Ed Weaver continues a tradition of success

“Know your crop, know your pests,know your customer,” is EdWeaver’s business mantra andsecret to success.

Weaver is the owner of Weaver’s Orchard (http://weaversorchard.com/index.htm) in Morgantown, Pa. Weaver’s Orchard is strategically located in the most eastern part of Berks County, at the apex of Chester and Lancaster Counties’ borders. They’re also close to the Philadelphia and New York City corridors and tourist trade that travels to Lancaster County and beyond.

Three generations of Weavers, from left to right, Elizabeth (Justin’s wife), Justin, Ed with grandson Joey, Anne (Ed’s wife) and grandson Daniel.

Four generations of Weavers have operated Weaver’s Orchard, Inc. Ed’s oldest son, Justin, works at the farm full time. He is the production manager and helps manage the farm.

Weaver’s Orchard diversifies its goods and services with its separate divisions: pick-your-own (PYO) orchard, farm market, garden center, and tours and events. Business diversity, social media, a solid marketing plan and the PYO component keep the family enterprise sustainable in today’s tough economic market.

Weaver owns 107 acres on one parcel and rents an additional 20 acres next to the home farm. Along with the farm market and PYO operation, the farm’s produce is sold to other farm markets in southeast Pennsylvania and wholesale to a distributor in Philadelphia. According to Weaver, the family expanded the business through increased direct marketing and decreased wholesale sales.

“The production part of our business is a foundation for much of the rest of our business,” Weaver said. “We sell about 60 percent of our crops direct to the consumer through PYO and our farm market. The other 40 percent is sold wholesale.”

How has the poor economy the last few years affected their business? “It has been tough to continue to grow, but we have had increases in sales of food items – much credit to a good marketing plan and a demand for local, fresh product,” Weaver stated.

Weaver’s Orchard employees

As is typical of other U.S. orchard operations, Weaver hires seasonally as well throughout the year. The time of year affects how many seasonal hires he needs to add to the payroll.

“Starting in April, we slowly increase our workforce, bringing on four to six persons, and add to that in May and June,” Weaver said, For a total of about 15 seasonal outdoor workers. “Most of these continue through October and some into November.”

Immigration issues are hot topics for orchard owners, but Weaver says, “We have had an adequate supply of workers, but this is partly due to the increase in available workers overall. We value good referrals from current employees.”

He hires about 25 part-time and full-time employees per year, and an additional 35 to 40 seasonal employees.

The farm’s life cycle

Weaver uses Pennsylvania’s seasons to determine what work needs to be done in the orchards and fields. Every spring workers finish pruning and start planting spring and summer crops. During the summer workers concentrate on mowing, irrigation, and harvesting fruits and vegetables that are ready. In the fall seasonal employees concentrate on the apple harvest, and in winter the focus turns to pruning the orchards when the weather cooperates. On bad weather days, workers will pack apples, make apple cider and fulfill wholesale accounts.

A customer shared this photo of her daughter picking strawberries at Weaver’s Orchard last summer.

The growing season extends from April through November. Crops include: asparagus, strawberries, sweet cherries, sour cherries, red and black raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, tomatoes, sweet corn, apricots, peaches, nectarines, pears, apples, pumpkins, winter squash and kiwi berries.

In 1995, Weaver discovered the orchard’s signature fruit: the Star Gala apple. The Star Gala comes from the Fulford Gala variety. In 2004, Weaver patented the Star Gala as the orchard’s signature fruit. The Star Gala grows to an average of 40 percent larger than the Fulford Gala. The Star Gala apple tree is smaller than the Fulford, which allows Weaver to plant his crops closer together. Star Gala apples are usually ready for sale starting around August 20.

Weaver’s Orchard isn’t certified organic, but they employ integrated pest management (IPM). When pesticides must be used on their crops, they follow Penn State’s guidelines and all label requirements.

“We are an IPM farm, which means we incorporate many practices, including organic, to reduce the use of pesticides and increase the sustainability of our operation,” Weaver said.

In early spring, Weaver purchases bumblebees and hires a beekeeper to bring in honeybees to pollinate the farm and orchards. When the bees arrive, Weaver and his crew place the honeybees and bumblebees at opposite sides of the orchards to keep the honeybees from raiding the bumblebees’ nests. Weaver also moves the hives around throughout the growing season for use with multiple crops.

Along with helping to pollinate the crops, the honeybees also provide honey. The beekeeper collects the honey, processes it with honey collected from other local hives, and then sells the product at Weavers’ Farm Market.

To protect delicate fruit and vegetables from freezing temperatures, bird raids and surprise rainstorms, Weaver utilizes high tunnels. He erected his first high tunnels in 2003, and in 2004 he added three other blocks of tunnels to cover his strawberry, cherry, blueberry and raspberry crops. As of May 2012, Weaver has 5 acres of produce covered by high tunnels.

Dicey weather and stinkbugs

Over the past few years, Pennsylvania has experienced extreme weather situations from severe flooding from Hurricane Irene in August and Tropical Storm Lee in September 2011 to a freak snowstorm on October 31, 2011.

“Weather issues continue to be a big challenge,” Weaver stated. “Frosts, excess rain, fall snowstorms, hurricanes and tropical storms. Some resulted in crop losses – it definitely had an impact on cash flow over the winter. On apples, we had a loss of quality. The apples had more skin damage and cracking; they went into apple cider, which is one way to overcome those weather challenges. We had to make adjustments in our schedules, and workers had to be prepared to work in the rain sometimes.”

March and April 2012 also provided some challenges for Weaver and his crew. There was a quick warm-up, which caused trees to blossom early, followed by weeks of cold weather and morning frosts. Weaver and his workers used irrigation on some of the crops for only three to four hours to keep the water lines from freezing up, but allowing enough moisture to protect the crops from developing frost.

For the harvest, Weaver believes that most of his crops will be OK except for the cherry crop. He expects to lose half a crop of sweet cherries this summer, but he’d rather get half a crop of cherries than no cherries at all.

Many Pennsylvania farms have had to deal with a stinkbug invasion over the past two years. Weaver experienced some stinkbug damage to his crops, but not to the same extent some other farmers experienced. However, Weaver and his crew have been proactive in lowering their risk of a stinkbug invasion.

Strawberries in May-fruit is on the plant and ripening in the sun, getting ready for picking time.

“We certainly had an increase in stinkbugs. Our focus targeted in the early season [where] we tried to do more monitoring and scouting when stinkbugs were first hatching and coming into the orchard; [we did] some spraying when the fruit was very small to kill the bugs at the early stages,” Weaver explained.

Nonorganic business challenges

Weaver finds excessive government regulations another hurdle to overcome in his business. If he could change one thing in the produce industry, it would be fewer regulations, which would make it easier and less expensive to operate his farm.

Yet there’s always a positive side to any industry that makes it worthwhile to continue working at it. “Seeing satisfied customers return and become loyal customers, building relationships with employees and customers. And I must give credit to a great family and a great management team that share our values,” Weaver stated.

Weaver knows his crops, knows his pests and knows his customers. By diversifying his farm business, Weaver has secured his market in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Komancheck writes about agriculture, businesses and the green industry from her home near Ephrata, Pa.