Making the most of a roadside business

Photos by Wendy Komancheck.
Onions for sale at the Hess farm.

Dennis and Darlene Hess of Lititz, Pa., work seven days a week during the growing season. In addition to their farm work, they have outside jobs because “farming doesn’t pay all the bills,” says Dennis.

Darlene and Dennis Hess of Hess Produce.

Hess’ love for the land has kept him and his wife farming. They bought their current farm in 1986, and they operate a self-service roadside vegetable and fruit stand at their home. They also sell their produce through the Leola Produce Auction.

Produce breakdown

Hess grows various produce on more than 25 acres of land. He owns 10 acres and rents the other 17 acres at a neighboring farm.

Hess’ stand encompasses the entire side of their farmhouse and along one side of the outside kitchen wall. He has wagon beds lined with fruits and vegetables that can handle the warmer temperatures, and he uses two coolers with fresh baked goods, eggs and produce that require refrigeration during the hot summer months. “We bought a walk-in cooler a few years back and that improved the quality of our [sweet corn]. I can drive my skid loader right up to the cooler,” Hess says. This storage cooler measures 30 feet wide by 50 feet deep.

Hess has been in farming “all of my life in conjunction with other jobs.” He learned how to grow sweet corn on his father’s farm, and he grew up with his father planting and selling sweet corn at the family’s roadside stand. Hess also gained experience with growing asparagus and potatoes, as his father sold these vegetables to area grocery stores. “We had the biggest asparagus field,” Hess remembers.

Hess returned to his agrarian roots nearly two years after completing high school and working in the welding field when he took a job on a potato farm in nearby Millersville. “I worked on the potato farm for seven years. Then, I rented a farm for seven years. In 1986, I bought the farm on Clay Road.”

Hess’ signage at his roadside stand.

Yet, he never relied solely on his farming business. “I drove truck full time. We didn’t grow much produce at that time, it was mostly gourds and pumpkins.” Throughout the years, he also had a tree stump removal business and held other part-time jobs in the agriculture sector.

Throughout the growing season, which starts in March or April in south central Pennsylvania, depending on “when the asparagus starts poking out of the ground,” until Thanksgiving, Hess and his wife are busy planting, tending and selling their 13 crops.

Hess’ sweet corn crop is perhaps the best selling vegetable that he produces. He grows 5 to 7 acres of sweet corn a year. In addition to selling it along the road, he takes his sweet corn and to the Leola Produce Auction  when they’re selling sweet corn at a fair price. “People come from all over the place to buy fresh produce,” says Hess. The produce auction attracts supermarket buyers, chefs and those wanting fresh Lancaster County produce.

Tomatoes for sale.

Hess admits that he charges more for a dozen of sweet corn compared to his competitors, but that’s because of the three varieties he plants: Silver King, White Out and Providence. He also says that prices fluctuate depending on the time when he’s selling. The price goes up during peak of summer. “The market wants the best sweet corn,” he says.

As a spin-off to his sweet corn trade, Hess also dedicates five Saturdays during the summer to selling roasted sweet corn in burlap. The five Saturdays fall on the heaviest tourist weekends: Fourth of July weekend, Lititz Craft Show weekend and Labor Day weekend. It’s an all-day process that brings in the customers. “There’s a wood fire surrounded by cement blocks. I have a big metal plate on top of the fire [where I lay] one to two pieces of burlap, the corn, and cover it with burlap. It takes a half-hour for the corn to be ready, but I leave the corn on for another two to three hours to get that burlap flavor,” Hess says.

Asparagus is another successful crop for Hess. He grows hybrid varieties from New Jersey, like Jersey Knight, on 3 to 4 acres. In addition to roadside sales, he also takes his asparagus to the Leola Produce Auction. Other vegetables that he grows in smaller quantities are eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini. He doesn’t consign these crops to the auction, but they do sell throughout the summer and fall season at his stand.

Summer officially begins in Lancaster County when the first strawberries show up at local farm stands. Hess also sells his strawberries at his farm. He grows them on 1.5 acres. He also grows cantaloupes and watermelons on 2 acres which are sold at the farmstand, but not the produce auction.

Finally, Hess grows Yukon Gold potatoes on 1 acre. He takes some of his crop to the auction and sells the remainder at his stand.

“I like growing different. There are some more different varieties that can stand the hot or cold weather better—especially in sweet corn. Some varieties are more disease [and pest-resistant]. I grow only one variety of potatoes since my brother [who lives on a farm down the road from him] grows numerous varieties. I don’t want to step on his toes,” he says.

Running Hess Produce

Hess uses only the basics to maintain his farm: a skid loader, a tractor and a couple of teenagers. If Hess needs an extra tractor, he borrows one from his brother. “I hate to do without my skid loader to pick corn. I put a big bin in the front and a young kid [one of his teenage employees] walks beside me and picks the corn.”

He usually has students working from 7 a.m. to 11 or 12 p.m. during the week to help pick corn. He says, “They’re usually saving up for something like a car,” and are motivated to work hard on their months off from school.

A few years ago, Hess joined the Pennsylvania Marketing Campaigns through the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (www.agriculture.state.pa.us/papreferred/site/default.asp) to expand his marketing plan. He has the Pa. Preferred logo and other PDA Marketing Campaign banners displayed around his farmstand.

Safety and security at a self-serve stand

Hess’ roadside stand is entirely self-serviced, and he uses a cash box for people to pay. It doesn’t benefit him to hire two people to man the stand seven days a week in two shifts. “We’re not losing enough during the day to pay someone to sit here.”

Instead, Hess installed a security camera because he’s been robbed a couple of times. A few years ago, he had trouble with people coming from a nearby town stealing money from his cash box. Hess says, “It is not nearly the problem as it used to be. [I use the camera] for peace of mind.”

Hess finds that some customers underpay him for produce, and the camera enables him to track down the thieves. “I confront them here. [And] I notify the police.”

Hess says the camera provides evidence to the police. He can give details to the police, such as descriptions of people, their cars and license plate numbers.

Hess is open seven days a week, which is unusual for a produce stand in conservative Lancaster County. Most Amish and Mennonite stand holders are closed on Sundays. Hess just fills up the self-serve coolers at his stand with fresh corn early in the morning before he leaves for Sunday services.

“People appreciate where food comes from. In Lancaster County, food is taken for granted,” Hess says. This is what motivates him to keep farming and growing exceptional produce.

The author is a freelance writer based in Ephrata, Pa. She writes for various trade magazines focusing on landscape companies, agriculture and business.