for Knouse to pinpoint the most rewarding part of the ACFGA. “It’s very rewarding knowing that the things we do as an association help the farmers in Adams County. For me, getting involved with the association early in my career is going to help in the future,” Knouse says.
Additionally, the ACFGA supports research at the Fruit Research and Extension Center (http://frec.cas.psu.edu) in Biglersville, Pa., a heavily used resource for Adams County fruit growers, as well as fruit growers in other parts of the state. “The research done there helps many growers. The ACFGA donates money to fund research and innovation that in turn help our growers. They would not be there without us, and we probably wouldn’t be here without them,” Knouse says.
Young Growers Alliance
Knouse wouldn’t change anything about the ACFGA except to get more of the next generation of young fruit growers involved and interested in fruit growing in the county. Yet there is a group that is focused on the next generation of Adams County produce growers. “We have a great group that was created in Adams County called the Young Growers Alliance (YGA). This is a great group for the next generation to network and become more involved.
“Basically, it was started in 2005 by a group of Penn State Extension/Educators. There are about 125 growers from the mid-Atlantic area and beyond. I am a member of the Alliance also. It was formed so growers, at the start of their horticulture careers, can learn and network with other growers of the same age. There is no age limit. It is for any ‘young’ grower, which could mean young in their farming life or ownership of the farming business,” Knouse says.
Katie Ellis, Specialty Crop Innovations for YGA (www.younggrowers.org), in Gettysburg, Pa., says, “In a nutshell, the purpose of the YGA is to help young, specialty crop growers learn new practices and network with other people in the profession. More specifically, the group identified initiatives that they want to pursue as a group: farm transition planning; sharing diversification and marketing ideas; recruiting new horticulture students; leadership development; and community service. We don’t have a formal membership process, but currently have at least 130 young growers subscribed to our listserv.
“The majority [of members] are specialty crop growers or employees of such operations. Many members grow tree fruit. A lot also grow vegetables and attend farmers’ markets. A few members work in the greenhouse and/or nursery industry, packinghouses, etc. We also have a few young people who are horticulture graduate students or work in related industries that deal with fruit production,” Ellis explains.
Fruit growing is serious business in Adams County, Pa. The ACFGA, the YGA and the Penn State Fruit Research and Extension Center provide support and resources to the region’s fruit farmers, as well as working together in research and development for better fruit growing methods into the future.
The State of the Plum Pox Virus in Adams County
In Growing’s December 2005 edition, we discussed the plum pox virus (PPV), a devastating disease that impacted Adams County’s ability to grow healthy and saleable fruit. At that time, the county, along with Cumberland, Franklin and York counties, was quarantined until the disease was under control. Knouse offered an update on the PPV situation in Adams County:
“There is some pretty good news on the subject. On October 29, 2009, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced that through a successful 10-year partnership with the state of Pa., PPV has been eradicated from the entire state. Based on three years of negative survey results, which included all orchards and residential properties with host plants within the quarantined areas, APHIS determined that the state of Pennsylvania has met the criteria for removal of the last remaining quarantine areas for PPV in Adams County.”
A member of the North American Agricultural Journalists, Komancheck writes about agriculture and the green industry from her home near Ephrata, Pa.